The Science and Study of Wildfires

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In her research Assistant Professor Maureen Kennedy investigates how to reduce the impact of wildfires.

The American West is burning. As the time of this writing there were more than 100 active wildfires in the United States. All but one of those fires were in the West with 10 in Washington. The total number of fires in the Western U.S. varies from year to year.  However, the total number of acres burned has steadily increased over the past 30 years. “Our fire season is getting longer and more destructive,” said UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Maureen Kennedy.

Kennedy has spent the past decade researching fire ecology and forest management practices. She currently works with the Fire and Environmental Research Applications Team (FERA) as part of the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory. “I use quantitative methods to develop computer models that show the effect of a given fuel reduction treatment,” said Kennedy.

The trees and other plant life that make up a forest can be seen another way. In the hot summer months, after the moisture from the snow and rain has either evaporated or been absorbed, these trees and plants become fuel. It has become standard practice to remove vegetation to mitigate the damage done by wildfires. “There are different ways to do it,” said Kennedy. “One technique is to thin from below, take out the small trees that serve as ladder fuels and follow up with a prescribed fire to get rid of the surface fuels.”

Assistant Professor Maureen Kennedy assists a group of students.Kennedy says the scientific consensus is that removing fuels has been shown to reduce a wildfire’s severity within a treated area. Kennedy is now investigating non-standard fuel treatments through her work with FERA. The idea is to strike a balance between preserving habitat and reducing the spread of a wildfire. “We’re trying to understand what happens when more fuels are left on the ground,” she said.”

Kennedy and her team use case studies to conduct their analysis. “We look at crown scorch or how black or brown a tree crown is a result of the fire,” she said. For this research Kennedy and others run transects in the direction a fire spread.  “It’s early still but what we’re finding is you can still affect change in how a fire behaves but you need a wider treatment area,” said Kennedy. “This is helpful because it allows for flexibility in planning.”

Forest managers are left to balance differing needs. Removing more fuels could lead to habitat loss and could anger residents. “Lots of people settle near the forest because of the beautiful views,” said Kennedy. “Removing trees changes the view they have gotten used to.” However, failing to remove potential hazards could result in the loss of both life and property.

Kennedy is also working with a group of scholars at the University of California, Santa Barbara as part of a National Science Foundation grant. “We’re looking into ‘salience,’ which is this idea that decisions are disproportionately influenced by the most recent event,” she said. “What we’re seeing is the probability that a fuel treatment actually happens increases if a high-profile wildfire happened close by. This signal diminishes a few years after the fire.“ The researchers recently published their findings in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Kennedy has built fire models for the project. “We want to know the consequences of disaster driven decision making” she said. “What does fire look like in the future under different climate change scenarios? We’re just starting to make progress to answer this question. ”

The dingy gloom that settled over Tacoma recently is largely because of wildfires burning in Washington and Canada. You may remember a similar scenario last summer when an apocalyptic haze of smoke seemed to block the sun for weeks. While Kennedy doesn’t expressly study the impact of climate change, she is familiar with the research. “The data suggests this sort of scenario will become more common,” she said. “We’re seeing warmer temperatures and that causes snowmelt to happen sooner which means forests dry out sooner and that increases the likelihood of wildfire.”

The future may seem bleak but Kennedy retains her optimism. “I have hope, otherwise I wouldn't be doing this research,” she said. “We are building the knowledge base to implement scientifically informed management actions that can balance these seemingly competing objectives, and to mitigate climate change. What we need is for this knowledge to be used, with the common citizen making good fire-wise and climate-wise decisions and compelling action from their government. The knowledge is being built, we need the resources and the will to use it.”


Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / August 21, 2018
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or