During a workshop in Quebec on paleofires, participants collected surface sediment from the nearby Lake Geai.
Methods to reconstruct paleofires include charcoal analyses from lake sediments. During a workshop in Quebec last fall on paleofires, participants collected surface sediment from the nearby Lake Geai. Credit: Marcisz Kataryzna

Ecological restoration is rooted in the understanding of past ecosystem dynamics, and paleoecological reconstructions provide a long-term perspective on landscape change, vegetation dynamics, and fire history. Increasingly, paleorecords are used as historical baselines for landscape management, conservation, and restoration. These data help land managers better mitigate fire and understand vegetation responses to future global changes. Integrating past ecological information in ecosystem management requires a research framework linking a diverse collection of those who need information about past fires—policy makers, nonprofit workers, resource managers, and emergency responders, to name a few—with scientists.

The Global Paleofire Working Group 2 (GPWG2) is an international group focusing on the history, drivers, and ecology of fire. Last fall, the group brought 26 researchers from 11 countries to Canada’s Laurentian Biology Station in Quebec for a 1-week workshop titled “Paleofire Knowledge for Current and Future Ecosystem Management.” The workshop was initiated to foster collaboration among different research communities interested in fire impacts and vegetation dynamics.

Firefighters, ecosystem managers, conservation practitioners, protected area managers, and foresters are interested in long-term fire data but find that data formats are often too technical.

Prior to the meeting, GPWG2 members interviewed more than 20 stakeholders, none of whom were meeting participants. Stakeholders included firefighters, ecosystem managers, conservation practitioners, protected area managers, and foresters. Responses to the questionnaire highlighted that most of the stakeholders are interested in long-term fire data but find that data formats are often too technical and conceptually difficult to use, even when data are freely accessible.

On the basis of the questionnaire results, workshop attendees split into three subgroups, which discussed how (1) to identify a common vocabulary between paleofire experts, fire practitioners, and stakeholders, (2) to develop a framework for transferring knowledge from paleofire research to ecosystem management, and (3) to evaluate the benefits of management policies based on long-term fire histories and associated processes.

Workshop attendees agreed that integrating the language from studies on fire history, fire ecology, and ecosystem policy would establish a shared vocabulary understandable across interest groups. If such “standardized language” is operational, then attendees agreed that dialogue between scientists and stakeholders will encourage the development of future paleostudies tailored to a specific ecosystem’s (including forest, grassland, and savanna) management or restoration targets.

Most interviewees also emphasized the difficulty of knowledge transfer from paleoresearch to more applied fields, such as ecosystem management and restoration. Workshop participants discussed the need to standardize communication and data transfer tools to better reach a large audience that includes land managers, decision makers, and the public. For example, the Global Charcoal Database (GCD) is an open access database of charcoal data largely used by the paleocommunity but hardly understandable outside of it. Standardized web services that can provide fire metrics for specific ecosystems, based on the long-term perspective, would greatly extend the database’s usefulness to a wider community of researchers and stakeholders.

Meeting participants hold a section of a core from the bed of Quebec’s Lake Geai.
Meeting participants hold a section of a core from the bed of Lake Geai. Charcoal particles extracted from the sediment-water interface are indicative of recent fire events that occurred in the area around the lake. Data collected will be added to the Global Charcoal Database. Credit: Marcisz Kataryzna

Finally, workshop participants discussed how long-term ecological studies can provide a more direct contribution to fire risk assessment and management policies by identifying a “safe fire-operating space” for specific regions on the basis of the knowledge from past fire variability and its relative drivers.

In summary, this workshop was urgently needed to evaluate stakeholder expectations, foster collaboration between communities, and develop a common communication framework for transferring knowledge. The GPWG2, supported by Past Global Changes (PAGES), will continue to foster cooperation between ecologists, stakeholders, and policy makers interested in the relevance of fire for future ecosystem changes by holding a follow-up meeting in September 2018 titled “Diverse Knowledge Systems for Fire Policy and Biodiversity Conservation” in Egham, United Kingdom, and a regional workshop in July 2018 on “African Fire History and Ecology: Building Understanding and Capacity Through Collaboration and Knowledge Exchange” in Nairobi, Kenya.

The workshop was undertaken as part of the PAGES project, which in turn received support from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Swiss Academy of Sciences. We would like to acknowledge the workshop coordinators Olivier Blarquez and Pierre Grondin and the GPWG2, chaired by B. Vannière.

—Marion Lestienne (email: marion.lestienne@univ-fcomte.fr), Chrono-Environnement Laboratory, University of Bourgogne Franche-Comté, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Besançon, France; Julie C. Aleman, Department of Geography, University of Montréal, Canada; and Daniele Colombaroli, Centre for Quaternary Research, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, U.K.


Lestienne, M.,Aleman, J. C., and Colombaroli, D. (2018), How paleofire research can better inform ecosystem management, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO096613. Published on 24 April 2018.

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