Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Agency scientists believe picking our battles is the key to living with wildfire

Joyce El Kouarti
Office of Communications

A team of fire managers in 2018 hovers over maps of the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest to evaluate where best to focus resources in the event of a wildfire.
A team of fire managers in 2018 hovers over maps of the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest to evaluate where best to focus resources in the event of a wildfire. (USDA photo by Matt Thompson).

Not all fires are bad. In fact, fire is a natural part of many landscapes. Wildfire can play an important role in forest health by clearing out dead trees, leaf litter, and competing vegetation from the forest floor so that new plants can grow. By removing weak or diseased trees, fire also leaves more space, light, water, and nutrients and for these stronger remaining trees to grow. Healthy forests are better able to survive future fires, droughts, disease, and other stressors.

However, challenges can arise where humans live near wild, undeveloped landscapes. Today a third of all housing units in the U.S. are in areas close to forests, putting both lives and property at risk.

The map shows areas of the Western U.S., including New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, where the PODs process is being used to help land managers and fire managers know where to focus resources even before a wildfire starts. (USDA Forest Service graphic)
The map shows areas of the Western U.S., including New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, where the PODs process is being used to help land managers and fire managers know where to focus resources even before a wildfire starts. (USDA Forest Service graphic)

Keeping people safe during a wildfire is a central part of the Forest Service mission. The agency’s goal is to commit emergency responders where they can succeed in protecting lives and values at risk, then go home safely at the end of the day.

That’s where science comes in. Before fires even start, Forest Service researchers work with local cooperators and land managers to identify the most critical community assets to protect.  Next, they map the locations where fire can be managed most safely and with the highest likelihood of success.

Scientists review these values and locations through the filters of risk management science and geography to identify “PODs,” or containers bounded by roads, ridge tops, water bodies and other locations where fires can be controlled most safely. Then, when a wildfire breaks out, wildfire managers can focus their efforts where they know they are most needed.

“The PODs concept for us was the tool to articulate and explain our risk and the justification for the values at risk that we are protecting,” said Andy Mandell, a district fire management officer on the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. “Creating the relationship between the local decision-makers and the fire management officials, having that conversation before there is smoke in the air, is critical.”

So far 43 national forests have used this process together with their local, county, state and other fire management counterparts.

Before fires start, scientists and fire managers identify the most critical forest and community assets to be protected and the locations where fire management operations can take place most safely and with the highest likelihood of success. USDA Forest Service images from Tonto National Forest. (USDA Forest Service graphic)
Before fires start, scientists and fire managers identify the most critical forest and community assets to be protected and the locations where fire management operations can take place most safely and with the highest likelihood of success. USDA Forest Service images from Tonto National Forest. (USDA Forest Service graphic)

PODs also help land managers work together ahead of fires to develop cross-ownership agreements and plan fuel treatments and prescribed burns within these containers. This approach illustrates how Shared Stewardship can play out on the ground – getting everyone at the table to collectively manage landscapes.

Wildfires seldom align with ownership boundaries, and response time is critical. By creating a process for stakeholders to identify and agree upon the goals, risks and actions to take in the event of a cross-boundary fire ahead of time, the PODs approach saves lives and property.

Is your community at risk of wildfire? Visit Wildfire Risk to Communities to find out. This easy-to-use website features interactive maps, charts, and resources to help communities understand, explore and reduce wildfire risks to homes, businesses, and other valued resources.

 

https://www.fs.usda.gov/features/agency-scientists-believe-picking-our-battles-key-living-wildfire