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Wildfire Risk Management Science Team

Potential Operational Delineations (PODs)

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Pre-season preparedness work is critical to success when the fire starts

Flames and smoke above a forested hillside
The WRMS team developed PODs for pre-fire planning. USDA photo.
The Rocky Mountain Research Station Wildfire Risk Management Science (WRMS) Team co-developed Potential Operational Delineations (PODs) to pre-plan for fire using a risk management approach, and to give land managers a formal process for developing landscape-scale wildfire response options before fires start. PODs are spatial units or containers defined by potential control features, such as roads and ridge tops, within which relevant information on forest conditions, ecology, and fire potential can be summarized. PODs combine local fire knowledge with advanced spatial analytics to help managers develop a common understanding of risks, management opportunities, and desired outcomes to determine fire management objectives. The PODs pre-planning framework has been applied on over 40 national forests and counting, often including adjacent landowners and jurisdictions for cross-boundary planning. 

Sometimes, fires resulting from natural ignitions can be strategically managed to achieve goals similar to a prescribed fire: ecological restoration, watershed health, reduced risk of catastrophic wildfire, and reduced future fire suppression costs. When values are likely to benefit, the right kind of fire can be managed for risk reduction and restoration objectives rather than immediately suppressed. Collaborative pre-planning during the PODs process helps to identify these opportunities, as well as conditions and locations where rapid initial attack may still be the best option to protect sensitive resources and assets. Where and when possible, leveraging natural ignitions for non-suppression objectives can reduce fire risk to adjacent high-value PODs over the near term, with benefits for maintaining lower risk conditions with future actions. The PODs framework naturally lends itself to planning and prioritizing other fuel and vegetation projects, as well as outreach and communication efforts.

One key aspect of PODs is the physical cross-boundary, i.e., the recognition that fire readily crosses boundaries and assessment of risks and control opportunities irrespective of ownership boundaries. Another key aspect of PODs is the social cross-boundary, i.e., the recognition of the need to bring multiple partners, cooperators, and stakeholders to the table to develop a shared understanding of values, opportunities, and challenges, to foster collaborative, cross-boundary planning and prioritization, and to support "shared stewardship for fire." Read more about the PODs approach and the 2021 PODs Collaborative Fire Planning Workshop in "USDA Forest Service scientists and managers prepare for fires with collaborative pre-planning."

Download the Connected Science publication When the Fire Starts: A Science-Based Framework for Risk-Based Incident Response featuring collaboration with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute. Read more about how the PODs framework fits within existing and ongoing agency efforts to enhance decision quality and improve strategic risk management in The 8 PIllars of PODs

Videos and Story Map

The PODs Story Map is a resource for more information about the PODs development and PODs in action. The WRMS Team also produced a series of three illustrated videos to help users understand their work. These videos describe new research related to the complexity of fire risk management and feature 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).

PODs In the News

Embracing PODs: Advancing wildfire response planning 

Article from Wildfire Magazine

PODs, potential wildfire operational delineations, give land managers, fire managers, partnering agencies, and at-risk communities a structured framework for developing landscape-scale wildfire response options before wildfires ignite. 

Changing the Game: Using Potential Wildfire Operational Delineation (PODs) for a Better Future with Fire 

Blog from the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

Since taking off, the PODs framework has been developed and deployed in different contexts across the United States (over 40 national forests and counting). And while PODs were initially envisioned to support incident management, managers and communities have expanded the application of this tool in a number of ways.

Read more about PODs In the News here

PODs User Community

The PODs User Community is a network to share knowledge and innovation and build capacity to implement and monitor cross-boundary pre-fire response planning in areas of high wildfire risk. Anyone interested in implementing PODs or already involved in the PODs process is invited to join. Initial online meetings of the User Community were held in Spring 2021. If you are interested in joining the PODs User Community, please send an email to sm.fs.wrms@usda.gov with the subject line ‘User Community.’ 

View the slides presented by Joel Iverson during the April 2021 User Community meeting here. Watch the The Ashland Forest Resiliencey video presented at the November 2021 User Community meeting here

Watch the case studies and leadership panel from the November 2021 PODs User Community:

PODs 101: How to Build PODs

PODs combine local firefighter and manager knowledge with advanced spatial analytics. They vary in size, are drawn irrespective of jurisdictional boundaries, and correspond to potential control points for a fire such as roads, ridgelines, drainages, previous fuel treatment boundaries, recent burns, or anything else that might give firefighters on the ground an advantage. Where PODs are preplanned, they guide managers in developing initial response strategies and tactics in a particular area in the event of ignition.

PODs in Action and Lessons Learned

 

 

Andy Mandell, district fire management officer on the Tonto National Forest who served as the Incident Commander on the 2016 Juniper Fire and the 2017 Pinal Fire, says, “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. Creating the relationship between the decision-makers and the incident commanders, having that conversation before there is smoke in the air, is critical.” He adds, “We got really good feedback on the fire, largely in part from the community. We also got much better buy-in from our firefighters that came to the fire after we had had a year to articulate and talk about the PODs strategy.”

Frequently Asked Questions

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What does the term “POD” mean?

POD is an acronym for Potential (wildland fire) Operational Delineation.

What are PODs?

  • PODs are fire management and planning units whose boundaries are defined by potential control features (e.g., roads, natural barriers), and within which fire risk to values can be quantified and summarized.
  • POD boundaries are typically a network of linked linear control features that could be leveraged for fire containment during a wildfire or prescribed fire. Typical POD boundaries are a combination of roads, rivers, major ridges, barren areas, waterbodies, major fuel changes, or other locations that facilitate control.
  • PODs are developed by local wildland fire management specialists to pre-identify a network of best-available control features, often with the aid of analytical tools that help to assess the quality and suitability of potential control locations.
  • PODs are the initial spatial basis for Strategic Wildfire Management Zones.

Why are we making PODs?

PODs represent the next generation of strategic fire planning, building on a rich history of operational pre-attack plans, Spatial Fire Planning, assessment of wildfire risk to landscape-level resources and assets, and planning for risk and benefit-informed wildfire response and management. PODs help to align strategic land management objectives with acute wildfire response needs, creating opportunities to manage fire for restoration, risk reduction, and resource benefit where and when possible while also recognizing the need for aggressive suppression and containment where and when necessary. POD networks also have applications in fuel treatment prioritization, coordination, and communication of wildfire response objectives across ownership boundaries, prescribed fire planning, and predicting seasonal windows of opportunity.

How are PODs made?

Development of PODs can be broken down into three main phases: prepare, produce, and operationalize. The prepare stage typically involves an initial point of contact (POC) with a local facilitator to determine the scale and intent of the planning effort, followed by the creation of custom analytics tuned with input from local fire managers.

In the produce phase, a series of in-person or remote workshops are scheduled by the POC to engage fire managers, resource managers, and leadership respectively. The fire managers workshops are focused on developing provisional POD boundaries that identify a network of best available fire control features across the landscape. This process relies on a blend of local expertise and analytical tools to help refine the network of available control features. POD boundaries can be drawn on paper maps and then digitized or delineated digitally and saved as a GIS polygon dataset. Wildland fire management specialists from each landscape determine POD boundaries for their local area of expertise, creating units that incident management teams might use to contain or manage fire. These specialists use informative GIS data layers to help determine where POD boundaries should be. These GIS layers could include basic datasets such as road and trail networks, recent fuel treatments, fire history, maintained utility corridors, wildland urban interface, river/lake locations, vegetation transitions, watershed boundaries, fuel information, ownership boundaries, and imagery, as well as analytical tools such as Suppression Difficulty Index (SDI), Potential Control Locations (PCL), snag hazard, or other conditions summary products. After initial delineation, POD boundaries are assessed in the field and refined before being compiled and integrated with other components of the PODs process.

In the resource managers workshops local experts generate a list of highly valued resources and assets (HVRAs) that can be mapped, and then determine the potential effects of fire exposure to each value over a range of possible conditions (Scott et al. 2013, Thompson et al. 2013). In the leadership workshop, decision makers review the products produced by fire and resource specialists and then rank HVRAs based on their management priorities (Scott et al. 2013, Thompson et al. 2013).

Lastly, the operationalize stage includes local validation of identified control features for the network of POD boundaries, generation, review, and tuning of a quantitative wildfire risk assessment (QWRA) with input from leadership and senior fire managers, and spatially summarizing the results of the QWRA by the overlaid POD boundary network to develop strategic wildfire response zones that are further refined with in-situ and source transmission risk assessment calculations that include the likelihood of fire spreading from one POD to values in surrounding PODs. Strategic response zones are then classified to assign a generalized response commensurate with wildfire risk (Thompson et al. 2016).

POD networks and response zones can then be uploaded to the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) and shared internally and externally to promote transparency and a common operating picture. As a planning tool, the map of strategic response zones (SRZs) depicts the current state of wildfire risk as well as broader management intention. Strategic response zones are pre-decisional and do not limit response options during a fire incident.

Maintaining POD networks is an iterative process driven by fire and active management outcomes as well as a series of questions such as how fire would be managed within the area, how and why responses might differ within a given area, and whether the POD size is consistent with a realistic scale of fire management operations.

What size should PODs be?

POD size is determined by the availability of high-quality control features. The distribution of sizes generally follows a pattern of small PODs closest to human populations, where built infrastructure and fuel modifications increase the density of available control features, to medium sized PODs in roaded forests and grasslands where accessibility is good and point protection strategies allow for restoration objectives under the right fire conditions, all the way up to large PODs on the order of 6th level watersheds (HUC12) in wilderness or other inaccessible locations where few landscape values are negatively affected by most fire conditions.

A good place to start is to look at the “protection frontier,” areas near wildland urban interface or fire-sensitive infrastructure, habitats, or ecosystems where fire is most likely to cause harm.  Near the WUI there are often road networks, fuel transitions, or other landscape features that could be effectively leveraged to limit fire spread or moderate fire behavior. In these sensitive areas where aggressive initial attack is likely to be prioritized, building PODs as small as operationally viable is a good strategy. Building out from these initial networks of smaller PODs, identify the best available control features that can be linked to form POD networks. Identifying locations where a POD boundary is desirable but not viable is an important step for future planning of fuels treatments. It is imperative for the operational relevance of a PODs map to limit the demarcation of POD boundaries to locations where there is high confidence in the potential for functional fire control. Once an initial PODs network is identified, future iterations can assess the potential for sub-dividing PODs to identify secondary control opportunities during moderate fire conditions or with active fuels management to enhance holding feature functionality.

Generally, PODs are approximately a third of a 6th-level watershed, but a wide range of sizes is appropriate to reflect actual management of fire operations. Do not make PODs smaller or larger than you would actually use to manage fire operations.

Should I use the wilderness boundary to make a POD boundary?

Primarily POD boundaries reflect fire management features on the landscape. Wilderness boundaries may or may not be defensible during a fire, and therefore may not be appropriate to create POD boundaries. It’s good to know where wilderness is when making POD boundaries, because POD boundaries tend to be larger in roadless, remote areas where fire if often critical for maintaining resilient ecosystems. Wilderness boundaries (along with administrative boundaries) help inform the POD creation process but are often not useful as POD boundaries.

How do PODs compare to hydrologic units (watersheds)?

Watersheds are often used as landscape summary units. PODs are also landscape summary units, but are conceptually based on dividing the landscape relative to wildland fire operational management. POD size can vary greatly depending on the presence or absence of fire management features, so while some PODs may nest within a 6th level watershed (HUC12), others will not. For example, while watersheds can be very similar to PODs in mountainous areas (presence of ridgelines, etc.), watersheds in flat areas often differ greatly from how wildland fire operations are managed.

Using PODs, rather than watersheds, allows risk to be assessed at a meaningful operational scale and also allows for risk to be categorized in more detail than a 6th level watershed allows.

How large should I make my PODs network?

The spatial extent of a PODs network is constrained by who is included in the process. PODs cross ownership boundaries; fire and resource managers representing those ownerships need to be included in the creation of PODs networks. As the development of PODs has taken on a more operational wildfire response and management role, there has been a push for PODs to be created across multi-ownership landscapes. This can be done by building from existing POD networks developed by landscape partners or by organizing an initial POD creation workshop that includes decision makers and fire managers representing each of the ownerships included in the proposed POD network area. Ideally all landscape partners are included in the initial POD creation effort, however when functional suppression opportunities extend onto ownerships not represented at a POD creation workshop, it is vital that the neighboring ownerships discuss the delineation of PODs, ensuring that the final delineated boundaries represent potential fire management operations that could be conducted by all landscape partners affected.

Who creates PODs?

Local wildland fire management specialists (such as fire/fuels planners, fire management officers, and their staffs) delineate the PODs, with the help from a GIS specialist as needed. POD networks need to be approved by landscape decision makers (line officers, leadership, etc.) to assure that their use is consistent and communicated up and down a chain of command.

How do POD boundaries compare to administrative boundaries?

Only administrative boundaries that are coincidental to fire management features should be considered as POD boundaries. The idea is to have POD boundaries that work operationally regardless who owns or manages the land. This is one reason why it is important to work with your neighbor when creating POD boundaries.

Do land managers collaborate to make PODs?

Yes. When PODs cross administrative boundaries representatives from all ownerships need to collaborate on the delineation of the POD boundaries in those areas.

How are PODs used?

PODs are used in multiple ways. During landscape-level fire planning, PODs provide a strategic framework for how fire as an ecological process integrates into land and resource management objectives. Overlaying a network of potential fire control opportunities on a map of wildfire risk allows managers to summarize risk into operational chunks and to communicate the potential benefits and hazards of fire across a landscape.

Project-level planning for risk reduction can leverage a PODs network to target treatments, either mechanical or prescribed fire, where they are most likely to be effective at reducing risk to highly valued resources and assets.

During initial wildfire response, strategic response zones comprised of PODs provide an immediate snapshot of likely benefits or hazards an ignition poses to values at risk and a summary of available response options.

In large fire management, PODs provide an easily communicated and transferrable set of objectives to assist incident teams with strategic response that aligns with land management goals and presents a series of options with a high probability of success.

What is the timeline for completing a PODs network?

The time required to complete the prepare, produce, and operationalize components of the PODs planning process varies from a few weeks to months, depending on the availability of pre-existing decision support analytics such as QWRA, time required to vet provisional POD boundaries, and availability of fire management and resource specialist experts and GIS processing resources. Workshops to identify initial landscape-level control features, HVRAs and their fire response functions, and leadership determination of relative importance typically take 3-5 days, followed by the time required to digitize POD boundaries, compile spatial data for HVRAs and develop a QWRA if not yet available for the landscape of interest. Assessing POD boundaries and providing feedback to refine the POD network can be done concurrent with QWRA processing steps. The final workshop is typically a half-day to develop risk-informed strategic response zones followed by compiling the data to share with landscape partners, WFDSS, The Risk Management Assistance dashboard, and other external sources.

Are POD boundaries flexible or permanent?

POD boundaries are not permanent. They are generally not included in land management planning documents. However, for a given fire season, PODs may be displayed in WFDSS or other wildfire planning and response systems to represent the current conditions of landscape risk and fire management opportunities.

Are POD boundaries commitments to how fire will be managed?

No. POD boundaries are not a commitment of any kind. PODs help make risk analysis outputs more meaningful, but the boundaries themselves do not dictate future actions. PODs carve the landscape into areas that are generally likely to be similar to how potential fire operations may occur in the future, but fire management is not required to use or implement PODs in any sense. It may, however, be instructional for fuels management as to what areas of the landscape are in need of better fire management features.

It is important to note that actual wildfire response requires accounting for various specific conditions such as weather, winds, and fuel moisture. PODs reflect a plausible response approach to wildfire in an area, but do not account for actions required in specific circumstances that may require deviation from a POD boundary in actual wildfire management. “PODS are a helpful estimate or generalization; they are not a hard, fast line.”

What happens if we don’t make PODs?

If PODs are not generated prior to zone creation, the zone boundaries will be less meaningful from a fire operations standpoint, risk will not be captured in a meaningful manner, and critical distinctions in risk values (such as distinctions between protection and resource opportunities) may not be identified. PODs offer significant benefits to this process.  In locations of high risk, PODs facilitate rapid assessment of suppression opportunities. In locations with potential for fire restoration or benefit, PODs provide a structed framework to weigh the risk of managing a wildland or prescribed fire for non-suppression objectives vs. preserving or elevating that risk for the next ignition.

A map on a table with sticky notes attached and markers scattered around.
PODs planning in action. Courtesy photo by Mike Caggiano.

Additional PODs Resources

Videos and Presentations

Briefs and Summaries

Contact the PODs Team

Send feedback, requests, or general questions to sm.fs.wrms@usda.gov.

Latest PODs Research

Briefs and Summaries

Planning and Decision Support

Concepts and Frameworks

Modeling and Analytics

Spatial Wildfire Response Optimization

Points of Contact

Dave Calkin, RMRS Research Forester, WRMS team lead

Kit O’Connor, RMRS Research Ecologist

Matt Thompson, RMRS Research Forester

Mike Caggiano, Colorado State University Research Associate, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute

Chris Dunn, Oregon State University Research Associate

PODs: Collaborative Fire Planning Workshop 2021

February 24 - 25, 2021, 9:00 - 12:30 MST

During this virtual workshop, presenters shared case studies and lessons learned from the field, showcased multiple scales of potential operational delineations (PODs) work that have been utilized and adapted for a range of applications, identified necessary developments in collaborative fire planning and PODs, and much more.

The workshop was hosted by RMRS’s Wildfire Risk Management Science (WRMS) team. The WRMS team co-developed PODs and other fire planning tools in collaboration with local experts. These tools have been widely adopted by national forests and other fire and land management groups. Learn about the PODs Workshop organizers here.

The workshop was designed for a variety of audiences including fuels planners, FMOs, line officers, management planners, community collaboratives, scientists, state and local fire and fuel managers, and consultants. Interested and new users were encouraged to attend.

View the full agenda here.

Workshop Recordings

The full workshop was recorded, and each session can be viewed on this playlist or at the individual video links below.

Screenshot of the PODs Workshop playlist on Vimeo

 

Welcome Session

This opening session includes welcomes from Deputy Chief for Research and Development at the USDA Forest Service Alex Friend, the Chief of the USDA Forest Service Vicki Christiansen, Washington Department of Natural Resources Forest Health Planning Manager Chuck Hersey, Director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute Tony Cheng, and Chief Fire Officer at Cornea Tom Harbour.

 

Collaborative Fire Planning and PODs

This session covers the history of PODs and asks: what is strategic fire planning? Where do we go from here? And, who is the WRMS team?

 

Reviews of Pre-Fire Planning

This session presents how practitioners are utilizing PODs and other pre-fire planning tools and what we have learned so far.

 

Case Studies from the Field & Panel Discussion

This panel discussion showcases multiple scales of work that have utilized and adapted elements of the PODs approach.

 

Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Decision Makers & Incident Commanders Roundtable

This roundtable discussion showcases how PODs guide decision-making through case studies and examples.

 

Breakout Session 1: Building PODs: Pre-Fire Planning on Your Landscape 

This breakout group includes short presentations on how to develop and build PODs and how they fit into existing fire planning efforts. Discussion will follow the presentation. It is primarily geared towards fire staff and cooperators who may be interested in developing PODs on their landscape.

 

Breakout Session 2: Project and Land Management Planning

This breakout group will include short presentations on how PODs fit into existing planning efforts, ranging from project-level vegetation and fuels management to risk assessments, landscape scale planning, and forest plan revisions. Discussion follows the presentation. It is primarily geared towards fire, fuels, and timber staff as well as agency decision-makers who want to incorporate PODs into existing planning efforts.

 

Breakout Session 3: Suppression: From Initial Response to Large Fire Management

This breakout group includes short presentations on how PODs and related products can be used to support fire management efforts. This includes: maps and decision support tools for improved situational awareness, PODs to support interagency communication, and how PODs can be used to support management transitions between local units and incident management teams. Discussion follows the presentation. It is primarily geared towards fire, fuels, and timber staff as well as agency decision makers.

 

Breakout Session 4: PODs as a Cross-Boundary Planning Tool

This breakout group includes short presentations on how PODs represent a unique opportunity for cross-boundary planning. PODs follow control lines, which like wildfires occur irrespective of jurisdictional boundaries. Discussion follows the presentation on how PODs have been used to plan across both physical and social boundaries. It is primarily geared towards agency planners and decision-makers, as well as state and local cooperators.

 

Breakout Session 5: PODs for Line Officers and Decision Makers

This breakout group includes short presentations regarding line officer engagement with PODs as they relate to incident management, stakeholder engagement, and both project and land management planning. Discussion follows the presentation. It is primarily geared towards line officers and agency administrators.

 

Breakout Session Report Out to Large Group & Group Discussion

This session includes summaries from each of the breakout group leaders and a large group discussion with participants.

PODs Cookbook

More PODs Cookbook information coming soon.