Author(s): Birgitte Messerschmidt. Published on March 2, 2020.

Wildfire 101

An ambitious new international research effort seeks answers to fundamental questions surrounding wildfire


In recent years, wildfire has carved an increasingly destructive path across the globe. Areas like Greenland and Siberia, where wildfires were once virtually nonexistent, have experienced blazes due to a warming climate. In places historically subjected to wildfire, including the United States, Australia, and parts of Europe, climate change and increased human development in fire-prone landscapes have led to some of the most destructive fires on record.

And yet we still don’t fully understand some basic questions about wildfire, such as how it spreads through a landscape and how to build communities that can withstand it. Fire research has tended to focus on structure fires and how our homes and possessions burn, but relatively little attention has been paid to how wildfire impacts human settlements. Recent events, however, have given researchers ample reason to flip that equation.

With that in mind, I am happy to report that the largest fire research project currently underway in the world (in terms of scope and the number of researchers involved) is aimed squarely at answering some of these important wildfire questions. The prospect of such an ambitious project focused on wildfire would have been hard to fathom just a decade ago.

The project, called PyroLife, begins April 1 and hopes to shed light on wildfire unknowns while also training a new generation of experts in holistic fire management. Over the next four years, 15 PhD candidates at 10 leading European universities and institutes will each tackle a separate wildfire project focused on areas such as risk quantification, risk reduction, and risk communication. Their work will be supported by 21 international partners that include governments, fire services, industry, and nonprofit agencies from 10 European countries as well as Canada, New Zealand, and the US. As part of the PyroLife consortium, NFPA will host two of these PhD students. We are keen to share our experience from our successful Firewise program, as well as our data and general fire expertise. You can learn more about the project at

The project is globally integrated by design and combines the strengths and knowledge bases of each country involved, as well as the different scientific disciplines of the researchers. The results of this undertaking will be key to tackling a problem as massive as wildfire. A great illustration of this point is the project lead and founder, Dr. Cathelijne Stoof of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, a nation not known for having a wildfire problem. However, the Dutch are no strangers to finding innovative solutions to managing problems presented by Mother Nature; roughly a third of the country sits below sea level, and flooding is a constant threat.

“The Dutch are world famous for the way we live with water,” Stoof said in a statement announcing the project. “By working with water-management experts and landscape designers, we will use this knowledge on planning, management, and communication to study how to design resilient landscapes and communities to live with fire.”

Northern Europe’s penchant for engineering solutions to challenging community threats, combined with the fire science expertise of Southern Europe and the US, is perhaps the recipe we can use to successfully take on the wildfire problem. Recent events have made it clear that wildfire is one of the great challenges of our time for the global research community, and we will need as many great minds and perspectives as we can muster to confront it.

There are now more resources and effort going into this issue than at any time I can recall. Such a global problem is going to take a global effort to solve, and PyroLife is a great start.

Birgitte Messerschmidt is the director of applied research at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler