Joseph O'Brien

Project Leader/Research Ecologist
320 Green Street
Athens, GA 30602-2044
Phone: 706-461-3372

Current Research

My research centers on fire science, specifically the spatial interactions among wildland fuels, fire behavior and fire effects. I also am interested in the impacts of fire exclusion on ecosystem function and how to best restore fire into long-unburned fire dependent ecosystems.My research in fire ecology spans the globe with active research in the Caribbean, Central America and Africa.

I am interested in developing new ways of measuring fuels and fire, and in integrating these concepts into understanding ecosystem function and guiding management. For example, my research into spatially and temporally explicit fire behavior measurements led to the development of the concept of “the ecology of fuels” that bridges the gaps between both silviculture and fire management but also fire physics and fire ecology.


Research Interests

My research interests include fire ecology, ecophysiology, forest disturbance, interactions among disturbances, conservation biology and management of rare and endangered species,

Why This Research is Important

Fire has shaped the ecology and evolution of terrestrial ecosystems since they came into existence. Fire remains one of the most important management issues in the United States and the world. However, this critical ecological process has remained poorly studied and often misunderstood. This offers tremendous opportunity for both creating new knowledge and improving fire management,=,


Ph.D. in Biological Sciences, 2001
Florida International University
M.S. in Biological Sciences, 1997
Florida International University
B.S. in Biology, 1986
State University of New York at Geneseo

Featured Publications and Products


Research Highlights

How Fire Maintains Biological Diversity in Fire Dependent Forests (2016)
SRS-2016-78 Some forests depend on frequent fire to maintain ecosystem structure and function. However, the mechanisms that drive this relationship are poorly known. Forest Service scientists have explored the mechanisms explaining the link between plant and insect diversity in longleaf pine forests through the innovative use of technology to test state of the art ecological theories. The results show a tight link between forest canopy structure and fire effects that can help guide both silviculture and fire management.

QUIC-Fire: A Fast, 3-D Simulation Tool for Prescribed Fire Planning (2020)
SRS-2020-17 QUIC-Fire is the first fast-running 3D-coupled fire-atmosphere model that incorporates high-resolution 3D vegetation structure, interactions between multiple firelines, and fire-atmosphere feedbacks, which are critical for predicting the behavior of complex ignition patterns common on prescribed fires. QUIC-Fire is intended to serve as a core component of a prescribed fire planning tool that will assist land managers in understanding how ignition patterns connect to fire effects and smoke impacts.

Rethinking how we measure forest fuels for advancing wildland fire science and management (2018)
SRS-2018-65 Land managers depend on quality fire research to advance their understanding of wildland fire behavior. Cutting-edge fire behavior models output fire spread, fire intensity, and smoke plumes in three-dimensions, but forest fuels, which are used as model inputs, are not measured in similar dimensions. This research brings fuels to the forefront of fire ecology and fire science. Fuels, when measured appropriately, link fire behavior and forest response to fire – critical knowledge for frequently burned ecosystems.

RxCADRE: Prescribed Fire Combustion-Atmospheric Dynamics Research Experiments (2011)
SRS-2011-22 21st Century wildfires are increasing in frequency, intensity and complexity. These trends seem likely to continue in the face of climate change, shifting land use patterns, and an increasingly urbanized landscape. For fire science to advance quickly enough to benefit the land management community there is a need for greater collaboration and the pooling of talent and resources. RxCADRE: the Prescribed Fire Combustion and Atmospheric Dynamics Research Experiment, combines the talents of fire experts with a wide range of fire monitoring expertise and equipment from across the US and Canada to study a series of prescribed fires with unprecedented measurement intensity.

Transforming Fire Ecology (2019)
SRS-2019-50 Fire ecology is an essential discipline for guiding effective forest management, but progress in the field has stalled, leaving fire managers with critical knowledge gaps. The root of the problem may lie in both the lack of appropriate measurements and a focus on describing patterns instead of uncovering mechanisms in fire effects. New research proposes a path forward to improve both the underlying science of fire ecology and its application.