USDA Forest Service

Fire and Environmental Research Applications Team


Fire and Environmental Research Applications Team
Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory

400 N 34th Street, Suite 201
Seattle, WA 98103

(206) 732-7800

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United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

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Frostfire: A Successful Experimental Burn in the Boreal Forest

Photo of blacklining on the FROSTFIRE projectThe landscape-scale prescribed research burn in the boreal forest of interior Alaska, FROSTFIRE, was a success for both Forest Service Research scientists and fire managers. Planning over the past 5 years culminated in a safe and successful burn July 8-15, 1999. Within the 2200-acre perimeter, fire mimicked natural conditions by burning 900 acres of mostly black spruce, leaving the hardwoods standing.

FROSTFIRE is easily the most documented fire in history (see Background). The Pacific Northwest Research Station, Fire and Environmental Research Applications Team (FERA) has heavily invested in this fire management and global change experiment. We measured thermal, chemical, and hydraulic properties from the molecular to the global level to build a full picture of the carbon, water, and energy pools and fluxes in the boreal forest before, during, and after the fire.

The two major clients for the integrated research are earth system modelers and fire managers.Data from this fire will go into improving fire danger indices for Alaska, developing fuel characteristic classes (FCCs) that drive the CONSUME and EPM models, and making such models applicable around the world. These models are used both to assist fire managers in planning prescribed burns to meet current management objectives, as well as by earth systems modelers to more accurately model global change.

In addition to FERA (Dr. David V. Sandberg, Roger Ottmar, and Dr. Sue Ferguson), 54 research teams from the United States (Pacific Southwest Research Station [Phil Riggan], National Center for Atmospheric Research, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USGS and several universities), Canada (Canadian Forest Service [Brian Stocks]), and Japan (Dr. Masami Fukuda) have experiments in the 900-acre burned area. The fire itself was planned and carried out in partnership with the BLM Alaska Fire Service and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The Alaska Fire Service (Scott Billing, Dave Dash, Jim Roessler, John McColgan) were committed to this prototype of what they see as the future of fire management in Alaska.

An unusual feature of the experiment was the extent of media coverage. The Forest Service and BLM have been mentioned numerous times on camera and print, and the coverage has been all positive. We were followed for seven days by a six-person crew from National Public Broadcasting for their production of an upcoming NOVA segment. NIFC also assigned a film crew to document the fire and our research. Investment in this research was a high-risk endeavor.

The burn occurred on the only three days in the past two years that were in prescription. Many of the scientists and research aircraft could only afford to dispatch to Alaska one time so the planning, decisionmaking, and operation had to be done with precision and luck. With freedom and support from Forest Service Research, we were able to be totally committed to this project, and acknowledge that Forest Service Research is the only institution that could have accomplished such an experiment. A big job of analysis lies ahead.


Boreal forests account for about one-third of the carbon sequestered in terrestrial ecosystems, and our research will measure the changes in carbon pools and fluxes that result from large fires in the boreal forest. We will develop models that predict major feedbacks to the climate system from fires in the boreal forest.

This experiment differs from previous experimental fires in the boreal forest because it is in terrain dominated by permafrost, focuses on the large-scale ecological consequences of fire, and takes place on an LTER site, enabling long-term, experimentally-controlled research. Principal investigators are from the USDA Forest Service and the University of Alaska, but we encourage the broadest possible use of this experiment by the scientific community.

Fire management is fundamental to the protection and enhancement of human values, wildlife habitat, ecosystem integrity, and watershed characteristics in the boreal forest. We envision landscape-scale prescribed burning to be an important tool for managing boreal forest resources in the 21st century. Agencies such as the USDI BLM (Alaska Fire Service) and Alaska Department of Natural Resources, principal managers of the FROSTFIRE burn, are highly experienced in fire control and in managing smaller prescribed fire to enhance resource values, but will see opportunities like this one to gain experience in landscape-scale burning.

Funding provided by the University of Alaska Fairbanks

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