Flame Game: A Podcast About Controlled Burns
Episode 3: A Listen Inside a Lab
Featuring Dr. Lauren Howard

Another interesting aspect of controlled burns is the research that goes on behind the scenes in order to better inform the current practices involved with completing controlled burning. By doing continual research, as with any other scientific process, scientists can continue to help better understand the history and patterns of fire in order to make the practices of controlled burning safer, but also more ecologically helpful than it already is. In episode three, I talk with Dr. Lauren Howard about his research and dendrochronology lab. Dendrochronology is the science and technique of dating events and environmental change by using the patterns of annual growth rings in tree trunks and timber. Dr. Howard is a plant ecologist focusing on fire ecology at Arcadia University and has been completing research on historic fire. He works in partnership with the Nature Conservancy to date fire scars and create a historical chronology of the fires in the area so that they can better understand the historical fire patterns to inform controlled burning now. He explains the importance of dendrochronology, but also the processes that are done when completing his research like the programs that he uses and how he collects samples. His research also provides information on the ecology of the forest and can be used to connect to climate data and provide connections between climate and fires for burn managers today. Research like Dr. Howard’s provides a resource for organizations like the U.S. Fire Service and the Pennsylvania Game Commission that they can use to better manage forests and introduce controlled burns.

Read Dr. Howard's most recent paper on the research he’s conducting. Read this article to get a better idea of what researchers look for in the tree rings and what it all means.

Here’s some examples of what Dr. Howard does in his lab, dating the tree rings and then dating the fire scars within them. The arrows on these samples are pointing to fire scars with their dates and when in the growing season they occurred. These specific samples are from a location in Maryland and were collected and dated by Dr. Howard and his lab assistants from Arcadia University in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. They dated trees going back as far as 1797! Read more about this particular study above done in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, and maybe you can spot Dr. Howard in the pictures!

 After the samples are dated, they are matched up with a reference chronology that has all of the trees that have been dated so far on it so that you can place each of the samples you’re working on in the history. This can show information that was missing in years that are missing in other samples.

The bottom image is an example of what that might look like. The green line shows a sample from one tree put next to the entire historical data for that area made from many other samples, which is the blue line.