Research Focus Areas

The FFS Program and researchers align research and activities under the following Research Focus Areas:

  • The mission of the Conservation Education (CE) Team for the Fire, Fuel and Smoke (FFS) Program is to develop and deliver high-quality, science-based education about wildland fire to students, educators, the general public, and agency staff.

  • The majority of U.S. forests and grasslands are adapted to fire. Past management actions such as grazing, introduction of non-native species, and organized fire suppression, have drastically altered historical fire regimes. Climate change and increasing human expansion into wildlands are further exacerbating changes to vegetation and fuels from historical conditions. Changes in vegetation and fuels patterns, coupled with climate change, also affect biotic disturbances that interact with wildland fire. These interactions and stresses are changing contemporary fire regimes, degrading ecosystem resilience and altering fuel hazard. Knowledge of fire effects and ecology in fire-dependent ecosystems is essential to develop fuel-related products, treatment alternatives, restoration strategies, and accurate forecasting of future conditions.

  • The study of wildland fire behavior addresses the dynamics of energy release and fire propagation from combustion in wildland fuels across a wide range of spatial scales. Fire behavior is the foundation for models and knowledge used by managers in prediction, planning, and training. Critical processes in fire behavior remain unexplained and thereby limit the accuracy and reliability of modeling and create uncertainty throughout the spectrum of fire management activities. Research products that expand knowledge and yield practical advances in modeling will profoundly improve the Forest Service’s ability to manage fire and it’s effects for the benefit of natural resources and human communities.

  • Decision support systems improve the effectiveness and efficiency of fire and forest management activities and increase the safety of planning and operations. FFS has a long history of producing and supporting systems for management use and must continue to engage in technology transfer in the form of system development. Advances in information technology, data, and modeling mean that new systems can be designed to meet emerging needs. Long-standing challenges can now reasonably be addressed, including the analysis of tradeoffs within fire management investments and between fire and the variety of land management activities (including fuel treatment and prescribed fire), as well as estimation of risk to highly valued resources. Effects of smoke and fire behavior on firefighter safety are of paramount concern for both the public as well as fire management personnel.

  • Wildland fire science includes interdisciplinary components that cross-cut several focal areas. Research disciplines such as meteorology and climate can improve our understanding of the conditions that limit and promote wildland fire activity across multiple spatial and temporal scales. These disciplines are critical to improve short-term fire spread modeling as well as smoke emissions and dispersion predictions and are critical to improving the many systems used through wildland fire management. Much is still unknown about how atmospheric and topographic drivers influence short-term variations in near surface weather conditions, such as temperature, humidity and wind, and how these variations interact to promote wildland fire activity. Further, long-term variations in climate can inform ecologically-based vegetation management and community wildfire risk evaluations. Ultimately, interdisciplinary research can intersect with all other focal areas and its scientific advancement is critical to the Forest Service mission of managing landscapes for current and future generations.

    Additionally, technologies such as terrestrial, airborne and spaceborne remote sensing platforms continue to offer ways to map and explore critical components of the wildland fire environment including fuels characteristics, fire activity/growth and fire effects. As such, remote sensing is a critical cross-cutting discipline that can inform and improve research activities in all other focal areas.

    Further, the creation of science application and integration products is critical to transfer technology from fundamental research to operational systems that can provide access to the best available science for decision making. This includes both application development and technology transfer. This research intersects all other focal areas.

  • In many regions across the globe, including the United States, wildland fires are a significant source of air pollution and can be a major hazard to public health. Globally, it has been estimated that exposure to wildfire smoke results in over 300,000 premature deaths annually. In addition to public health, the threat posed to wildland firefighters who may be exposed to dense smoke is an unresolved issue. Smoke management concerns are among the top impediments to prescribed burning. Prescribed fires can subject local communities to unhealthy pollutant levels. Additionally, smoke produced by prescribed fire can trigger violations of state and federal air quality standards.

    Wildland fires are major sources of the greenhouse gases CH4 and CO2 and carbonaceous particles. The particles produced by wildland fires have a signifcant impact on the climate system by absorbing and scattering radiation and affecting cloud properties. Understanding the response of wildland fire emissions to climate variability and changing landscapes is crucial to assessing future air pollution and potential climate feedbacks.