USDA Forest Service

Pacific Northwest Research Station

Pacific Northwest Research Station
333 SW First Ave.
Portland, OR 97204

(503) 808-2100

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Human behavior, wildfire behavior

Protect the house. Photo by Tom Iraci.
Protect the house. Photo by Tom Iraci.

Decades of aggressive wildfire exclusion have left dry forests in the Western United States at high risk for future severe fires. At the same time, fire-prone forest lands continue to be a magnet for residential development. These trends set up competing demands. Some people want fire protection, while others argue for forest restoration that will allow fire to be reintroduced as a natural process. In the past, research has focused on these goals through the separate disciplines of social science and wildfire ecology. But failing to understand the interconnections between people’s motivations and the ecological role of fire in wildlands can lead to policies that may not work as intended. PNW researchers and partners are integrating social and ecological lines of study in the Forests, People, Fire project, revealing helpful information on how humans adapt (or do not) to living in fire-prone forests. They are focusing their work on central and southern Oregon, where some popular recreation-based towns like Bend and Sisters saw a 271 percent increase in population in the last few decades. The project uses a variety of research approaches, including integrative landscape modeling, surveys, and workshops to capture and explore some of the consequences of how people perceive and manage fire-prone landscapes. Preliminary results include the finding that property owners seem to understand the wildfire risks they face in the fire-prone forests of central Oregon, and that people with past wildfire experiences appear to perceive greater risk and are more likely to take actions to mitigate that risk. The study also reveals some of the tradeoffs between managing for fire protection and managing for the production of forest values including wildlife habitat and wood. 


Contact: Tom Spies,

More information:



Carbon and wildfire

Smoke plume from Oregon wildfire. Photo by Tom Iraci.
Smoke plume from Oregon wildfire. Photo by Tom Iraci.

Trees play a big role in global carbon dynamics. Each year in the United States alone, forests sequester an amount of carbon equal to 10 to 20 percent of the Nation’s fossil fuel emissions. However, with hazardous wildfire conditions across much of the West expected to continue or worsen, these forests are at risk of burning up. Managing them to reduce the risk of fire seems like a good strategy for maintaining their carbon sequestration function. But what if reducing fire risk involves thinning treatments that remove the very forest vegetation that helps sequester carbon? PNW scientist David L. Peterson has co-written a definitive review paper that thoroughly explores how different types of fuel treatments affect carbon dynamics across a broad range of forest ecosystems. The effects of fuel treatments (forest thinning plus removal of surface vegetation) on carbon dynamics in dry western forests range from positive to negative changes in carbon storage. In general, periodic (every 20 to 40 years) fuel treatments result in lower forest carbon storage compared to no treatment. However, a regular treatment schedule ensures that carbon emissions over time are small and predictable compared to emissions caused by wildfire. All studies reviewed in this paper agree unequivocally that untreated stands release more emissions to the atmosphere during wildfire than treated stands, and that emissions increase consistently as burn severity increases. Tree mortality from wildfire is also consistently reduced by the presence of fuel treatments.


Contact: David L. Peterson,

More information: Wildfire and fuel treatment effects on forest carbon dynamics in the Western United States.


Wildfire risk reduction triage

Burn probabilities
Burn probabilities.

Huge amounts of federal money have been spent on thinning dense forest vegetation (or “fuels”) to reduce the risk of wildfire.  Yet the threat posed by wildfire, particularly in the West, continues to grow and the urgency to do something about it increases with every large fire that overwhelms suppression efforts. But predicting the location of the next fire is impossible, which makes it tricky to decide where to place fuel treatments. Previous efforts to prioritize investments in fuel management have been hampered by the lack of a broad assessment of wildfire risk within and among the national forests. At the request of Forest Service leadership looking to focus limited resources, operations research analyst Alan Ager and his colleagues recently addressed this information need. Their study provides the first comprehensive examination (at the national forest scale) of potential future wildfire activity. They used simulation models and data on past wildfire activity and fuel treatment investments to understand the relationship between fuel management budgets and historical and predicted wildfire risk. The result is a systematic ranking of each of the 82 western national forests in terms of several important measures of potential wildfire activity. These include the potential for wildfires ignited on national forests to spread to surrounding urban areas, and the probability of a mega-fire event (large, difficult to control fire with long-lasting social, economic, and environmental consequences). For project planners and decisionmakers who allocate federal funding for fuel treatments to reduce fire risk, this information is a gold mine. This study paves the way for improving federal fire management policy based on an understanding of current wildfire risk.


Contact: Alan Ager,

More information: Wildfire exposure and fuel management on Western U.S. national forests


A clearer picture of fire

Laurel James. Photo by Jill Logeman
Laurel James. Photo by Jill Logeman.

Graduate student Laurel James (University of Washington) could tell the dots were not connecting. Her research in collaboration with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of Montana revealed that the national interagency mapping program LANDFIRE was not giving an accurate assessment of conditions on tribal land. LANDFIRE models fire regimes and fuel (flammable forest or rangeland vegetation) at the landscape scale, and was never intended to “zoom in” to the local scale. James solved this problem by developing a method to incorporate local information into the LANDFIRE database, and chose to use the PNW-developed Fuel Characteristic Classification System (FCCS) data layer. This made a big difference for CSKT, as fire is a critical component of their land management. The updated FCCS data layers can now be used by the tribes for their fire and fuels reduction management planning, and open a new window of opportunities for other forestry operations including wildlife habitat and air quality. Without her detailed comparison of the differences in the estimated fuel loading of various forest types on the lands of the Salish-Kootenai Tribes, proposed federal funds allocated to support fuel management on tribal lands would have fallen far short. Further, James’s methodology and data layers have been reviewed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and can be implemented on all reservations.


Contact: Ernesto Alvarado,


Featured Scientist

Alan AgerManaging forests for a multitude of sometimes competing objectives makes for some complicated decisionmaking. Enter Alan Ager. He is an operations research analyst, which means he uses advanced analytical methods like statistical modeling and spatial optimization to help land managers better understand the tradeoffs inherent in managing for threats like wildfire. He received bachelor’s degrees in forest science and forest management from the University of Washington, an M.S. in plant genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Ph.D. in forest genetics at the University of Washington. Ager’s work often places him at the interface between landscape planning, fire science, and ecology, where he has helped tackle projects on a range of issues since starting with the Forest Service in 1987. His work helps planners and managers develop strategies that account for multiple constraints such as budget and workload capacity, as well as multiple goals like reducing fire risk and maintaining wildlife habitat. A tool he developed, the Landscape Treatment Designer, is a good example of this. It helps fuel treatment planners design and quickly test different approaches in terms of management priorities, tolerance of fire risk, implementation timeframes, and budget limitations.  His 2010 paper
A comparison of landscape fuel treatment strategies to mitigate wildland fire risk in the urban interface and preserve old forest structure is one of the most cited Forest Ecology and Management articles since 2009. Stationed on the Umatilla National Forest, Ager works for the Pacific Northwest Research Station’s Western Wildland Threat Assessment Center, where he is currently pursuing a range of resource management issues including stress detection in forest trees, spatial modeling of wildfire, and risk analysis.



What's New


Workshop previews east-side science synthesis


Pendleton workshop. Photo by Rachel White

The east-side science synthesis The Ecology and Management of Moist Mixed-Conifer Forests in Eastern Oregon and Washington: a Synthesis of the Relevant Biophysical Science and Implications for Future Land Management is nearing publication. The PNW Research Station undertook the synthesis at the request of land management partners in Region 6, who have been hindered in managing moist mixed-conifer forests in eastern Oregon and Washington by a lack of up-to-date management guidelines and consensus among stakeholders. A team of scientists compiled existing research and prepared the synthesis to address a broad range of natural resource issues important to this region. To spread the word and encourage discussion about how the synthesis can be useful to land managers and planners, a workshop was held in Pendleton, Oregon, on July 1-2, 2014. The science synthesis team presented key findings and management implications to local practitioners, and a field trip provided further opportunity for open discussion.


For more information:

Contact: Becky Gravenmier,





Wildfire News Explorer


Wildfire News Explorer










Wildland fires can change course overnight, and news about them can be scattered and hard to find. How can you find the latest updates? Alan Ager, an operations research analyst at PNW’s Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center, came up with the idea for an online tool that mines and maps news stories on wildland fire and other forest threats. The Wildfire News Explorer compiles news reports, blog posts, even the latest tweets. The Twitter component was requested by Forest Service leadership to potentially alert them to rapidly unfolding fire events as they happen, rather than through traditional information channels. A large map displays the locations mentioned in the articles listed. In addition to links to each article, users can track the number of articles popping up per day in an interactive line chart. The news mapper also tracks information on climate change, invasive species, forest diseases and insects, and political issues related to endangered species and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Ager and collaborators also created a companion application, the Geospatial Search Engine. It uses a novel Web crawler that mines the vast amounts of spatial data served up by the global geographic information system community on thousands of servers and summarizes their content. Users can use search keywords to locate specific kinds of data, view maps online, and also read the metadata. The system is described in an upcoming article in the International Journal of Digital Earth. 


Contact: Alan Ager,



US Forest Service - Pacific Northwest Research Station
Last Modified: Tuesday,21October2014 at14:52:17CDT

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