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Since the writing of our strategic plan in 1996, the priority issue Understanding Natural Disturbance Regimes has developed into a program that emphasizes Wildland Fire and Fire Restoration. Beginning in 2001, this program has received substantial support from the National Fire Plan and Joint Fire Sciences Program. The Institute now has a cross-disciplinary team of ecologists, biologists, social scientists and science delivery experts led by our Research Fire Ecologist Carol Miller.

RESEARCH GOAL "To develop the information needed to guide the restoration and maintenance of the natural role of fire in wilderness while protecting social and ecological values inside and outside wilderness."

The Institute's Program Charter provides the most recent guidance for our Fire Research Problem Selection and Justification.


Our research starts with the recognition that fire is a process, not a problem. We focus on wildland fire use and other ways to steward fire as a process. Because the challenge of fire stewardship is multi-faceted, our research integrates the ecological and social sciences. Our research does not stop at the boundaries of wilderness because the stewardship of wilderness fire is greatly influenced by activities and values on adjacent lands. Furthermore, wildland fire use is increasingly being used outside wilderness. The lessons from wilderness apply across the full spectrum of lands extending outward to the wildland urban interface.

Our fire research program has three objectives:

  1. to understand natural fire regimes and how they have been altered,
  2. to evaluate the management options for restoring fire as a natural process and the consequences of those actions, and
  3. to understand the social and institutional factors that can affect how managers and the public evaluate tradeoffs among available options.

We are interested in evaluating the natural role of fire in wilderness ecosystems and determining when, how, and where the process of fire can best be maintained or restored. By evaluating the consequences of various options for restoring or maintaining fire as a process in wilderness ecosystems, we aim to help wilderness managers make decisions regarding wildland fire. Finally, through an understanding of the social and institutional influences on fire management decisions, we aim to identify the barriers and facilitators to fire use, improve the quality and consistency of decisions, and improve management's ability to gauge and engage the public in wilderness fire management.

Our conceptual framework for wilderness fire research (Figure 1) illustrates the overall goals of a fire management program, the role that assessing risk has on achieving these goals, and specific research topics that directly provide the knowledge and understanding to evaluate, understand, and reduce risk. Risk assessment plays a pivotal role in the decision-making process to accomplish fire management goals, and research is needed to provide the foundation of information to improve the quality and consistency of evaluating these risks and resulting management decisions.

RISK ASSESSMENT RESEARCH - Specific research topics we have identified within the area of wilderness fire risk assessment include:

  • Improved understanding of factors affecting risk and benefits
  • Improved methods to evaluate tradeoffs between benefits and risks
  • Improved methods for identifying specific areas and times of risk
  • Improved methods for prioritizing areas for restoration

ECOLOGICAL RESEARCH - To develop better knowledge and understanding about risk, we seek to improve our knowledge about fire regimes and our understanding about the effects of alternative management and restoration goals and the tools used to accomplish these goals. Research we are conducting in this area includes:

  • Improved methods for sampling and describing spatial and temporal attributes of natural fire regimes at landscape scales
  • Improved understanding of how fire regimes and wilderness ecosystems have been altered by management, land use changes, and climatic variability
  • Improved understanding of the short- and long-term ecological consequences of alternative management options for managing and restoring fire

SOCIAL RESEARCH - Social factors are one of the primary driving forces influencing management decisions and actions regarding fire, yet there is little understanding about what these social factors are and how they develop and affect management decisions, especially for powerful natural processes such as fire. We are currently refining a set of specific social research topics, including:

  • Improved understanding of the constraints to managing fire at landscape scales
  • Improved methods for assessing the social consequences of fire management activities
  • Improved understanding of public knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to fire management in and surrounding wilderness



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