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Real-time identification of wildfire responder hazards and operational engagement opportunities

August, 2015

SDI model of the 2017 Jolly Mountain Fire, Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest.  Figure Courtesy of C.D. O’Connor
SDI model of the 2017 Jolly Mountain Fire, Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest. Figure Courtesy of C.D. O’Connor
The increasing complexity of the wildfire management environment has also created challenges for managing the exposure of wildfire responders to operational hazards.  Firefighting is an inherently high-risk occupation and the fire environment is fraught with hazards that consistently cause injuries and fatalities each year.  While some number of these hazards can be mitigated with improved safety equipment, communications, and safety protocols once responders are deployed.  It is up to the fire command staff to determine, where and under what conditions the risk/benefit trade off of deploying boots on the ground makes sense.


Scientists with the WRMS team have been working with wildland fire responders, decision makers, and international collaborators to develop spatial mapping tools that incorporate some of the hazards encountered by wildfire responders.

Suppression Difficulty Index (SDI) maps the potential for extreme fire behavior (flame lengths and potential energy), tempered by responder access, ease of movement, and fireline construction potential.  The tool was developed from observed wildfire response actions in Spain and adapted for use in the Western US. Over the summer of 2018 RMRS scientists worked with the original developers to refine SDI calculations to better reflect the fire response environment and allow rapid application in fire decision support globally. 


SDI has been used in real-time fire response decision support on 47 fires in the Western US over the 2017-2018 fire seasons.  Following the 2018 SDI refinements, a west-wide SDI layer is being released as a risk-planning tool for potential responder exposure under typical peak fire season conditions.  The West-wide SDI product is available here.  For questions and background information contact Dr. Kit O’Connor.

Snag hazard:

Forest conditions following a disturbance pose their own unique set of challenges for fire responders.  Snag hazard is recognized as one of the leading causes of injury and fatalities for fire responders, yet the availability of reliable data on snag densities and conditions is poor at best.  In addition to overhead hazards, post-fire vegetation growth poses hazards of its own, especially when flammable shrubs replace closed canopy forest for years to decades.  Researchers with the Team are addressing both of these concerns through paired snag and understory growth models that track the spatial, temporal, and vertical dimensions of snag and shrub hazards following fire and other disturbances.

Team scientists are working with Forest Service and Oregon State University collaborators to calibrate models of snag formation and decay and post-fire shrub growth on a series of fires in the Cascade Mountains region of Oregon.  The snag hazard model is an extension of earlier snag dynamics modeling work at Oregon State University and shrub growth models use the new rangeland vegetation simulator (RVS) modeling framework.


Dunn, Christopher J. ; O'Connor, Christopher D. ; Reilly, Matthew J. ; Calkin, Dave E. ; Thompson, Matthew P. , 2019

Project Contact: 

Principal Investigators:
Christopher J. Dunn - Oregon State University