Understanding plants could make firefighting and prescribed burns safer

Like firefighting, wildland-fire research attacks the problem from all sides, including how plants use water and carbon

June 22, 2022


By L. Turin Dickman

As a vicious outbreak of huge wildfires scorching New Mexico since April marks an unusually early start for the fire season in the West, many people wonder, what can be done?

Research is working to understand the options. Fire behavior is broadly controlled by complex interactions among fuel (living and dead plants), its moisture content, terrain and the atmosphere. One thread of active research studies the physics of fire behavior and how the hot swirling gases interact with the atmosphere and weather. Another branch of research focuses on the vegetation that feeds a fire.

In the past, we haven’t had access to the data or fully developed models we need to accurately simulate the complex relationships between heat transfer and the constantly changing physiology of the plants that make a living forest alive. So fine-scale fire models currently treat living vegetation the same, without differentiating among the traits of various plant species.

Recent advances in remote sensing and modeling, however, have opened the door to taking a deeper look at how the physical makeup of various plants species, particularly their carbon and water content, interact with fire. Accounting for these dynamic vegetation characteristics will improve not only our ability to better understand fire behavior but also fire effects and fire’s role in healthy ecosystem dynamics. 

I’m part of a team at Los Alamos National Laboratory using sophisticated, physics-based computer models called FIRETEC and QUIC-fire to simulate the feedbacks between fires and their surroundings as they move across a forest or grassland. Insights from the simulations can help land managers and firefighters understand how wildfires move across a landscape and grow. On the preventive side, simulations can help refine strategies to reduce fuel loads in forests and plan safe prescribed burns — always a tricky business.

Read the rest of the story as it appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

L. Turin Dickman assesses fuel moisture content in a ponderosa forest near Los Alamos National Laboratory.