Current Forestry Reports

, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp 161–177 | Cite as

Advances in Mechanistic Approaches to Quantifying Biophysical Fire Effects

  • J. J. O’Brien
  • J. K. HiersEmail author
  • J. M. Varner
  • C. M. Hoffman
  • M. B. Dickinson
  • S. T. Michaletz
  • E. L. Loudermilk
  • B. W. Butler
Fire Science and Management (ME Alexander, Section Editor)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on Fire Science and Management


Purpose of Review

The search for causal mechanisms in fire ecology has been slow to progress for two main reasons. First, many fire ecology investigations often occur after fires, with no detailed information on fire behavior. These fire effects are then used to infer both fire behavior and the subsequent effects themselves. Second, that fire behavior is heterogeneous at many scales both spatially and temporally, and that heat transfer occurs in three dimensions is only now being appreciated. Spatially and temporally resolved measurement of heat and mass transport in fires is difficult; and even when fire is measured, it is often measured in ways that are not relevant to the effects of interest. General measurements like flame length, rate of spread, and consumption are only approximate descriptors of a complicated energy transfer environment and are of limited use when linking fires to their effects.

Recent Findings

We review both progress in biophysical fire ecology and present recent advances in technology and analytical techniques used for measuring the fire environment. We discuss not only how models of fire-induced injury can be partitioned into belowground, stems, and crowns but also how understanding synergy among these injuries will be necessary to improve our understanding of fire effects. We also present how there are emerging opportunities to apply computational fluid dynamic models to address issues of scaling in biophysical fire effects.


The conceptual linkage of fire energy release to mechanistic fire effects has value beyond simply understanding post-fire tree injury, function, and mortality. It can guide investigations that identify and isolate mechanisms driving other fire effects such as soil heating, organismal population dynamics, and biogeochemistry.


Fire behavior Fire ecology Fire effects Tree mortality Wildland fire 



The authors would like to thank Dr. Marty Alexander for the opportunity to develop this review article and recognize his helpful reviews for its thoroughness and clarity. We also recognize two anonymous reviewers for their improvements to drafts of this manuscript.


Funding was provided by Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, FL, and the USDA Forest Service Center for Disturbance Science, Athens GA.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare they have no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.


Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major Importance

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Copyright information

© This is a U.S. government work and not under copyright protection in the U.S.; foreign copyright protection may apply 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. J. O’Brien
    • 1
  • J. K. Hiers
    • 2
    Email author
  • J. M. Varner
    • 3
  • C. M. Hoffman
    • 4
  • M. B. Dickinson
    • 5
  • S. T. Michaletz
    • 6
  • E. L. Loudermilk
    • 1
  • B. W. Butler
    • 7
  1. 1.USDA Forest Service, Center for Forest Disturbance ScienceSouthern Research StationAthensUSA
  2. 2.Tall Timbers Research StationTallahasseeUSA
  3. 3.USDA Forest Service, Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences LabPacific Northwest Research StationSeattleUSA
  4. 4.Department of Forest and Rangeland StewardshipColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  5. 5.USDA Forest Service, Forestry Sciences LaboratoryNorthern Research StationDelawareUSA
  6. 6.Department of Botany and Biodiversity Research CentreUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  7. 7.USDA Forest Service, Missoula Fire Sciences LaboratoryRocky Mountain Research StationMissoulaUSA

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