Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Fire science experts achieve one-of-a-kind consensus


Firefighter monitors prescribed burn. Forest Service photo by Matt Burks.

WASHINGTON – In 2018, wildfires continued to impact forests and communities across the western United States and around the globe. The number of large wildfires in the United States has increased since the 1980s, and annual acres burned are projected to continue increasing. Some Western ecoregions now have year-round fire seasons.

In this new era of wildfire, with lives, property, government spending, and biodiversity at stake, preparation and fire management are essential. Yet wildfire science and landscape ecology are complex fields of study. Differing research perspectives on certain controversial topics have fostered disagreement, leaving policy makers and land managers unsure of what to believe and how to act. Furthermore, climate research shows that we should expect ecosystem changes in the future, making it even more challenging to determine how best to manage fire-prone landscapes.

A group of the country’s leading fire scientists, including the Pacific Northwest Research Station’s Paul Hessburg, came together to provide clarity on these issues. Known as the Fire Research Consensus project, they sought to identify and explain areas of scientific common ground and divergence among fire researchers.

The FRC team convened practitioners and scientists from diverse geographic and scientific backgrounds to find out their unanswered questions or sources of disagreement. Then, with their collective expertise and through an extensive review of the literature, the FRC team identified areas of broad scientific agreement within the fire science community.

The final report, "A Statement of Common Ground Regarding the Role of Wildfire in Forested Landscapes of the Western United States," is available online.

The authors stated, “We found much common ground that will be useful to scientists, managers, and others for moving forward. There is wide agreement among scientists that fire is one of the most essential and pervasive influences on the forests of the western US. Further, fires can produce more positive benefits and fewer negative impacts when they burn with an ecologically appropriate mix of low, moderate, and high severity, and in patch size distributions that reflect the natural variability of fire behavior and fire effects.”

The report carefully addresses some of the most complicated questions in fire science, such as the degree to which the frequency of large, high-severity fires and large, severely burned patches within fires has increased and how this differs for dry, moist and cold forest types.

The project was made possible with the support of The Nature Conservancy--Science for Nature and People Partnership and the Wilburforce Foundation. In providing one-of-a-kind scientific consensus on these urgent issues, it promises to facilitate the integration of science into public policy and to better inform planning, management, and public discourse around wildland fire.