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In 2024, LANDFIRE (Landscape Fire and Resource Management Planning Tools) marks 20 years since it was officially chartered in response to increasing concern about the number, severity and size of wildland fires in the United States.

Also this year, the LANDFIRE program hits two more milestones: releasing a truly annual update and debuting a remarkably early preview of land disturbances. This year’s LANDFIRE 2023 Update continues to provide the valuable national landscape data on vegetation, wildland fuel and fire regimes it is known for.

A disturbance refers to some kind of event that has resulted in changes to natural resources or the landscape. It's a crucial piece of the LANDFIRE puzzle that can help fire and land managers model potential fire behavior. Where did wildfires or prescribed fires take place? Where was timber harvested or trees thinned? Where did an insect outbreak or weather event kill or damage trees? Where were chemical treatments applied to reduce fire fuels? 

Disturbances can change what’s on the ground almost immediately and also over time, such as one type of vegetation giving way to something different. The sooner LANDFIRE can deliver this disturbance information, the better.

Two horses standing on a hillside amid sparse low vegetation and a few trees
This fire scar represents a disturbance in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Arizona.

“Disturbance affects what vegetation looks like and how it burns,” said Inga La Puma, a U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service fire scientist and program lead with LANDFIRE. “As soon as a disturbance happens, we want to account for that because it will change our vegetation maps. Cover, height—even lifeform can change after a disturbance from trees to grasses and grow back to shrubs or saplings within a few years. All of those things not only provide different habitat, but also burn differently. So as soon as something happens on the landscape, we want to show that in the rest of our maps.”

Previous LANDFIRE updates included multiple years of disturbance information, but this year and going forward, LANDFIRE is releasing the annual information in three phases. The first, a new product called Limited Annual Disturbance, was made available at the end of January. Preliminary Annual Disturbance and Final Annual Disturbance products will follow later in the year to add more comprehensive information. 

The LANDFIRE products are generated at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center through an interagency partnership between the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service, with The Nature Conservancy as an additional partner. 

Collecting disturbance data isn’t exactly easy. For example, imagine trying to find out about the location and extent of all of the wildfires, prescribed fires and timber harvests in one year in one state, on public land and private, with no central place to search. Then imagine tackling the same task across the entire United States and its territories. How does LANDFIRE do it? Especially, in the case of Limited Annual Disturbance, in as little as three months? The team’s recipe includes a wide variety of information sources, from agencies to satellites, and machine learning that draws on the team’s expertise. 

A map that shows the United States as black with specks of color throughout and a legend on the left side
This shows LANDFIRE’s 2023 Limited Annual Disturbances across the United States through October 31, 2023, released in January 2024.

Deriving Disturbance Data

The new Limited Annual Disturbance mapping includes landscape disturbance events that were reported for the previous year through the end of October, mainly on federal lands across several central reporting systems. 

Preliminary Annual Disturbance, more similar to the traditional method of gathering LANDFIRE disturbance information, adds disturbances submitted by state and local governments to the federal records as well as land changes detected through remote sensing—specifically Harmonized Landsat Sentinel-2, which combines data from sensors on Landsat satellites 8 and 9 and Europe’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites for frequent coverage of the Earth’s surface. The LANDFIRE 2023 Update also doubles the use of satellite imagery by including four seasonal composites for the year in disturbance mapping. 

Preliminary Annual Disturbance accompanies the incremental releases of the LANDFIRE 2023 Update, which are based on geographic area and include public and private land. Among other information included in the update is a variety of fire regime, fuels and vegetation products. Releases for Alaska and the southwestern United States are set for May; the northwestern United States for July; the full conterminous United States (CONUS) for October; and Hawaii and U.S.-associated islands for November. 

A review by LANDFIRE image analysts is also part of Preliminary Annual Disturbance, La Puma said. “The image analysts go through tile by tile and double-check everything. That’s more of a rigorous look: Is this a disturbance, or is it not? That’s what we have been doing for years.” Causes of the disturbances may be known, if they are included in reports or can be concluded from additional information, or they may be unknown.

The Final Annual Disturbance adds events and fire program data reported or mapped after the Oct. 31 deadline of the previous year. This product represents the most complete information about disturbances for the prior year and is scheduled for release in October and November. 

Map of the tip of Florida in black speckled with a few spots of color, mostly shades of red
This shows LANDFIRE’s 2023 Limited Annual Disturbances for the southern tip of Florida through October 31, 2023, released in January 2024. Prescribed fires are common in Florida.

An expansion in area is also new for the LANDFIRE 2023 Update. Disturbance events will be added for a 90 kilometer buffer zone into Canada and Mexico, initially based on remote sensing detections and eventually also based on reported events from those two countries.

Some disturbances are almost predictable. Certain areas of the United States routinely hold prescribed burns, such as the tallgrass prairie Flint Hills region of Kansas and Oklahoma, along with areas in the southeastern United States, La Puma said. Timber harvesting also commonly occurs in the Southeast and the Northwest. 

On the other hand, wildfire seasons can be wildly unpredictable in terms of number, location and size. “It really depends on the year,” La Puma said.

Improvements Lead to Quicker Turnaround

A lot has changed since LANDFIRE began in the early 2000s. 

“The first LANDFIRE national product took years to get one year of data, and now we’re down to getting it done within a year,” said Josh Picotte, a USGS scientist at EROS who conducts research using LANDFIRE products. “That’s because the computer systems have changed. The modeling procedures have changed. We have better methods. We also have better satellite imagery now. Mappers have been trained and have years of experience. It’s taken a concerted effort by a lot of people to get to this point.”

One new development is a machine learning algorithm, the Spatially Adaptable Filter for Error Reduction (SAFER), that helped speed up disturbance analysis while maintaining accuracy.

A map showing the northwestern United States in black with a few specks of various color and a legend of colors to the left
This shows LANDFIRE’s 2023 Limited Annual Disturbances for the northwestern United States through October 31, 2023, released in January 2024. The northwestern United States tends to commonly experience timber removal and wildfires.

“It reduces the tediousness of the mapping process,” said LANDFIRE scientist and EROS contractor Brian Tolk, one of the coauthors of an article about the algorithm published earlier this year. “CONUS is divided and mapped by rectangular areas, or tiles.  In the past, a tile taking three or more days to map now likely takes a day and a half to two days, a significant time savings over the course of an annual mapping campaign.”

Human review remains an important step in the mapping process, but with SAFER, fewer false positives are brought to the attention of analysts. That’s because SAFER capitalizes on the previous years of human-reviewed data to train its models. 

“It has reduced time yet retained the quality and standards that LANDFIRE wants to achieve,” Tolk said. 

LANDFIRE’s Usefulness

Numerous fire management tools include LANDFIRE data, including some produced by the Forest Service such as wildfire risk assessments and products that try to help predict the probability of success with fire containments, according to Ben Gannon, a spatial fire analyst in the Forest Service Washington Office, Fire and Aviation Management.

Taking LANDFIRE 2022, released last year, and being able to add the new Limited Annual Disturbance layer early this year enables Gannon’s team to predict how the fuels components for fire behavior modeling will be affected by the disturbances. “It allows us, with a raster product like that and a rule set that we have, to essentially update the fuels CONUS-wide in a single day,” he said. 

A map with varying colors displayed across the United States and a legend of colors to the left
This shows Existing Vegetation Type for the LANDFIRE 2022 Update across the United States. The LANDFIRE 2023 Update will be released incrementally during 2024 for different geographic regions of the conterminous United States, Alaska, Hawaii and other U.S.-affiliated islands.

LANDFIRE data users should take the time to review recent updates and consider how they might impact their uses, Gannon suggested. “It’s a really exciting time to see them catch up. Many users should benefit from the faster updates and other fuel product improvements. Analysts used to working with previous LANDFIRE versions should inspect the latest data and determine if it needs the same adjustments as in the past,” he added.

That awareness extends beyond fire and land management, too, to people in the science community who study topics such as wildlife habitat. “Scientists benefit because they get a vegetation product that’s more frequent,” Picotte said. 

LANDFIRE’s diligent efforts to provide and improve on a high-quality, reliable product that spans the United States and its territories serve a need for those who lack the resources to do the same. 

“It’s a boon to a lot of people that need data but don’t have the budget to go out there and map everything themselves,” Picotte added. “It’s wall to wall coverage. There’s lots of studies that create nice vegetation maps, but they’re often limited. And LANDFIRE data are useful because they’re consistently produced.”

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