USFS participant researches impacts of fire suppression and management on forest ecosystems

Meet Nicholas Povak

In the forestry community, fire suppression and fire management are two hotly debated topics. Over the past several decades, fire suppression tactics have been widely used to prevent forest fires and protect ecosystems from the damage they cause. In more recent years, research has indicated that suppressing fires entirely could be more damaging to wilderness areas in the long run. Returning fire to the landscapes, rather than suppressing them, shows noticeable improvement in ecosystem resilience and overall ecosystem health.

USFS participant researches impacts of fire suppression and management on forest ecosystems

As a participant in the U.S. Forest Service Research Participation Program, Nicholas Povak, Ph.D., studied the impacts of fire suppression and management tactics on Washington forest ecosystems. Photo Credit: Erin Povak

Nicholas Povak, Ph.D., recently gained valuable experience applying his knowledge of forestry to fire suppression research during a fellowship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Research Participation Program. 

Povak’s interest in ecology began when his family took a series of trips to famous natural areas. While exploring the redwood forests of coastal California, Mount St. Helens in Washington and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, Povak witnessed scientists sampling vegetation patterns in recently disturbed landscapes. It was then he realized how interesting a career in studying nature could be.

In college, Povak’s fascination with the natural world led him to pursue a degree in forestry. He obtained his bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech in 2003, followed by his master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 2005. He graduated from the University of Washington, Seattle with his doctorate in forestry in 2012. After graduating, Povak joined the USFS Research Participation Program hosted through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).

The USFS Research Participation Program helps train a diverse and highly talented pool of scientists and engineers to address agricultural, natural resource and technology issues in fields of specific interest to the Forest Service. During his appointment, Povak was stationed at the USFS Pacific Northwest Research Station in Seattle, Washington. Under the guidance of his mentor, Paul Hessburg, Ph.D., Povak conducted research projects examining the impacts of fire suppression and exploring methods of ecological management activities.

Over the course of three years, Povak collaborated with a team of ecologists, statisticians, geographers and wildfire experts to develop statistical, simulation and machine learning models of natural ecosystems. These models were used to conduct research related to five specific areas: 1) exploring how landscape vegetation patterns were altered by 100-plus years of fire suppression and how those changes contribute to recent increased fire activity in the region; 2) identifying factors associated with long-term post-wildfire tree regeneration failures; 3) prioritizing management activities on Pacific Islands to improve terrestrial, hydrological and nearshore processes; 4) determining joint benefits of restoration treatments towards reducing fire hazard, increasing snowpack and providing a supply of biofuels and other wood products; and 5) predicting fire severity patterns across large wildfires using machine learning.

Povak’s research provides important insights into the management of forest ecosystems in relation to fire management tactics. These insights are critical to help guide future ecological management strategies.

“It will help us better understand the interactions between atmospheric, vegetation and disturbance processes,” said Povak, “as well as how this understanding can help improve the resilience of socio-ecological systems into the future.”

Following the conclusion of his fellowship, Povak is continuing his research with the USFS Pacific Northwest and Southwest Research stations. His new project focuses on improving the resilience of forest and non-forest ecosystems in the Sierra Mountains. Povak says he frequently draws on the knowledge he gained during his ORISE experience and credits his fellowship for much of his professional development and expertise.

“I would highly recommend the ORISE program,” he said. “The program allows young scientists to focus on advancing their expertise in research methods and applying them to funded research projects. Relationships with the mentors are symbiotic because fellows are colleagues of veteran scientists conducting world-class research and mentors gain a highly qualified junior scientist capable of advancing their own research program,” said Povak.

The U.S. Forest Service Research Participation Program is funded by the USDA U.S. Forest Service Office of Sustainability and Climate and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.