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Wildfire Risk Management Science Team

About the Wildfire Risk Management Science Team

The U.S. Forest Service faces a future of increasing complexity and risk, pressing financial issues, and the inescapable possibility of loss of human life. These issues are perhaps most acute for wildland fire management, the highest risk activity in which the Forest Service engages. Risk management (RM) has long been put forth as an appropriate approach for addressing fire, and agency-wide adoption of RM principles and practices will be critical to bring about necessary change and improve future decisions.

The Wildfire Risk Management Science Team, housed in the Human Dimensions Science Programseeks to develop and apply risk analysis, economics, and decision science research to improve the scientific basis for wildfire management.

Two questions central to the Team's efforts are:

1) How can we better understand the complexities of the fire management system, identify characteristics of the system structure that drive behavior, and improve the system so that behavior better aligns with intended purpose?

2) How can we build the capacity to adapt and transform the wildfire management response to meet long-term sustainable management objectives?


The Team explores wildfire management through the lenses of risk analysis, economics, decision science, and landscape ecology to improve the scientific basis for the full range of wildfire management decisions.

Primary research themes include:

  1. Modeling, assessment, and planning to support fire management decisions

  2. Econometric modeling of fire management expenditures

  3. Systems thinking and wildland fire management

  4. Performance measurement and suppression effectiveness

  5. Structured decision making


Wildfire risk assessment framework (figure from RMRS GTR-315).
Wildfire risk assessment framework (figure from RMRS GTR-315).

Over the past several years, the Team has played a critical role in the application of risk management to improve wildfire management planning and decision making. Additionally, the program has provided key research to help the Forest Service better understand and describe the return on investments of alternative fire management strategies and expenditures. Perhaps most fundamentally, the Team has begun to examine fire management institutions in light of their role in broader coupled human and natural systems, asking whether existing management systems set up managers for success in an increasingly complex fire environment, and if not, what types of systemic, cultural, and organizational shifts may be necessary.

The Team at Work

The Team produced a series of three illustrated videos to help users understand their work.

  1. Reforging Our Relationship with Fire
  2. Engaging the Fire Before it Starts: proactive risk management
  3. Partnering for Solutions: new tools for spatial fire planning

These videos describe new research related to the complexity of fire risk management and features tools developed by the team for use in proactive wildfire planning: quantitative wildfire risk assessments, suppression difficulty index, and potential control locations that help form potential wildfire operational delineations (aka PODs). The Team deploys these tools in planning applications on National Forest System lands across the western U.S. Incident management teams use these tools for real-time decision support to prioritize responder safety and assess suppression opportunities in fire operations. Forest managers and their neighbors use these tools to promote shared stewardship and to integrate fire into landscape planning, prioritize fuel treatments, and create or improve control opportunities to reduce risk to things they value.


In a recording from the Missoula Fire Lab’s Seminar Series in March 2017, RMRS Research Forester Matthew Thompson discusses themes of risk and resiliency in relation to the fire management system, and introduces ideas around how concepts and tools from risk and decision analysis can help address systemic issues in land and fire management.



In a TEDx talk, RMRS Ecologist Jessica Haas discusses some of the challenges of wildland fire, and emphasizes the role of risk management and collaboration to jointly design fire adapted communities and fire resilient landscapes.


In a recording from the Property and Environmental Research Center from August 2016 linked here, RMRS Research Forester Dr. Dave Calkin discusses some of the challenges faced by the wildfire management community as well as some potential solutions tied to risk management principles.




The Team works closely with the National Fire Decision Support Center (NFDSC) to implement science-based solutions to wildfire decision-making challenges.