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The Science of Wildfires

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Detailed Description

We talk to USGS wildland fire expert, Erik Berg, about the current California wildfires and what the USGS is doing to help, how the public can keep up to date on what's happening with wildfires, and more.




Public Domain.


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Clarice Nassif Ransom:

Welcome and thanks for listening to the USGS CoreCast, I'm Clarice Nassif Ransom. It's October 26, and we are going to talk about the science behind wildfires. I want to begin by expressing that our hearts go out to those impacted by the Southern California wildfires and to those who are helping to fight the fires. Today, we are joined by USGS Scientist Erik Berg, a wildland fire expert. Erik will help describe some of the tools available to identify wildfires and risks, show how science helps provide real-time information to those fighting the fires, and talk about will happen after the wildfires occur. Thanks for joining us Erik.

Erik Berg:

I'm glad to be here.


Can you tell us how wildfires occur and who is vulnerable nationwide?


Wildfires occur both from natural causes such as lightening and also by manmade causes, human causes, such as barbeque grills left unattended, fireworks, a whole host of things.


And who's vulnerable to them nationwide?


You know Clarice, I'll tell you, that's the thing. Really, nobody is exempt. Virtually everything that we find in our communities is in the wildland-urban interface. That's the place where both wildland fuels and residences, communities, get together. And, virtually everybody is affected by the wildland-urban interface. There's nobody exempt.


OK. How does USGS science inform the public about wildfires? Can you describe some of the tools we have available and how they work?


Well, we do lots of things to support the wildland fire community that actually does the suppression of these wildfires. Perhaps if we can organize it based on what we do prior to the fire, during the fire and then after the fire is perhaps the easiest way to frame the discussion.

First of all, before the fire, we have scientist all across the country looking at many issues such as the cover of vegetation, different species across the landscape. There are particular species, such as chaparral plants that are currently burning in Southern California that are particularly phone to fire. And, so we can tell, we can predict, where those are at on the landscape. Also we can tell drainage patterns, where we could potentially have problems with water, erosion on the landscape. We can do all this in advance. And so many of our scientists are involved in activities to do exactly that.

The next thing is during the fire incident itself. Right now, there is something like 14 or 15 major wildfires in Southern California and our assets in USGS are providing real-time information to the incident commanders and the fire community to help suppress the fires. Specifically, we have products such as GEOMAC. By the way, you can find that on our USGS website. And, GEOMAC is a real-time information product, web-based, that actually shows the location of the fires, their sizes, the fire perimeters, resources out in front of the fire, to help firefighters, others in the incident command team do their job to understand what resources are at stake. And, we have many other products. For example, we have satellite imagery, provided by the EROS Data Center, USGS EROS Data Center, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that shows where the wildfires are at, trends through time.

Finally, after the fire, again we can shine because we have scientists that contribute their time to figuring out where for example, we are going to have debris flows, what areas on the landscape that are particularly at risk. The other thing we do is that we will get, again, an estimate of where with those fires that we've just experienced, where invasive, exotic vegetation will occur. That again will show us problems we will experience in the future. Water erosion-we have many water specialists within USGS that can help with those efforts after the fire.


That sounds terrific. Is there any advice or message that you would want to give the public on wildfires, science, how we can help make science available to them to make them safer?


Probably the best advice I would suggest is keep current with information that's provided by USGS and many of our partners and certainly it's not done by our agency in a vacuum. We work closely with the U.S. Forest service, the states, private individuals, universities, NGOs, non-governmental organizations. Stay current with information. You can do that through websites. Probably one of the very best websites for current fire statistics is the National Interagency Fire Center. If you will simply put that in your search engine, look for National Interagency Fire Center, a great source of accurate, non-biased information on wildland fire.


Now, is there anything that you would like to add that I didn't ask or that you would like to share?


Only this, that we must not forget that this is not an isolated series of incidents. All too often in America we have short-term memories. Remember it was just four years ago in 2003 when we were once again in Southern California with major wildfires. These wildfires are going to keep burning quite frankly in these fuel systems that we have. In chaparral, in Southern California, these vegetation types experience frequent fires, so don't think, please, that this is an isolated series of incidents. This is going to keep happening again.

There are many programs to help homeowners, landowners, with their property to ensure that, they minimize the risk of wildland fires. I'm talking specifically with the Firewise program, the Fire Safe program, community wildfire protection programs. All these programs are available mostly through federal support and state and private support at no charge for communities to get involved. So, stay involved with your community to make sure your residence is fire safe.


Well, thanks again for joining us, Erik. We really appreciate it.

And thanks to all of you for listening to this episode of CoreCast. You can find out more information about the science behind wildfires at

CoreCast is a product of the US Geological Survey, Department of the Interior. Until next time, I'm Clarice Nassif Ransom.

Mentioned in this segment:

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Musical credit: "100 BPM-Bassline A", frifrafro

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