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Helen Y. Smith


Missoula Fire Science Laboratory
5775 West Broadway Street
Missoula, MT 59808
Contact Helen Y. Smith

Current Research

Helen is currently the Manager of the Tenderfoot Creek Experimental Forest (TCEF) in the Little Belt Mountains of Central Montana. In this role, she is responsible for collecting corporate data for water quality (sediment load, pH, nitrate levels, conductance, and dissolved oxygen) as well as quantity (flow). Additional corporate data sets for the TCEF include manual snow courses and precipitation gauges.

Other research that Helen is involved with focuses on quantification of fuelbed characteristics and snag attrition in managed lodgepole pine stands, as well as leading efforts for re-measurement of permanent plots established in 1996-98 to quantify changes in lodgepole pine forest structure, all on the TCEF.

Helen recently directed the laboratory burn portion of a mixed-conifer masticated fuel study at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory.

Research Interests

Helen hopes to contribute to a better understanding of ecology, fuel dynamics, and fire behavior in multi-aged lodgepole pine forests. In addition, she views her role as Manager of the Tenderfoot Creek Experimental Forest as crucial to supporting diverse research interests there.

Past Research

Helen has been involved in a variety of forest and woodland studies from fire history work of the Girard Grove, Seeley Lake, MT to forest ecology and fuelbed characterization in locations such as the Bitterroot Mountains (MT), Valles Caldera National Preserve (NM), San Juan Mountains (CO), southwestern Utah, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument (AZ), Mono County, CA and the Rattlesnake Mountains (MT).

Why This Research is Important

Fire history work is important to help citizens and managers understand the conditions under which a given area developed. Organisms evolve and develop strategies for survival and reproduction based on patterns of disturbance and environmental conditions/constraints. While a previous stand structure may not be the goal of management activities, the information gained by learning about the disturbance history of an area can help guide management decisions.

Nearly all management activities have some level of impact to an area. Investigating how management activities affect stand structure and composition is important in the adaptive management cycle. By researching the various components (such as surface fuel dynamics, vegetative response, residual stand structure, etc.), we can begin to gain an understanding of the impacts to larger system. These impacts could affect wildlife habitat, anticipated fire behavior, insect and disease vulnerability, water quality, or soil stability.


  • University of Montana, Missoula, M.S., Resource Conservation (Thesis: Assessing longevity of ponderosa pine snags in relation to age, diameter, wood density and pitch content), 1999
  • University of Montana, Missoula, B.S., Wildlife Biology, 1995
  • Flathead Valley Community College, A.A.S., General, 1993
  • Featured Publications


    Heinsch, Faith Ann; Sikkink, Pamela G.; Smith, Helen Y.; Retzlaff, Molly L., 2018. Characterizing fire behavior from laboratory burns of multi-aged, mixed-conifer masticated fuels in the western United States
    Hudak, Andrew T.; Freeborn, Patrick; Lewis, Sarah A.; Hood, Sharon M.; Smith, Helen Y.; Hardy, Colin C.; Kremens, Robert J.; Butler, Bret W.; Teske, Casey; Tissell, Robert G.; Queen, Lloyd P.; Nordgren, Bryce L.; Bright, Benjamin C.; Morgan, Penelope; Riggan, Philip J.; Macholz, Lee; Lentile, Leigh B.; Riddering, James P.; Mathews, Edward E., 2018. The Cooney Ridge Fire Experiment: An early operation to relate pre-, active, and post-fire field and remotely sensed measurements
    For the past three years, scientists from the RMRS Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula and the Forestry Sciences Lab in Moscow have been researching mastication as a fuel treatment in the Rocky Mountains. Specifically, they have been interested in how the materials age when they are left on the ground to decompose and how that aging affects their flammability.
    Researchers measured surface fuel litterfall and decomposition in the northern Rocky Mountains, United States. These rates were used to estimate fuel dynamics parameters in complex landscape models of fire and vegetation dynamics.