Large wildfires are inherently more complex; often affecting multiple jurisdictions and requiring a balance of strategic long-term planning and nimble tactical solutions to meet dynamic conditions on the ground. With this increase in complexity comes increased uncertainty. The default action in the face of uncertainty has often been aggressive fire suppression to minimize any perceived possibility of harm. In many forests of the Western US, a half century or more of aggressive wildfire suppression has facilitated the development of even-aged forests over large areas, with heavy fuel accumulations and significant changes to forest structure and species. These changes in turn reduce the resilience of forests to natural disturbances such as fire, drought, insect outbreaks, and disease; often resulting in large-scale die off events and larger and more destructive wildfires. Managing natural ignitions for risk reduction and ecological restoration where possible has potential to break out of the suppression-driven wildfire cycle. Knowing where and under what conditions fire is likely to be beneficial requires an understanding of the tradeoffs between potential hazards and benefits of fire in a complex network of human and naturally shaped landscapes.
Translating this information into action requires engaging landscape managers, fire staff, and resource specialists to identify not only where opportunities exist but how to act on them. Combining information about the risks and benefits of fire to the human and natural landscape, with pre-identified potential fire control locations that can be leveraged to engage fire, allows landscape managers to plan broad fire response strategies in advance of fire ignition. Having such a plan in place reduces uncertainty at the time of ignition while maintaining the full flexibility of available response alternatives to meet dynamic conditions on the ground.
The Wildfire Risk Management Team is working with managers to develop and demonstrate tools that integrate fire-risk science into the full range of fire management activities from local to national scales. Through the use of quantitative spatial wildfire risk assessments, managers are able to map out and quantify the potential risks and benefits of fire to the things they care about. This information can be leveraged to integrate natural and prescribed fire into land management planning, allow for the prioritization of hazardous fuel reduction actions, and help to designate areas for managed fire or protection objectives during wildfire response.
The framework has been demonstrated as a critical component to revisions of land and resource management plans in high fire activity forests, with increasing interest across all western forests. Improved linkages between landscape fire potential and land management objectives has potential to dramatically improve the efficiency and effectiveness of fire management activities while promoting sustainable land and fire management direction.
Spatial wildfire risk assessment products have been developed at the regional scale for all national Forest Lands in Arizona, New Mexico, Washington, and Oregon, with efforts underway to develop forest-scale products in all of Region 3, and several forests in Region 1 (ID, MT, and ND), Region 4 (UT, NV, ID), Region 2 (CO, WY), and Region 5 (CA). These products are currently being integrated into forest planning and wildfire response decision support.
The Team began working with risk-based spatial fire planning in 10 Southern Sierra Nevada Forests in Region 5 in 2015 and the Tonto National Forest in Region 3 in 2016. In 2018 ten additional forests in Region 3 have signed on to develop plans, and several forests throughout the West have expressed interest in the process as time and resources allow. The Team is working with the USFS RD&A and Fire Modelling Institute to increase capacity for developing spatial fire plans for large fire management.
Components of this work are informing a range of strategic investments from hazardous fuels reduction and creation of fuel breaks near sensitive resource values to, to engaging landscape partners to plan for managed fire to restore ecological resilience, watershed quality, and reduce risk to nearby communities. On the San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests in Colorado, the team spurred a series of projects to integrate the spatial risk assessment into WFDSS. Facilitating the use of risk science in management decisions before and during wildfire events. This framework is being shared with surrounding ownerships to move toward an “all hands, all lands” approach to wildfire management. Additionally, this work includes the first pilot study of changes in wildfire risk across time, using the prototype LANDFIRE time series dataset, created specifically for the study landscape.
The Tonto National Forest was the first to leverage the atlas of potential control locations (PCLs), a statistical model of fire perimeter formation based on conditions associated with past wildfires. The model was developed by the wildfire risk management team scientists and calibrated to the Tonto with the help of local fire staff. Through a series of workshops held on the Forest, PCLs were summarized into a network of Potential wildfire Operational Delineations (PODs). The POD network was then used to summarize wildfire risk into operationally relevant strategic wildfire response zones. The map below shows POD boundaries and their accompanying strategic response zones defined by risk-based fire management objectives. The inset below the strategic response zone map shows examples of three large fires from 2017, each managed to meet the objectives defined by their respective zone.