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Wildland Fire & Fuel

Research Highlights

About Wildland Fires

Each year, fires that start in American wildlands devastate lives and livelihoods - destroying homes, damaging natural resources, and polluting water and air. On average, there are tens of thousands of wildland fires each year, impacting millions of acres. In 2012 alone, 67,774 wildland fires burned, covering 9,326,238 acres; the USDA Forest Service spent over $1.4 billion dollars to suppress these fires. Additional losses from damage to natural resources and infrastructure as well as other economic impacts can be many times the cost of suppression.

At the same time, fire also plays an essential role in sustaining ecosystems and provides benefits to society. Almost every wildland ecosystem in North America has a history of fire, but with greatly varied patterns of fire frequency and type. Understanding the ecological role of fire is essential for balancing the benefits and risks of alternative fire management strategies.

About this Research

An observation system designed to test heat radiation from fires
Colin Hardy / USDA Forest Service
An observation system designed to test heat radiation from fires

To better equip managers to deal with wildland fires, Forest Service fire scientists develop and provide knowledge and tools that help reduce the negative impacts of fire while enhancing the beneficial effects of fire and fire management on society and the environment. The research focuses on understanding and modeling fundamental fire processes, interactions of fire with ecosystems and the environment, social and economic aspects of fire, evaluating integrated management strategies and disturbance interactions, and applying fire research to management problems.

Since the early 1900s, Forest Service fire research has played a vital role in the agency's fire and fuels management program. The results and products from this work are used by managers in making tactical firefighting decisions, in prioritizing and implementing fuel hazard reduction projects, in smoke forecasting, in rehabilitating and restoring land after severe wildfire, and in providing information to home owners in the wildland-urban interface.

Recognizing the complexity and scope of wildland fires, Forest Service Research & Development's approach emphasizes cutting-edge and world-renowned research that is conducted by experts located around the country.

Fire and Fuels Research

Sampling tree rings to reconstruct historical fire regimes
Colin Hardy / USDA Forest Service
A researcher samples tree rings to reconstruct historical fire regimes

There are five current emphasis areas of fire and fuels research:

Physical Fire Science: basic fire science, including physical fire processes, the characteristics of fire at multiple scales, and fire danger assessment

Ecological and Environmental Fire Science: fire effects on ecosystem components, and fire and environmental interactions

Social Fire Science: public interactions with fire and fuels management, socioeconomic aspects of fires and fuels management, and organizational effectiveness

Integrated Fire and Fuels Management Science: management strategies at multiple scales, treatment and disturbance effects on ecosystem components, and forest operations, including biomass utilization and product development associated with fire and fuel management activities

Science Delivery: ensuring that knowledge generated by Forest Service scientists reaches groups and individuals who will benefit from it, including policy makers, wildland fire managers, and local communities