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.
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.
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.