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In late May 2022, several national media outlets published stories about a new online tool that allows any resident of the United States with Internet access to see their home’s relative risk of catastrophic wildfire over the next 30 years.

The base map for the tool? Data from LANDFIRE, an interagency partnership whose satellite-based mapping layers are built by teams at the USGS EROS Center.

The Risk Factor tool was created by a non-profit group called the First Street Foundation, which debuted its searchable database in 2020 by offering flood risk information for 145 million U.S. properties. Since then, First Street and its partners at the Spatial Informatics Group (SIG) have worked to add a fire risk database to Risk Factor, which began with a look at LANDFIRE.

“The LANDFIRE datasets were the no-brainer go-to (for this project), because of all the effort and investment—national investment—that went into them,” said David Saah of SIG. “It's clearly a cared-after product with a lot of eyes on it.”

Color map of fire risk in the United States
Fire risk map of the United States for 2022, from First Street Foundation report "Fueling the Flames." The report and the foundation's "Risk Factor" online tool were informed by data from LANDFIRE, a multi-agency federal partnership that uses USGS Landsat data to map fuels, vegetation, disturbances and more across the United States.

Over the course of several months in 2021 and early 2022, First Street and SIG were in steady contact with LANDFIRE teams as they moved through product development. The collaboration speaks to not only to LANDFIRE’s status as a trusted data source, but also to the extensive societal value of open data, open science, and public-private collaboration for improving our understanding of and response to the rapidly shifting property risks associated with a changing climate.

Cloud computing makes it possible to harness huge troves of data for projects like Risk Factor, Saah said, but integrating datasets to derive meaningful, reliable results across the conterminous United States is complex.

“You have all the data, and you have the willingness to work together, but the mechanisms of being able to put these layers together in a meaningful way … that’s become super hard to do,” Saah said. “You can’t do this on your own, so we end up teaming up with individuals who are able to pool resources and meet those needs.”

There are multiple ways to access and work with satellite-derived datasets today, many of which did not exist a decade ago. LANDFIRE datasets are downloadable at no cost to users through the program’s website, for example, but are also accessible through bulk downloads or on ArcGIS online. The Risk Factor team used both LANDFIRE products and data from Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity—itself an input for the LANDFIRE program—which is another USGS EROS-based project that uses Landsat satellite data to map all large fires in the conterminous United States (CONUS).

First Street used GEE to update LANDFIRE fuels layers to meet their project needs, with LANDFIRE’s Total Fuels Change Tool as a guide. The First Street team also folded in information on large fires from MTBS and updated its Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas across the United States, using Landsat data and LANDFIRE information on vegetation type, height, and cover.

Part of that work involved correspondence with the LANDFIRE team to prepare the data for cloud-based processing, according to Carrie Levine of First Street, and then sharing the results and lessons learned.

color image of fire risk chances for property in California
Screenshot of flood and fire risk information for a property in California, as calculated in the non-profit First Street Foundation's "Risk Factor" online tool. 

“There was an idea from the beginning that if we can get this built out in Earth Engine, that might be useful to the LANDFIRE team, too. That’s something that we can share.”

That’s one of the things that makes engagement with the user community so valuable, according to Inga La Puma, a contractor at EROS who serves as the technical lead for LANDFIRE. The program has just released LANDFIRE 2020, the second annual update in its history, and will immediately begin work on LANDFIRE 2022. Collaborating with users and learning how their processes play out on different platforms has the potential to benefit LANDFIRE production teams as they work on those updates, she said.

“We’re always talking about the possibilities, about what we can do, and trying to communicate that to our stakeholders,” La Puma said. “Being able to utilize all these, to emulate some of those processes within the LANDFIRE workflow, that’s what I want to take out of it.”

For Tim Hatten, project manager for LANDFIRE at the USGS EROS Center, the Risk Factor tool’s use of LANDFIRE datasets is further evidence of their utility. The LANDFIRE website maintains an interactive map filled with examples of data usage from nearly every State, for projects that involve fire science, wildlife habitat studies, carbon sequestration assessments, and hazard mitigation planning.

“It’s always exciting and gratifying to see how our stakeholders are incorporating and using LANDFIRE data,” Hatten said.

Click here to access LANDFIRE 2020.

Click here to access the LANDFIRE Data and Applications fact sheet.

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