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Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
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2

Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service

Dar Roberts, chair of the workshop planning committee, extended his welcome to the invited speakers, audience members in attendance, and those watching on the webcast. He introduced the three speakers from the U.S. Forest Service, who provided their own words of welcome and reviewed the history of fire science research in that federal agency.

RESEARCH IN THE U.S. FOREST SERVICE

Carlos Rodriguez-Franco, U.S. Forest Service

Rodriguez-Franco began by noting that the workshop was an opportunity to celebrate 100 years of research and development in the U.S. Forest Service. In the 1870s, the changing nature of society’s interaction with forests and natural resources created the need for a federal research organization. In 1872, Congress asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prepare a report on the conditions of American forests. However, it was not until 1898 that forest research began under Gifford Pinchot, when he was named the chief of the Division of Forestry. When the division was renamed the Forest Service in 1905 and given the mission of managing the forest reserves, headwaters, lands reserved for the public, and land to protect watershed and forest resources, it needed immediate scientific information. To gather this information, Pinchot established a section of special investigations. The importance of research to forest management was formalized in 1915 with the creation of a branch of research in the Forest Service.

To accomplish and support the mission of the Forest Service, the Research and Development Unit has carried out basic and applied research to establish the foundation of contemporary forest management. Its broad program areas are landscape restoration and ecosystem services, sustainable forest management, science policy, planning and inventory, and forest product research. Rodriguez-Franco drew specific attention to one more program area: wildland fire research, the focus of the workshop. Nearly 500 scientists work for the Research and Development Unit, along with numerous technicians and support person-

Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×

nel, and there are programs in every U.S. state and territory. Forest Service Research and Development findings are used by scientists and practitioners in the United States and in many countries around the world, including those at nongovernmental organizations, environmental groups, and universities.

Rodriguez-Franco noted that the Research and Development Unit’s niche is providing forest management and use applications and long-term research and analysis of trends over temporal and spatial scales. That long-term research facilitates the monitoring of natural resources on different temporal scales as well as the integration of studies from local to transcontinental levels in the United States. The Forest Service’s network of experimental forests and ranges are the backbone of its long-term studies because 100 years of data have been collected in these locations. Almost all the experimental forests are located in national forests, and they represent a broad range of environmental landscapes and conditions. Its national Forest Inventory and Analysis Program has tracked the status changes on public and private lands for more than 80 years. The Research and Development Unit conducts research on federal, state, and private lands in partnerships with other government agencies, universities and other research institutions, industry, and local government organizations and has produced more than 45,000 publications.

The work of the Forest Service Research and Development Unit sustains America’s forests and improves lives and American society by benefiting the environment, creating jobs, supporting local economies, and saving lives, particularly when wildland fires occur because of adverse environmental conditions. However, at the turn of the 21st century, new interactions and social forces are shaping the need for a new strategic direction for research and development within the Forest Service. Rodriguez-Franco said that is was for this reason the Forest Service supported the workshop to help shape future decades of forest research and development related to wildland fire. He concluded his comments by drawing attention to two recent publications by the Research and Development Unit related to the workshop’s topic: Sustainability and Wildland Fire: The Origins of Forest Service Wildland Fire Research (Smith, 2017) and Research and Development Wildland Fire and Fuels: Accomplishments and Outcomes (Rollins et al., 2017).

A HUNDRED YEARS OF FIRE SCIENCE AND MANAGEMENT AT THE FOREST SERVICE

Thomas L. Tidwell, U.S. Forest Service

Chief Tidwell observed that much had been learned about the science of fire over the last 100 years but acknowledged that the Forest Service was still trying to find solutions with regard to addressing wildland fire in the United States. The Forest Service suppresses about 98 percent of all wildland fires on National Forest System lands, but the 2 percent of the fires that escape initial attack quickly become very large. Tidwell noted that the rate at which those fires grow has increased during his 40-year career with the Forest Service. Current environmental and climatic conditions are causing those fires to become larger and hotter more quickly and expand beyond the wildland fires of the past. Those changes in wildland fire have implications for firefighter safety. Society needs the Forest Service to be able to suppress wildland fire, but the result is often that firefighters lose their lives on the fire line.

Tidwell commented that many people think the Forest Service has its origins in the Big Burn in 1910 (Box 2-1). According to Tidwell, prior to the 1910 burn, Chief Gifford Pinchot probably thought fire was just a nuisance; he likely did not understand the complexities of the situation. When the Big Burn began, Pinchot was no longer at the helm of the Forest

Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×

Service, and following that fire, it became clear that not only was there a need to manage the national forests but also that one of the highest priorities for every ranger in the Forest Service was to protect forests from fire.

William Greeley, the third Forest Service chief, questioned and criticized the concept of light burning, also referred to as Piute Forestry. Light burning was the way that Native Americans in North America used fire for various purposes—from creating a habitat to being able to provide for their livelihood. However, this approach was in direct contrast to the European mindset toward fire, which emphasized the need to put out fire. The controversy of whether to use a light-burning approach—that is, to set fires purposefully to achieve habitat or livelihood objectives—continued for many years in the United States. It was not until the 1960s that the Forest Service started to apply some of the knowledge and the science regarding the need for fire in the ecosystem. The Forest Service started using this concept with fire in back-country wilderness areas.

In 1978, the Forest Service developed the concept of appropriate suppression action. With this step, the Forest Service acknowledged for the first time that not all fire was bad and put in place policies to that end. Prescribed fire was used in some places, and the Forest Service recognized the need to better understand the benefits of lightning-ignited fire. It sought to take action to suppress lightning-ignited fires or suppress the parts of the fire where appropriate, while also understanding the need for fire to play a role in ecosystems. However, implementation of this policy was challenging and the use of fire in the landscape was not common at that time.

The Forest Service continued to use science and knowledge to inform and shift its policies. Around 2009, it developed the policy that there are two types of fire: (1) planned fire, that is, prescribed fire ignited by the Forest Service, and (2) unplanned fire. With unplanned fire, there is the opportunity to take appropriate suppression actions to manage fire in a way that allows direct suppression action on part of the fire if needed and at the same time to recognize that there may be a need to let fire burn to accomplish some resource benefits. Unplanned fires can be managed with multiple approaches when it comes to suppression.

Recently, the Forest Service has followed the direction from Congress to develop, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. The cohesive strategy reached out to everyone that interacts with wildland fire policy and management—local communities, counties, cities, and states. The strategy has three elements. The first is to restore fire to the landscape using both prescribed fire and wildfire to create healthy, resilient, fire-adapted ecosystems. The second is to help communities adapt to living with fire by adopting fire-wise practices, that is, to make their communities safe from the fire and to create defensible space so that wildland

Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×

firefighters have a place to work and safely suppress fire. The third is to make appropriate risk-based decisions when it comes to managing every wildland fire.

The Forest Service has made strides with the strategy. Tidwell said he believes that today there is more recognition of the need for fire in the ecosystem. More has been learned about the benefits of fire-wise techniques and technologies, and there is now the science available to show homeowners the difference that can be made in terms of safety to their homes if they take some simple steps to clear brush and remove firewood stacks around the house. These strides are making a difference.

However, even with these advances, the Forest Service is struggling to get more fire on the landscape—that is, to have more land burned each year, either through lightning-ignited fires or prescribed fires, in a way that is acceptable to local communities, that accounts for human safety, and that helps preserve the function of ecosystems that have evolved with fire. In fact, a study conducted by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise from 1998 to 2008 looked at the ratio of wildfires that were suppressed to those in which wildfire was used for resource benefits. The study found that the ratio of wildfires that were suppressed to those in which wildfire was used for resource benefits was 249 to 1. Good results have been seen from this work, but it is a small accomplishment when compared to the number of wildfires that could be managed to such ends and are instead suppressed.

Tidwell gave the following challenges to the workshop audience: How can more fires be allowed to burn, whether they are set by lightning or people? How can fire burn in all types of landscapes, not just in the wilderness areas or in the back country? How do people learn to live with smoke? When it comes to the thinning of forests to reduce biomass, if mechanical removal is not followed with prescribed fire, the effectiveness of those treatments drops significantly. Therefore, even with mechanical treatment on the landscape, there is still a need for prescribed fire or wildfire managed for resource benefits. Tidwell asked the audience to think about how the existing science could be better used to effectively inform decision making so that communities, incident commanders, line officers, and elected officials can understand when there is an opportunity to take the appropriate suppression response—to suppress the part of the fire that is causing concern, safety issues, and threats to the communities—and at the same time recognize the benefits of fire and its effects on the landscape.

Tidwell acknowledged other challenges facing the Forest Service. Fire knows no boundaries. The 7,000 wildfires that burn on Forest Service land each year are just 10 percent of the wildland fires that occur every year in the United States. Therefore, wildland fire is not just a federal agency issue. Making a change with how fires are managed will require cooperation and action beyond just the Forest Service. Additionally, the 44 million homes located in the wildland–urban interface today complicate the Forest Service’s work. More houses will be built in these locations in the future. While it is understandable that people want to live in those interface environments, those homes reduce the number of fire-management options available because of the need to keep fire away from communities and homes. The Forest Service also continues to strive toward the concept of life first when it comes to dealing with suppression of wildland fire to ensure that every land and aerial firefighter comes home safely at the end of the day.

Since its establishment, the Forest Service has learned to advance and revise its policies and to apply science to manage the landscape to make a real difference. Tidwell challenged the audience with the following questions: What science is missing that the Forest Service and others in the field need to work together and develop? What science, tools, and techniques are not being applied, or how can science be better applied to the landscape? What needs to happen for the United States to acknowledge and face the challenges of wildland

Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×

fire? What additional science is needed and what more is there to learn in order for the Forest Service to move forward in a way that ensures there is more fire on the landscape?

Tidwell concluded by acknowledging there is no question that fire is needed to preserve the function of ecosystems that have evolved with fire. Wildland fires will continue to occur. The best option is to affect how and when wildland fire occurs. As a nation, everyone has to come to an understanding that there is a need for more wildland fire on the landscape.

SUSTAINABILITY AND WILDLAND FIRE: THE ORIGINS OF FOREST SERVICE WILDLAND FIRE RESEARCH

Diane M. Smith, U.S. Forest Service

Smith presented material from her recent book, Sustainability and Wildland Fire: The Origins of Forest Service Wildland Fire Research (2017), and focused on the early years of the fire research in the Forest Service. Her book has three main themes. The first is sustainability, that is, how to sustain the national forest. The second is forestry versus fire. The newly trained foresters at the beginning of the 20th century could not practice the science of forestry without first learning how to control fire. The third theme is public education. History shows that education is important not only for the general public but also in the Forest Service’s efforts to engage with homeowners and even with U.S. forest rangers responsible for handling fire in the field.

The research arm of the Forest Service was officially established in 1915 with the objective to bring a unity of purpose to the research within the Forest Service, not just fire science but all research. Gifford Pinchot’s goal for the Forest Service and its research on fire was to replace vague general notions about fire with carefully gathered facts. However, the importance of research begins even earlier in the history of the Forest Service. In 1873, Franklin B. Hough presented a paper about the importance of protecting the nation’s forests; 3 years later, Congress appropriated $2,000 for a new office of the Agent of Forestry. Hough was hired to be the agent; he was not hired to manage lands but to research or investigate the condition of the nation’s forests and report back to Congress. He created three large volumes of the conditions and data of forests, including fire. Therefore, when Smith is told that the Forest Service is a management agency, she likes to counter that it was in fact formed on a foundation of research.

One of the interesting things from the very first Forest Service annual report by Gifford Pinchot in 1898 is how little was known about forest fires and how essential that was to the practice of forestry (Pinchot, 1898:172). Finding ways to control wildland fire became an early focus, and that same year, Pinchot established an Office of Investigations for research in general, including fire. The creation of this office established the Forest Service as an agency that conducts research.

After the creation of the office, Pinchot initiated several research efforts. He organized collaborative investigations of fire in the West and in the Northeast. He started a study of forest fires, directing some of his researchers go through all the major U.S. newspapers and find every mention of forest fires in U.S. history. This effort resulted in the cataloging of 10,000 fires by 1901. He also sent individual investigators out into the field to report back fire conditions. These reports were extensive overviews of the effects of fire on communities and economies. It is apparent from his writings that Pinchot took fire research very seriously. A 1904 memorandum found in the National Archives, probably written by Pinchot himself although there is no attribution or specific date, confirms the timeline of the beginning of fire science research in the Forest Service (Figure 2-1). A U.S. Department of Agriculture letter

Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×

from 1905, likely written by Pinchot but signed by the secretary of agriculture, contains an early vision of the Forest Service’s mission statement (Wilson, 1905):

In the administration of the forest reserves it must be clearly borne in mind that all land is to be devoted to its most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people, and not for the temporary benefit of individuals or companies.

However, in 1910, Pinchot was fired by the Taft administration for protesting decisions made in opposition to that mission statement. Henry Graves succeeded Pinchot and in the same year published Protection of Forests from Fire, in which he said “the first measure necessary for the successful practice of forestry is protection from forest fires” (Graves, 1910:7). Shortly after the report was published, the Big Burn of 1910 began.

Early research in the Forest Service was generated in places other than Washington, DC. People around the country were doing relevant work in fire research, particularly Coert DuBois in California. DuBois sent a letter to all California district rangers urging them to reduce fire protection to a science. He wanted to identify what was known, so that research efforts could then be focused on what was not known. He rightly foresaw that those who contributed to this research would be known thereafter in the field of forestry.

Indeed, several people became famous for their fire research endeavors. Julius Larsen conducted some of the early fire work in the Priest River experimental forest in northern Idaho. Harry Gisborne was the first full-time Forest Service fire researcher and a leader in establishing fire-danger rating. Jack Barrows was hired by Gisborne to conduct a number of projects and was instrumental in establishing the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory and securing federal funding for additional regional laboratories in California and Georgia.

There were also infamous researchers in the early days of the Forest Service. S. B. Show was bitterly opposed to light burning. He conducted a series of light-burning projects and, to make sure that his research did not in any way support fire on the landscape, he worked with his colleague E. I. Kotok to undermine the results significantly (Smith, 2017).

Even though research had been under way for many years and the Bureau of Forestry had officially become the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, there was still no official research branch within the agency. In 1912, Graves established a central committee on investigative work to advise him on research, and the following year he created a new Office of Forest Investigations, trying to improve how research in the Forest Service was done. Ultimately in June of 1915, he consolidated all research in a new Branch of Research to protect researchers from day-to-day management and to give them the fullest possible recognition. One reason

images
FIGURE 2-1 Quotation on the origins of research in the U.S. Forest Service from 1904 memorandum on forest fires.
SOURCE: Smith, slide 7; photo courtesy of the Forest History Society, Durham, NC.
Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×

that Graves likely may have felt strongly about establishing this branch was that employees who were poor administrators were being put on research projects. The reputation of their work so discredited the field of research within the Forest Service that prospective employees did not want to pursue research. Thus, the new Branch of Research was a way for Graves to elevate the profession of research.

The year after the research branch was established the Forest Service put together a ledger book of all the various research projects that were under way. One was a 1-year project to determine a better way to distribute firefighting funds based on risk. The branch also conducted three long-term, open-ended projects: (1) the study of the relationship between weather conditions, fire hazard, and protection (in other words, fire-danger rating), (2) an investigation of better methods of fire prevention, detection, and control, and (3) the development of uniform principles for estimating the effects of fire, particularly the negative effects and the cost.

Smith closed with quotes from Pinchot (Figures 2-2 and 2-3) and with a request that researchers document their work for historians to piece together. Today’s paper trail will help tell the story of forest and fire science research 100 years from now.

images
FIGURE 2-2 Quotes by Gifford Pinchot on forest and fire science research.
SOURCE: Smith, slide 16; photo by Pirie MacDonald, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
images
FIGURE 2-3 Quote by Gifford Pinchot from his book The Fight for Conservation.
SOURCE: Smith, slide 17; Pinchot (1910:79).
Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×

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Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×
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Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×
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Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×
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Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×
Page 8
Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×
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Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×
Page 10
Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×
Page 11
Suggested Citation:"2 Fire Science Research in the U.S. Forest Service." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24792.
×
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Next: 3 The Past and Future of Fire in the United States »
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Although ecosystems, humans, and fire have coexisted for millennia, changes in geology, ecology, hydrology, and climate as well as sociocultural, regulatory, and economic factors have converged to make wildland fire management exceptionally challenging for U.S. federal, state, and local authorities. Given the mounting, unsustainable costs and difficulty translating existing wildland fire science into policy, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine organized a 1-day workshop to focus on how a century of wildland fire research can contribute to improving wildland fire management. This publication summarizes the presentations and discussions from the workshop.

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