Focus on Joseph O’Brien

Creative fire & land management

This is a new type of article focusing on the people behind the science. These articles will profile SRS employees – from different job series and locations – whose work fulfills and supports the Station’s mission.

Joseph O’Brien. USDA Forest Service photo.

“I am intrigued by the connection between fire and its role in maintaining biodiversity,” says Joseph O’Brien, a research ecologist specializing in fire science. “It’s the creative component of fire – versus the destructive component – that truly fascinates me.”

O’Brien is with the USDA Forest Service Center for Forest Disturbance Science in Athens, Georgia. He spent his 20-year career with Forest Service R&D studying the interactions between wildland fuel, fire behavior, and fire effects on landscapes across the globe including the U.S., the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

In his newest project, O’Brien is building a hub for advancing prescribed fire science and technology. This collaborative group brings together top thinkers in fire science and ecology from across the country, including researchers from USGS, Tall Timbers Research Station in Florida, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the Northern and Rocky Mountain Research Stations, and the University of Georgia, among many others.

The prescribed fire science hub is working to improve prescribed fire models and bring them out of the lab and into the management of fire-adapted landscapes like national forests and private lands.

“Fire managers are like artists. It takes years of experience to build the skills necessary to paint the land with fire to meet management objectives and keep everyone safe. We are trying to create the scientific knowledge and tools to back up those decisions and help ensure positive outcomes in terms of both ecosystem restoration and safety.”

O’Brien grew up in rural western New York and knew by age five that he wanted to be a field biologist. In his early career as a field technician with the National Audubon Society Ecosystem Research Unit, he was introduced to fire as an essential ecosystem process in the Florida Keys and Everglades.

O’Brien continued working on fire ecology for his Masters thesis. After earning his PhD from Florida International University, studying the ecophysiology of tropical trees, O’Brien joined the Southern Research Station in 2002 as a research ecologist.

Joseph O’Brien walks the fire line after a burn on the Osceola National Forest in Florida. USDA Forest Service photo by James Furman.

Another area of fire science that piqued O’Brien’s curiosity is the impacts of fire exclusion on ecosystem function. “Fire is viewed by most as a disturbance, but in fire-adapted systems the lack of fire is the true disturbance. Fire is like climate or weather, an essential physical attribute of an ecosystem. Repetitive fire consumes some vegetation but doesn’t alter species composition or shift the trajectory of ecosystems – it maintains them,” says O’Brien. “A lack of fire disrupts the carefully orchestrated balance of fire-adapted ecosystems and sends them on new often undesirable trajectories.”

Despite his extensive research experience (he has authored or co-authored more than 150 papers), O’Brien recognizes that the best insight into fire ecology or behavior may not be found between the pages of a scientific paper, but rather through directly observing how fire behaves and is used. This could be with the Forest Service on a prescribed fire, a private landowner in jeans burning her property, or a Miskitu person in Honduras managing entire landscapes with fire but no control lines.

It is this human connection with fire as a powerful tool to manage ecosystems that he finds fascinating. “Humans have a long and deep relationship with fire that spans millennia. Connecting the science with lessons learned from those with an intimate connection to the land will help us better manage the ecosystems where we live,” adds O’Brien.

His latest research focuses on testing, refining and expanding a highly sophisticated coupled fire-atmosphere model called QUIC-Fire to help prescribed burn managers answer questions related to fire behavior, fire effects, and smoke management. The long and justifiable focus on wildfire modeling has left a void in tools relevant to prescribed fire managers. Wildfire models focus on decision-making related to suppressing unwanted ignitions and on fires that often burn under extreme conditions.

However, these models can’t guide prescribed fire managers whose goals are achieved mainly by altering ignition patterns and choosing specific weather conditions for burn days to meet ecological or fuels management goals. Since prescribed fire accounts for more than half of all acres burned in the U.S. each year, it makes good sense to develop models that can accurately predict behavior and effects of these fires.

A prescribed burn maintains an open pine woodland in Fort Stewart, Georgia. USDA Forest Service photo by Joseph O’Brien.

Navigating the boundaries between scientists and managers is essential to creating useful and scientifically accurate fire models and keeping fire personnel safe. O’Brien is a founding member of the Prescribed Fire Science Consortium, a group dedicated models and tools about prescribed fire behavior and its ecological effects. The Consortium assists managers in safely conducing prescribed burns at the pace and scale needed.

O’Brien brings scientists together with burn bosses, Fire Management Officers, and other burn personnel in the Southern Region to learn from each other, move fire science forward, and better understand the ecological role fire plays across landscapes. “The excellent relationship I have had over the years with the nearby Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest has been instrumental in my development as a fire scientist. Their fire managers have always been welcoming and given me and my staff training opportunities. Now we often augment their fire operations, giving us unprecedented access and insights into how wildland fire works.”

“One of my main goals is to generate more appreciation of fire as a keystone biophysical process as well as a catastrophic event. In this way we can tailor our responses, be it suppression or application of fire, to achieve ecological objectives, land management goals, and to mitigate risk to person and property.”

In the western U.S., a century of fire suppression is wreaking havoc, with catastrophic fires burning communities and drastically affecting people’s lives, homes, and livelihoods as well as forest ecosystems.

In the eastern U.S., a lack of fire has gradually shifted some forest communities from species-rich communities adapted to regular burning to fire-sensitive communities that don’t burn. This homogenizing of the landscape has led to a loss of fire-adapted biodiversity and resilience and has far-reaching effects for ecosystems and society.

“Ultimately, fire is not an enemy, but a powerful natural force to be reckoned with. We need to re-learn how to live with fire. For my part, I believe that researching how low to moderate intensity fire burns and its subsequent effects will help us better utilize fire’s immense power for the good of the land,” says O’Brien.

O’Brien is a thoughtful, inquisitive scientist with an overflowing, infectious passion for his work. His curiosity is advancing our understanding of fire behavior, wildland fuels, and fire’s role in maintaining biodiversity in natural systems.

Learn more about O’Brien’s recent projects and publications. For more information, email Joseph O’Brien at joseph.j.obrien@usda.gov.

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