Scientists and Managers Collaborate on Wildfire in the North Atlantic: An Interview with Inga La Puma

Scientists and Managers Collaborate on Wildfire in the North Atlantic: An Interview with Inga La Puma

09 May 2017

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USA –  Tell us about the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange and why it connects scientists and managers.

The North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange is one of 15 exchanges throughout the country funded by the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP). Our goal is to provide science communication opportunities throughout our region for scientists and managers. When scientists hear from managers, their science becomes more applicable to practical challenges that managers face. When managers hear from scientists, they are able to incorporate some of the science into their day-to-day operations and decision making.

Managing vegetation effectively with fire is a key component in a manager’s toolkit to keep communities safe. Scientists can help by giving managers tools. For example, the science of effective communication can help managers engage landowners. The science of fire spread and ember research can help managers display the dangers of living in the wildland-urban interface. Understanding local fire history and using effective planning strategies can reduce a community’s fire risk.

How did you come to be the science communications director for the exchange?

When I first heard about efforts to create a grassroots exchange for our region, I wanted in! My research in New Jersey’s fire history and future scenario modeling led me to understand that the North Atlantic had been largely overlooked on a national scale in terms of fire science. There was still a tone of surprise when I talked about fire history in New Jersey to anyone outside the Pinelands. As someone engaged in fire science in New Jersey, I felt the need to help facilitate an increased awareness of fire science and management in the region. I had also had the privilege of working closely with managers in crafting my research, which I feel greatly improved the usefulness of my results.

When the opportunity of funding the fire science exchange in our region came along as a result of the grassroots effort, my colleagues Erin Lane, Nick Skowronski and Amanda Mahaffey, and I all came together to write the proposal. We lucked out because we work really well together, but in the process of working on the proposal, we realized that we also have different talents to contribute to running the exchange. Erin is our coordinator/networker extraordinaire, and Amanda is our workshop, webinar and field trip guru. Nick is our principle investigator, keeping track of the big picture and our budget. And I am our science writer, website/newsletter crafter and social media communicator. We all regularly make presentations for various venues about NAFSE and write the proposals to keep the exchange going. I really enjoy my role in the exchange and feel privileged to keep up with the latest research as part of my job. Regularly interacting with both scientists and managers has enabled me to facilitate partnerships and connections that would not happen otherwise, which is truly rewarding.

What are some of the unique challenges regarding wildfire in the North Atlantic, and what is your group’s approach to dealing with them?

Our tagline is “fire science communication in a complex landscape,” and I think that gets to the heart of things in our region. We don’t have large swaths of federally owned land in which to research or manage fire. Mixed land ownership and living in the wildland-urban interface is the norm, rather than the exception, so we are working from a different paradigm than many of the fire science communities in the West. We also have the challenge of ‘loss of memory’ since large fires are not typically a yearly event. The public doesn’t see fire as a huge threat because many people have not experienced a large wildfire during their lifetime. This creates a major challenge for managers wanting to use prescribed fire or mechanical means to reduce fire hazard. Large fires in our region typically occur as a result of drought, and 99 percent of them are human caused, so educating the public about the circumstances leading to these rare events is an important part of science communication in our region.

We also have a range of ecosystems in our region, from the fire-adapted pitch pine Coastal Plains to the mixed-hardwood Piedmont to the Acadian northern hardwood regions. Management goals in the Coastal Plains tend to focus more on safety and hazard reduction, whereas goals in mixed-hardwoods areas prioritize restoration efforts, including oak regeneration. Our approach to incorporating different needs is to rotate our events and topics amongst these regions so that we are able to address all of our science and management challenges.

What have been NAFSE’s biggest contributions to improving the management of wildfire in the North Atlantic?

Communication is key! I think providing opportunities for face-to-face communication, such as field trips and workshops has been one of our greatest contributions. We often offer travel funding for these events so that folks that wouldn’t normally be able to pay for travel can attend. This means scientists and managers can see how different parts of our region deal with local challenges. The excitement about exchange events is palpable and attendance at our events is high. Highlighting the developing partnerships stemming from these events is an added bonus.

Last year, Rolling Stone wrote an article that maintained that the worst-ever U.S. wildfire disaster could take place in the New Jersey Pinelands. Do you agree?

This conclusion was based on the idea that if the catastrophic 1963 fires that burned 191,000 acres happened today, there would be a lot more homes and people ‘in the way.’ It is true that the population of New Jersey is much higher today, and that the Pinelands are much more of an island surrounded by developed land. However, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service has a long history of prescribed fire management focused on preventing such a disaster. They have also instituted strategic outreach efforts in cooperation with the New Jersey Fire Safety Council that have led to the establishment of 35 Community Wildfire Protection Plans and numerous Firewise and Ready, Set, Go! communities.

If a major drought were to hit the area, it is possible that it would be extremely difficult to fight a fast-moving wildfire in New Jersey, but that could apply to any area in the North Atlantic. For example, the Great Miramachi Fire that burned 3 million acres in New Brunswick, Canada in 1828 and the Great Fires of 1947 that burned 200,000 acres in Maine would also encounter a much more populated landscape if they occurred today.

Who has influenced your views on fire management?

Richard T. Forman, who edited “Pine Barrens: Ecosystem and Landscape” and wrote “Land Mosaics: The Ecology of Landscapes and Regions,” had the biggest influence on my fire management perspective. These books include the idea of the ‘shifting mosaic’ of disturbance on the landscape. This perspective holds that disturbance can happen at different times and different places across a landscape, and that it is a renewing force in the ecosystem, rather than a destructive force. Using fire as a prime example, Forman demonstrates the need for disturbances to shift around to different parts of the landscape, as to avoid creating a monoculture of ages or species or an ecosystem that can’t recover. Applying the shifting mosaic perspective can help prioritize management areas while also advancing long-term hazard reduction, ecosystem resilience and economic goals.

Any closing remarks for our readers?

Our efforts as an exchange and my job as the fire science communication director have given me a much deeper understanding of the science and management challenges regarding wildfire in the North Atlantic, which I hope to continue to share for years to come.

As science communications director for the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange, Inga La Puma uses newsletters, research briefs and website materials to help facilitate relevant wildfire research and to promote access to meaningful fire science. She is a spatial ecologist focused on how disturbances shape forest succession trajectories. Her most recent research focused on modeling forest disturbances, such as fire and harvest, in relation to human influences in land-cover and management decisions. Inga’s research in the past spanned from leaf level to landscape level, and from invasive, exotic species to remote sensing and carbon flux measurements of tundra. She has a doctorate in ecology from Rutgers, where she focused on wildfire history, climate and land-use in the Pinelands of New Jersey.

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