Integrated Wildland Fire Science

Science Center Objects

The size and number of large wildland fires in the western United States have grown dramatically over the past decade, with a contingent rise in damages and suppression costs. This trend will likely continue with further growth of the wildland urban interface (WUI) into fire prone ecosystems, hazardous fuel conditions from decades of fire suppression, and a potentially increasing effect from prolonged drought and climate change. While the direct effects from catastrophic wildfire are often evident, less obvious are the indirect effects and subtle changes in ecosystem services and the characteristics of these coupled socio-ecological systems.

The Integrated Wildland Fire Science project is a multi-disciplinary effort addressing wildland fire and the human and biophysical factors that affect, and are affected by fire.

 

The size and number of large wildland fires in the western United States have grown dramatically over the past decade, with a contingent rise in damages and suppression costs. This trend will likely continue with further growth of the wildland urban interface (WUI) into fire prone ecosystems, hazardous fuel conditions from decades of fire suppression, and a potentially increasing effect from prolonged drought and climate change. While the direct effects from catastrophic wildfire are often evident, less obvious are the indirect effects and subtle changes in ecosystem services and the characteristics of these coupled socio-ecological systems.

The Integrated Wildland Fire Science project is a multi-disciplinary effort addressing wildland fire and the human and biophysical factors that affect, and are affected by fire.

This project’s research activities are broad in scope and scale, and utilize geospatial analysis and remote sensing, create decision support applications, new algorithms and methods, and address climate and land use change topics that integrate physical, ecological, and social factors. Key themes include climate change, ecosystem services, risk and vulnerability, and the coupled nature of socio-ecological systems.

Projects tasks are largely collaborative, and involve colleagues from other USGS science centers, the Forest Service, and academia. This project supports the USGS science strategy by addressing topics important to the Ecosystems, Natural Hazards, and Climate and Land Use Change mission areas. Specifically, by assessing how changes in climate and land use influence the effects of wildland fire on ecosystem services and societal hazards. USGS funding is leveraged by grants from the Joint Fire Science Program and the Northwest Climate Science Center, among other sources.

Climate change, future wildfires, and watershed vulnerability

Jason Kreitler, Joel Sankey, Todd Hawbaker, Nicole Vaillant, and Scott Lowe

A current project funded by the Northwest Climate Science Center, entitled “Changes to watershed vulnerability under future climates, fire regimes, and population pressures” is trying to understand where, when, and how climate change may affect watershed-based ecosystem services. Researchers are investigating how climate change and wildfire will likely affect watersheds, and therefore water quality and supply, under current conditions and future climates in the western U.S. Projected changes in temperature and wildland fire will likely affect water supply through decreased water quality and increased sedimentation. For the same future periods, the team will project changes to water demand due to land use change and population growth.

The Western population is projected to grow by 310 million people by 2100, and will likely increase demand for diminishing water supplies. Because changes from climate and population pressures cannot easily be altered, knowing which watersheds are currently vulnerable, or are projected to be vulnerable in the future, will enable proactive management of water and fuels to most effectively reduce the potential impact by wildfire.

Graphics and maps overviewing the wildfire model ensemble synthesis
Figure 1. Overview of model ensemble synthesis approach: Simulations of wildfire ignitions (A) and fire perimeters (B,C) completed using climate projections from several general circulation models (GCMs) for the A1B, A2, and B1 emission scenarios were combined with watershed sediment yield estimates for the first year post-fire from 3 different GIS-based erosion models (D, E, F, G) to forecast future post-fire sediment yield for watersheds of the western USA through 2050 at the hydrological unit 8 (HUC8) scale.(Credit: Jason Kreitler, USGS. Public domain.)

For more information see recent press releases (1,2,3) or the project website (https://www.nwclimatescience.org/projects/watershed-vulnerability-under-future-climates-fire-regimes-and-population-pressures)

Recent press:

  1. NPR - http://knau.org/post/flagstaff-study-wildfire-may-double-erosion-quarter-western-watersheds#stream/0
  2. AAAS - http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-11/gsoa-wmd110315.php
  3. ScienceDaily - http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151103151112.htm

 

Vulnerability and ecosystem services in wildfire risk assessments and fuel treatment planning

Jason Kreitler, Nicole Vaillant, and Nathan Wood

Fuel treatments are often considered the primary pre-fire mechanism to reduce the exposure of human life and values at risk to wildland fire, and a growing suite of fire models and tools are employed to prioritize where treatments could mitigate wildland fire damages. Assessments using the likelihood and consequence of fire are critical because funds are insufficient to reduce risk on all lands needing treatment, therefore prioritization is required to maximize the effectiveness of fuel treatment budgets.

To include ecosystem services in fuel treatment planning, we model biomass as a proxy for the climate regulating ecosystem service of carbon storage, and sediment retention as a contributing factor to water quality, in a case study on the Deschutes National Forest of Central Oregon. Our objective is to maximize the averted loss of ecosystem service benefits subject to a fuel treatment budget. We model expected fuel treatment costs across the study landscape using a modified version of the My Fuel Treatment Planner software, using stand-level tree list data, local mill prices, and GIS-measured site characteristics. Using this dataset, we introduce cost-effectiveness as a measure for the spatial prioritization of fuel treatments using the Land Treatment Designer program. We test four prioritization algorithms and measure the effectiveness of each algorithm in ecosystem service terms by comparing the differences between treatment and no treatment scenarios. We use fire simulations to generate burn probabilities, and estimate fire intensity as conditional flame length at each pixel. Two algorithms prioritize treatments based on cost-effectiveness and show small to substantial gains over those using only benefits. A larger effect of incorporating cost-effectiveness is the ability to treat up to 25% more area for the same budget. Variations in the heterogeneity of costs and benefits create opportunities for fuel treatments to maximize their expected averted loss of values. By targeting these opportunities we demonstrate how our cost-effective framework can improve the outcome of fuel treatment planning.

Map of expected biomass loss from fire
Figure 2. Expected biomass loss (A) and sediment retention loss (B) given burn probability (C) and expected conditional flame length (D) if a fire were to occur, for use in the fuel treatment planning for ecosystem service case study.(Credit: Jason Kreitler, USGS. Public domain.)
Maps of modeled fuel treatment costs
Figure 3. Modeled fuel treatment costs (A) and the priority of two different algorithms for ranking fuel treatments: the use of benefits and expected loss data (B) and the use of benefits, expected losses, and costs (C)
(Credit: Jason Kreitler, USGS. Public domain.)

 

Pre and post-fire LiDAR analysis of burn severity in the Pole Creek wildfire

Jason Kreitler and Nicole Vaillant

This project addresses several questions using a unique remote sensing opportunity to analyze prefire and postfire LiDAR data. The Pole Creek fire burned 27,000 acres through various forest types in October 2012 in Deschutes National Forest near Sisters, Oregon. LiDAR data were collected prior to the wildfire, offering a unique opportunity to investigate fire disturbance impacts and processes with high resolution data. Research efforts include comparison of LiDAR and Landsat-derived burn severity, biomass and carbon accounting, fine-scale risk assessments, and fuel treatment effectiveness using multitemporal LiDAR data, Landsat 8 burn severity (dNBR and CBI), and change-analysis techniques. Field crews from the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Idaho gathered data on the fire to quantify the fuel load, understory vegetation, and tree characteristics. This research is quantifying how prefire forest condition affected burn severity, and how various remote sensing techniques can be used to explain fire patterns and improve modeling of wildland fire and forest ecology.