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Sean A. Parks

Collecting fire data in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

Research Ecologist

Address: 
790 East Beckwith Avenue
Missoula, MT 59801-4421
Phone: 
406-542-4182
Contact Sean A. Parks

Current Research

My research is currently focused on four broad topic areas. First, I am investigating the role of wildland fire in acting as a fuel treatment. That is, I am quantifying how past wildland fire affects subsequent fire spread, severity, size, etc. Second, I am conducting studies that identify the relationship between climate and fire regimes. One of the primary goals of this research is to better understand how climate change will influence fire regimes. Third, I am identifying factors that are likely to result in fire-facilitated conversion from forest to non-forest. Lastly, I conduct studies that evaluate landscape connectivity under a warming climate. Many, but certainly not all, of my studies are conducted using data from designated wilderness or other protected areas (e.g., National Parks). The relevancy of my research, however, is applicable across all land designations.

Research Interests

I am interested in spatial interactions between past wildland fire and subsequent fire events. I am specifically interested in how past fires “regulate” subsequent fires in terms of fire size, severity, ignition potential, etc. I am also keenly interested in better understanding how climate shapes fire regimes, which is particularly relevant given that climate change will inevitably result in changes to fire regimes. Furthermore, I am interested in identifying those factors that control conifer seedling establishment and survival (i.e., regeneration). Other research interests include satellite detection of fire effects and spread, retrospective evaluations of the influence of weather and topography on fire behavior, and the restoration of fire as a natural process. Designated wilderness and similarly protected areas are excellent “laboratories” for conducting much of this work because there is minimal human infrastructure (e.g., roads) and, in several protected areas, many fires are not actively suppressed. I am also actively involved in research involving climate change connectivity, including metrics such as climate velocity, climate exposure, and climate corridors.

Past Research

  • Exploiting remotely sensed data to better understand fire behavior and effects: I took the lead in developing a 1) method for fine-resolution mapping of fire progression, or day of burning, using very coarse satellite (MODIS) fire detection data and 2) new burn severity metric using Landsat imagery called the relativized burn ratio (RBR).
  • Corridor/connectivity modelling: I contributed to several projects modelling the connectivity of wolverine, lynx, and mountain beaver.
  • Evaluating approaches for mapping burn probabilities for a quantitative risk analysis framework: I contributed to several projects that involved the use of fire simulation models to map the probability of burning in several large protected areas.
  • Biogeography, island biogeography, and extinctions in protected areas: In a past life, I was involved with several research projects that evaluated 1) factors responsible for primate species distributions and 2) extinctions within protected areas.

Why This Research is Important

Wildland fire is one of the most pervasive and important ecological processes on the planet, and although the Forest Service spends in excess of one billion dollars per year suppressing fire, large areas of land burn each year. Consequently, there is a growing recognition that our society needs to better co-exist with wildland fire and that it should be restored as an ecological process to some landscapes. How to best restore fire, however, is challenging because of excessive fuel buildup, risks to lives and property, and climate change. Designated wilderness and similarly protected lands turn out to be excellent “laboratories” for conducting studies on how fire naturally responds to climate, topography, weather, fuels, and past fires. As such, studies conducted in protected areas can provide information to managers, policy makers, the public, and other scientists that will better enable the restoration of fire as a natural process in a safe and effective manner.

Education

  • University of Montana, Ph.D., Forestry, 2014
  • University of California, Davis, M.A., Geography, 2006
  • University of California, Davis, B.S., Environmental Biology and Management, 1998
  • Professional Experience

    Research Ecologist, Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute - RMRS
    2015 to present

    Ecologist, Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute - RMRS
    2008 to 2015

    Biological Scientist, LANDFIRE - RMRS
    2006 to 2008

    Geographer, Pacific Southwest Research Station
    2002 to 2006

    Awards

    Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), 2019
    PECASE is the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government to outstanding scientists and engineers who are beginning their independent research careers and who show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology.
    Early Career Scientist Deputy Chief s Award., 2017
    This national USFS award recognizes remarkable accomplishments that demonstrated exceptional productivity, and your ability to conduct high-impact relevant and applicable scientific studies with the potential to advance ecological and fire science.
    Excellence in Wilderness Stewardship Research Award, 2016
    This Award recognizes the contribution of a timely research endeavor that informs and responds to wilderness stewardship challenges. Awarded for Parks et al. 2015. Ecological Applications.
    Early Career Scientist Publication, 2015
    Awarded by RMRS for: Parks SA, Holsinger LM, Miller C, Nelson CR (2015) Wildland fire as a self-regulating mechanism: the role of previous burns and weather in limiting fore spread. Ecol. Apps.
    Best Scientific Publication, 2013
    Awarded by RMRS for my contribution to: Squires JR, DeCesare NJ, Olson LE, Kolbe JA, Hebblewhite M, Parks SA (2013) Combining resource selection and movement behavior to predict corridors for Canada lynx at their southern range periphery. Biol. Cons.
    Excellence in Wilderness Stewardship Research Award, 2013
    Awarded for my contribution to: Larson AJ, Belote RT, Cansler CA, Parks SA, Dietz MS (2013) Latent resilience in ponderosa pine forest: effects of resumed frequent fire. Ecol. Apps.
    Best Scientific Publication, 2012
    Awarded by RMRS for my contribution to: McKelvey KS, Copeland J, Schwartz MK, Littell JS, Aubry K, Squires JR, Parks SA, Elsner M, Mauger G (2011) Climate change predicted to shift wolverine distributions, connectivity, and dispersal corridors. Ecol. Apps

    Featured Publications

    Publications

    Hessburg, Paul F.; Miller, Carol L.; Parks, Sean A.; Povak, Nicholas A.; Taylor, Alan H.; Higuera, Philip E.; Prichard, Susan J.; North, Malcolm P.; Collins, Brandon M.; Hurteau, Matthew D.; Larson, Andrew J.; Allen, Craig D.; Stephens, Scott L.; Rivera-Huerta, Hiram; Stevens-Rumann, Camille S.; Daniels, Lori D.; Gedalof, Ze'ev; Gray, Robert W.; Kane, Van R.; Churchill, Derek J.; Hagmann, R. Keala; Spies, Thomas A.; Cansler, C. Alina; Belote, R. Travis; Veblen, Thomas T.; Battaglia, Mike A.; Hoffman, Chad; Skinner, Carl N.; Safford, Hugh D.; Salter, R. Brion., 2019. Climate, environment, and disturbance history govern resilience of Western North American forests
    Mansuy, Nicolas; Miller, Carol L.; Parisien, Marc-Andre; Parks, Sean A.; Batllori, Enric; Moritz, Max A., 2019. Contrasting human influences and macro-environmental factors on fire activity inside and outside protected areas of North America
    Parks, Sean A.; Holsinger, Lisa M.; Koontz, Michael J.; Collins, Luke; Whitman, Ellen; Parisien, Marc-Andre; Loehman, Rachel A.; Barnes, Jennifer L.; Bourdon, Jean-Francois; Boucher, Jonathan; Boucher, Yan; Caprio, Anthony C.; Collingwood, Adam; Hall, Ron J.; Park, Jane; Saperstein, Lisa B.; Smetanka, Charlotte; Smith, Rebecca J.; Soverel, Nick, 2019. Giving ecological meaning to satellite-derived fire severity metrics across North American forests
    Davis, Kimberley T.; Dobrowski, Solomon Z.; Higuera, Philip E.; Holden, Zachary A.; Veblen, Thomas T.; Rother, Monica T.; Parks, Sean A.; Sala, Anna; Maneta, Marco P., 2019. Wildfires and climate change push low-elevation forests across a critical climate threshold for tree regeneration
    Parks, Sean A.; Holsinger, Lisa M.; Miller, Carol L.; Parisien, Marc-Andre, 2018. Analog-based fire regime and vegetation shifts in mountainous regions of the western US
    Abatzoglou, John T.; Dobrowski, Solomon Z.; Parks, Sean A.; Hegewisch, Katherine C., 2018. Data Descriptor: TerraClimate, a high-resolution global dataset of monthly climate and climatic water balance from 1958-2015
    Walker, Ryan B.; Coop, Jonathan D.; Parks, Sean A.; Trader, Laura, 2018. Fire regimes approaching historic norms reduce wildfire-facilitated conversion from forest to non-forest
    Parks, Sean A.; Holsinger, Lisa M.; Voss, Morgan A.; Loehman, Rachel A.; Robinson, Nathaniel P., 2018. Mean composite fire severity metrics computed with Google Earth engine offer improved accuracy and expanded mapping potential
    Parks, Sean A.; Dobrowski, Solomon Z.; Panunto, Matthew H., 2018. What drives low-severity fire in the southwestern USA?
    Morgan, Penelope; Hudak, Andrew T.; Wells, Ashley; Parks, Sean A.; Baggett, L. Scott; Bright, Benjamin C.; Green, Patricia, 2017. Multidecadal trends in area burned with high severity in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area 1880-2012
    Batllori, Enric; Parisien, Marc-Andre; Parks, Sean A.; Moritz, Max A.; Miller, Carol L., 2017. Potential relocation of climatic environments suggests high rates of climate displacement within the North American protection network
    Barnett, Kevin; Parks, Sean A.; Miller, Carol L.; Naughton, Helen T., 2016. Beyond fuel treatment effectiveness: Characterizing interactions between fire and treatments in the US
    Parks, Sean A.; Miller, Carol L.; Abatzoglou, John T.; Holsinger, Lisa M.; Parisien, Marc-Andre; Dobrowski, Solomon Z., 2016. How will climate change affect wildland fire severity in the western US?
    Coop, Jonathan D.; Parks, Sean A.; McClernan, Sarah R.; Holsinger, Lisa M., 2016. Influences of prior wildfires on vegetation response to subsequent fire in a reburned Southwestern landscape
    Parisien, Marc-Andre; Miller, Carol L.; Parks, Sean A.; DeLancey, Evan R.; Robinne, Francois-Nicolas; Flannigan, Mike D., 2016. The spatially varying influence of humans on fire probability in North America
    Holsinger, Lisa M.; Parks, Sean A.; Miller, Carol L., 2016. Weather, fuels, and topography impede wildland fire spread in western US landscapes
    Parks, Sean A.; Miller, Carol L.; Holsinger, Lisa M.; Baggett, Scott; Bird, Benjamin J., 2016. Wildland fire limits subsequent fire occurrence
    Cooke, Brian; Parks, Sean A.; Miller, Carol L.; Holsinger, Lisa M.; Nelson, Cara; Holden, Zack; Baggett, Scott; , 2016. Wildland fire: Nature’s fuel treatment
    Coop, Jonathan D.; Holsinger, Lisa M.; McClernan, Sarah; Parks, Sean A., 2015. Influences of previous wildfires on change, resistance, and resilience to reburning in a montane southwestern landscape
    Parks, Sean A.; Holsinger, Lisa M.; Miller, Carol L.; Nelson, Cara R., 2015. Wildland fire as a self-regulating mechanism: The role of previous burns and weather in limiting fire progression
    Parks, Sean A.; Miller, Carol L.; Parisien, Marc-Andre; Holsinger, Lisa M.; Dobrowski, Solomon Z.; Abatzoglou, John, 2015. Wildland fire deficit and surplus in the western United States, 1984-2012
    Parks, Sean A.; Dillon, Gregory K.; Miller, Carol L., 2014. A new metric for quantifying burn severity: The Relativized Burn Ratio
    Parisien, Marc-Andre; Parks, Sean A.; Krawchuk, Meg A.; Little, John M.; Flannigan, Mike D.; Gowman, Lynn M.; Moritz, Max A., 2014. An analysis of controls on fire activity in boreal Canada: comparing models built with different temporal resolutions
    Parks, Sean A.; Parisien, Marc-Andre; Miller, Carol L.; Dobrowski, Solomon Z., 2014. Fire activity and severity in the western US vary along proxy gradients representing fuel amount and fuel moisture
    Batllori, Enric; Miller, Carol L.; Parisien, Marc-Andre; Parks, Sean A.; Moritz, Max A., 2014. Is U.S. climatic diversity well represented within the existing federal protection network?
    Parks, Sean A.; Miller, Carol L.; Nelson, Cara R.; Holden, Zachary A., 2014. Previous fires moderate burn severity of subsequent wildland fires in two large western US wilderness areas
    Wang, Xianli; Parisien, Marc-Andre; Flannigan, Mike D.; Parks, Sean A.; Anderson, Kerry R.; Little, John M.; Taylor, Steve W., 2014. The potential and realized spread of wildfires across Canada
    Squires, John R.; DeCesare, Nicholas J.; Olson, Lucretia E.; Kolbe, Jay A.; Hebblewhite, Mark; Parks, Sean A., 2013. Combining resource selection and movement behavior to predict corridors for Canada lynx at their southern range periphery
    Schwartz, Michael K.; Saunder, Joel; Pilgrim, Kristine L.; Vinkey, Ray; Lucid, Michael K.; Parks, Sean A.; Albrecht, Nathan, 2013. Fisher population and landscape genetics
    Hossack, Blake R.; Lowe, Winsor H.; Honeycutt, R. Ken; Parks, Sean A.; Corn, Paul Stephen, 2013. Interactive effects of wildfire, forest management, and isolation on amphibian and parasite abundance
    Larson, Andrew J.; Belote, R. Travis; Cansler, C. Alina; Parks, Sean A.; Dietz, Matthew S., 2013. Latent resilience in ponderosa pine forest: effects of resumed frequent fire
    Zielinski, William J.; Schlexer, Fredrick V.; Parks, Sean A.; Pilgrim, Kristine L.; Schwartz, Michael K., 2012. Small geographic range but not panmictic: how forests structure the endangered Point Arena mountain beaver (Aplodontia rufa nigra)
    Parks, Sean A.; Parisien, Marc-Andre; Miller, Carol L., 2012. Spatial bottom-up controls on fire likelihood vary across western North America
    McKelvey, Kevin S.; Copeland, Jeffrey P.; Schwartz, Michael K.; Littell, Jeremy S.; Aubry, Keith B.; Squires, John R.; Parks, Sean A.; Elsner, Marketa M.; Mauger, Guillaume S., 2011. Climate change predicted to shift wolverine distributions, connectivity, and dispersal corridors
    Parisien, Marc-Andre; Parks, Sean A.; Miller, Carol L.; Krawchuck, Meg A.; Heathcott, Mark; Moritz, Max A., 2011. Contributions of ignitions, fuels, and weather to the spatial patterns of burn probability of a boreal landscape
    Parisien, Marc-Andre; Parks, Sean A.; Krawchuck, Meg A.; Flannigan, Mike D.; Bowman, Lynn M.; Moritz, Max A., 2011. Scale-dependent controls on the area burned in the boreal forest of Canada, 1980-2005
    Davis, Brett; Miller, Carol L.; Parks, Sean A., 2010. Retrospective fire modeling: Quantifying the impacts of fire suppression
    Manley, P.N.; Parks, Sean A.; Campbell, Lori; Schlesinger, M.D., 2009. Modeling urban land development as a continuum to address fine-grained habitat heterogeneity
    Manley, Patricia N.; Murphy, Dennis D.; Campbell, Lori A.; Heckmann, Kirsten E.; Merideth, Susan; Parks, Sean A.; Sanford, Monte P.; Schlesinger, Matthew D., 2006. Biotic diversity interfaces with urbanization in the Lake Tahoe basin
    Potential changes in vegetation distribution in Yellowstone NP, Grand Teton NP, and adjacent Forest Service wilderness areas.
    National parks, wilderness areas, and nature reserves were created to preserve a sample of pristine ecosystems, but even the most remote protected areas face serious threats from climate change. Managers would benefit from a better understanding how ecosystems within protected areas may respond to global warming.  
    Trailing edge forest Southern Rockies ecoregion
    Forests are an incredibly important resource across the globe, yet they are threatened by climate change through stressors such as drought, insect outbreaks, and wildfire. Trailing edge forests—those areas expected to experience range contractions under a changing climate—are of concern because of the potential for abrupt conversion to non-forest. However, broad-scale forest die-off and range contraction in trailing edge forests are unlikely to occur over short timeframes (<~25–50 years) without a disturbance catalyst (e.g., wildfire). As such, explicit attention to both climate and disturbance is necessary to understand how the distribution of forests will respond to climate change.
    Picture shows high-severity (stand-replacing) fire effects on the 2002 Hayman Fire, Colorado. Photo credit: NIFC.
    Dry conifer forests in the Western United States historically had low impact surface fires approximately every five to 30 years. Due to more than 100 years of successful fire exclusion, however, many of these forests are now denser, and therefore have a greater probability of experiencing intense fires that burn entire stands and convert forests to non-forest landscapes. What environmental conditions are necessary to promote low-severity fire in dry conifer forests? Causes and consequences of high-severity fires are increasingly being studied but little to no research has focused on factors that promote low-severity fires, until now.
    Prescribed fire in the Manitou Experimental Forest, Pike National Forest, October 2014. Reintroduction of fire through prescribed or wildland fire use is a vital component of restoration to restore ecological processes. Photo: Steve Alton, USFS
    The need to better understand factors controlling fire severity are invoked by concerns about public safety, infrastructure, critical wildlife habitat, watershed health, and successional trajectories. Such concerns are heightened in forests with a legacy of past logging and fire exclusion, where significant shifts in ecosystem composition, structure, and function have triggered fuel conditions at greater risk for high-severity fire.  
    Forest Fire Thumbail
    Wildland fire has the potential to influence properties of subsequent fire. Researchers monitored the extent to which a previous wildland fire inhibits new fires from igniting.
    One year after the 2011 Miller Creek fire in the Gila Wilderness, New Mexico. Photo by Sean Parks
    In recent decades, many landscapes across the western United States have experienced substantial fire activity. These fires consume fuels and alter vegetation structure, which may be able to serve as a natural fuel treatment in the same manner as mechanical treatments or prescribed fire. Knowing that fire occurrence, size, and severity are limited by recent wildfires should provide greater flexibility and confidence in managing fire incidents and managing for resource benefit. Specifically, fire managers can use the findings from this study to help predict whether a previous fire will act as a fuel treatment based on fire age, forest type, and expected weather.
    Maps of the likelihood of unsuppressed ignitions spreading outside the wilderness study area boundary for each month of ignition in simulated fire seasons.
    A goal of fire management in wilderness is to allow fire to play its natural ecological role without intervention. Unfortunately, most unplanned ignitions in wilderness are suppressed, in part because of the risk they might pose to values outside of the wilderness. We capitalize on recent advances in fire risk analysis to demonstrate a risk-based approach for revealing where unplanned ignitions in wilderness pose little risk to non-wilderness values and therefore where fire can be managed for its longer term ecological benefits. Although this approach was demonstrated in the context of wilderness fire management, it has broad applicability and could support spatial fire and fuels management planning efforts in non-wilderness settings.
    A fire-adapted ecosystem becomes densely populated and overcrowded in the absence of periodic fire. Photo by: Andrew Larson, University of Montana
    The natural role of fire has been disrupted in many regions of the western United States due to the influence of human activities, which have the potential to both exclude or promote fire, resulting in a “fire deficit” or “fire surplus”, respectively. Consequently, land managers need to better understand current departures from natural levels of fire activity, especially given the desire to maintain and restore resilient landscapes. 
    Simulations show where fires would have spread and reveal hidden consequences of suppression.
    Researchers have investigated the true costs of suppressing wildfires and found the results to have broad national applicability. These methods are being evaluated in the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest, and findings improve the quality and consistency of fire and fuels management decisions. This research highlights the importance of wilderness areas for understanding fire ecology within unmanaged versus more heavily managed landscapes.  
    A wolverine
    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is examining the wolverine (Gulo gulo) as a candidate for listing as a threatened or endangered species. RMRS researchers are investigating suitable habitats for wolverine reintroduction efforts, and have found ways to apply models derived from current genetic patterns to future landscapes to inform land management decisions on existing and future corridor locations. While current efforts are focused on wolverines, these newly developed tools can be applied to a variety of organisms to inform their potential future in a changing climate.
    Scientists with the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute quantified the ability of wildfire to limit the spread of subsequent fires and essentially, act as a fuel break. Additionally, they evaluated the influence of daily weather in diminishing this effect. The results of this study provide an improved understanding of feedbacks between previous and subsequent wildfire under varying weather conditions and will be useful to fire managers who seek to restore natural fire regimes or to exploit recent burns when managing fire.  
    Forest managers and policymakers are increasingly concerned about potential for increased fire activity and severity in future years. Although many studies have focused on how fire activity is expected to change under future climate scenarios, there have been little to no studies on how fire severity is expected to change. To better under understand how fire severity will change in the future, a necessary first step is to better understand the climatic drivers of contemporary fire severity patterns.
    Variable weather conditions have a dramatic influence on fire behavior and fire effects. However, the influence of weather can be particularly difficult to evaluate because fires are not usually mapped on a daily basis. As such, it is difficult to associate weather with observed fire behavior or effects without knowing what day any given area has burned. A new technique using existing remotely sensed data has been developed to map the daily progression of fires, thereby providing new opportunities for studying the influence of weather on fire behavior and fire effects.
    This project will quantify the effectiveness of wildland fire as a fuel treatment in terms of its ability to limit the occurrence, size, and severity of subsequent fires. In addition, we will quantify the longevity of these effects and evaluate how extreme weather may diminish the ability of wildland fire to act as a fuel treatment.
    The goal of this study was to better understand fire behavior and effects using remotely sensed data.