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The nature of fire

Flames often critical to healthy ecosystems

December 10, 2013

Wildfires have always been newsworthy, but they have become an increasingly common headline story. Wildfires throughout the West took an extraordinary toll on communities, property and lives in 2013. Major fires have also recently closed parts of Yosemite and Rocky Mountain national parks. Large parts of Australia are on fire as this is being written.  

Last June, a record-setting fire in Arizona claimed the lives of 19 firefighters, injecting the issue of preventative measures once again into the news. Arizona officials spoke out after the tragedy, advocating land management efforts to control wildfires, including prescribed burns.  

Prescribed burn in Wisconsin
The Tallgrass Prairie and Oak Savanna Fire Science
Information Consortium improves the flow of information
among scientists and managers. Photo: Wisconsin DNR

“We need no more data to convince us that fire can be devastating to humans and their infrastructure, and a lot of dedicated people are working on how to mitigate destructive wildfire,” says Paul Zedler, a UW-Madison professor of environmental studies and an associate director of the Nelson Institute.  

“Humans did not invent wildfires, but we changed things to make them more threatening,” he continues. “We’ve learned that trying to remove fire from wildlands by aggressive suppression is not a winning strategy – certainly not for the species and ecosystems that need fire to rejuvenate and reset their dynamics.”  

Zedler heads the Tallgrass Prairie and Oak Savanna Fire Science Information Consortium, one of 12 regional consortia sponsored by the federal Joint Fire Science Program. Their mission is to improve the flow of information on wildfire and management burning among scientists and managers. The program was launched by a collection of federal agencies that sponsor fire-related research, in collaboration with universities, federal agencies and nonprofit land management organizations across the country. 

The focus of each consortium varies. In the Mountain West, concerns center on minimizing the size and destructiveness of wildfire. But in the Midwest and most of the East, the emphasis is on using fire as a tool for managing ecosystem structure and plant and animal diversity. 

Parts of 12 states fall under the Tallgrass Prairie and Oak Savanna Consortium, based in the Nelson Institute. Zedler says the consortium’s diverse participants and their varying needs require collaboration. 

“Our consortium focuses primarily on using fire as a land management technique,” he says. “Though we deal with wildfire issues, we’re more concerned with facilitating information exchange on how to burn more land, not less, with scientifically managed, prescribed fire.”

In the upper Midwest, European explorers and settlers told of huge fires that burned thousands of acres. The expansion of agriculture stopped the spread of fire by converting large areas of prairie and savanna to farmland. Patches of forest took hold in areas that were not plowed or grazed. Natural prairies remained, but they are scattered and mostly small.  

“Humans did not
invent wildfires, but
we changed things
to make them more

But by the early 1900s, scientists and land managers began to recognize that fire could be used to regain some of the region’s plant and animal diversity. This idea was put into practice at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, where researchers experimented with burning as a tool for prairie restoration.  

Since these pioneering efforts, the torch, so to speak, has been taken up by many. Prescribed burns are now considered a basic management practice to encourage the growth of native plant and animal communities and restore and maintain natural landscapes.  
Putting knowledge into practice though the science of wildfire ecology and management has come a long way, researchers and conservation professionals still face significant information gaps, according to Zedler. 

“Research might be out there, but it might not have made its way to the practitioner,” he explains. “It may also be that the practitioner’s concern hasn’t yet reached the researcher – also a common complaint among land managers.” 

“And we live in a constantly changing environment, so the questions change over time. We can’t do a lot about that last part, but we can help create better resources and connections between research and management,” says Zedler. 

The Tallgrass Prairie and Oak Savanna group and the other Joint Fire Science Program consortia were created to help address these problems by providing land managers with online references such as research summaries and webinars; hosting conferences and field trips that promote exchange and discussion; and providing access to the system of regional consortia. 

Each of the regional groups within the program helps tailor the latest fire research to specific ecosystems, sharing particular results with communities that can use the findings. 

“Practitioners or land managers typically don’t have time to spend an entire day in the library,” Zedler says. “Land managers are also dealing with many interacting variables – climate, weather, soils, hydrology, land use history, neighboring land uses – these all affect plant and wildlife populations. They need research boiled down so they can quickly see whether a study’s questions, methods and findings are relevant.” 

Paul Zedler
Professor Paul Zedler, consortium
director, studies the science of fire
and its role in ecosystem resilience. 

Online resources, accessible at any time or from any place, are critical for land managers who need information about fire. But those resources can’t entirely replace the value of in-depth discussions with colleagues, or well-planned field trips. The fire consortia organize local field days, regional conferences and other learning opportunities that land managers value but often don’t have time to arrange on their own.

Last January, for example, more than 300 scientists and professionals met in Dubuque, Iowa, for the Tallgrass Prairie and Oak Savanna Regional Fire Conference. The consortium’s then-coordinator Nate Fayram organized a planning team that reflected the diverse audience, including researchers, professional land managers and private landowners who use fire on their own property. 

As principal investigator of the local consortium, Zedler can bring valuable interdisciplinary research from the Nelson Institute as well as his more than 40 years in the field. He and a team of staff and students continue to study the science of fire and its role in ecosystem resilience. 

The team has recently been expanded to include Tracy Hmielowski, a doctoral graduate of Louisiana State University whose work has focused on how woody species respond to prescribed fire in southeastern pine-dominated ecosystems, and Craig Maier, who holds a master’s degree in Environment and Resources (’12) from UW-Madison and specializes in communications and ecological restoration. 

“We bring people together to solve different types of problems with fire,” Zedler says. “There’s a bit of uncertainty – some say we should do one thing, others say we should do something different – and the Nelson Institute, as an interdisciplinary institution, is the perfect place for this type of discussion. It helps us talk through those differences.”