Scientists to start a forest fire to better understand wildfires

June 4, 2019


A research team is planning to light a fire in a Utah forest at the end of June to clear out dead conifer trees and allow quaking aspen to regain a place in a national forest. A report in Nature explains how the fire can also serve to teach scientists about wildfires.

Though the Utah experiment will be started by the US Forest Service, it is expected to burn intensely enough to mimic a natural wildfire.

Wildfires have become increasingly common and destructive in the U.S. in recent years, and a research team, led by forest ecologist Susan Prichard, is hoping The Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment will teach it about the tendencies of fires.

The team will monitor smoke patterns and the spread of the flames to inform new models and operational systems that could predict how future wildfires will act. This project occurs as part of a push for better data collection from wildfires in western North America.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA will also start flying research planes over more than a dozen naturally occurring wildfires, starting in July. Researchers hope to better understand how smoke plumes rise from a blaze, which can improve forecasts of where smoke will spread, affecting people’s homes and health.

The growing frequency of wildfires has led to research on the effects of wildfire smoke on asthma and chronic heart and lung diseases. The smoke is known to cause a host of health problems and by understanding where the smoke will move, scientists hope to help people escape it.

So-called “prescribed fires” are not unheard of in Indiana and have their practical uses to benefit the environment. Not only are they useful for research purposes, but they also allow for a beneficial reset for some forest communities.

According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Indiana frequently saw forest fires prior to European settlement. Whether naturally occurring or set by Native Americans, these fires created disturbances that Indiana wildlife came to depend on, according to the DNR. Today, prescribed fires are used to mimic those conditions and preserve natural Indiana landscapes in their historic states.

Scientists to start a forest fire to better understand wildfires


Prescribed fires allow scientists to maintain the historic states of American forests.