As wildfires cause increasing devastation
worldwide, dozens of fire experts across
the nation are joining together in calling
for a more strategic and interdisciplinary
approach to pursuing wildfire research and
protecting vulnerable communities.
A new study, led by a scientist at the National Center
for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and co-authored by 86
other fire experts from a breadth of disciplines, highlights
the obstacles for fire science and provides guidance for
investing in future research. The commentary is a follow-up
to a five-day innovation lab, sponsored by the U.S. National
Science Foundation (NSF), that brought together diverse
research communities in May 2021 to develop a roadmap for
new research directions.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
(PNAS) Nexus journal, the study outlines five key challenges to
advance the study of fire. These range from promoting coordinated
research to drawing on diverse sources of knowledge.“We need to
develop a proactive fire research agenda that helps create safe
communities and ecosystems,” said NCAR scientist Jacquelyn Shuman,
the lead author. “This requires a more cross-disciplinary approach
and building diverse partnerships to make better use of the knowledge that exists.”
The scientists are making their recommendations at a time when
wildfires pose an increasing global risk, spurred largely by climate
change, generations of fire suppression, and more development in
the wildland-urban interface. Recent decades have seen a substantial
increase in the length of fire season as far north as the Arctic,
as well as intense conflagrations from the Pantanal tropical wetland
in South America to the peatlands of tropical Asia. In the western
United States, warmer and drier conditions have spurred fires that
have burned nearly twice the area in the 21st century compared with
the late 20th century.
Despite the growing wildfire destruction, the authors emphasize
fire is a fundamental part of ecosystems globally, and it has been
used by society to manage landscapes for millennia.The innovation
lab motivating this commentary was funded by NSF, which is NCAR’s sponsor.
MAJOR RESEARCH ADVANCES
Using increasingly advanced observing systems, field
campaigns and computer models, scientists have made
major strides in better understanding and anticipating
wildfire behavior, as well as the effects of smoke on air
quality. However, such advances have often been made in
isolation, instead of being incorporated into a comprehensive
and holistic understanding of the causes and impacts of fires.
Recognizing the need for a more convergent approach, the
innovation lab last year brought together experts at federal
agencies and universities. They represented fields ranging
from ecology, forestry and anthropology to geomorphology,
hydrology, and computer science, among others.
The five challenges outlined in the paper, which built on those discussions, are:
● Integrate across disciplines by promoting
coordination among physical, biological, and social
sciences. Fire research currently is siloed within
disciplines such as forestry, atmospheric chemistry,
and others, but wildfire is a biophysical and social
phenomenon that cannot be understood with any single
● Embrace different ways of knowing and knowledge
generation to identify resilience pathways. Humans from
diverse groups and perspectives, including indigenous
peoples of tribal nations, can provide scientists with
invaluable insights into fire.
● Use fire as a lens to address fundamental science questions.
Fire is such an ancient and pervasive phenomenon that it
can be used to help gain new insights into a range of sciences,
including ecology and evolutionary biology, the evolution
of Homo sapiens, and social dynamics.
● Capitalize on the “firehose” of data to support
community values. With more data now available to study fire
in the biosphere than ever before, scientists need funding
to harness the data revolution and aid our understanding of
● Develop coupled models that include human dimensions to
better anticipate future fire. To better anticipate future
fire activity and its impacts, scientists need to develop
more advanced computer modeling systems that incorporate
both the human and non-human dimensions of fire.
“We have far more information about fires than before, but we
need increased funding and better coordination to deploy it
on a global scale,” Shuman said. “This will enable us to be
more proactive as we work to help society and ecosystems
become more resilient to the increasing risk of fires.”
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