Eyes on Earth Episode 24 - Wildfire Risk to Communities

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Detailed Description

The U.S. has plenty of data on wildfire risk. There are local and regional risk assessments, complex datasets like LANDFIRE and tracking tools like the EROS Fire Danger Monitor, as well as a host of resources and research projects devoted to the subject. But much of that information is steeped in the language of fire science and difficult to comprehend for those outside it. In this episode of Eyes on Earth, we hear from Frank Fay of the USDA Forest Service, who describes a new website that represents the first national tool on wildfire risk designed with communities and the general public in mind. The tool was built with data from the LANDFIRE program and numerous other sources, and offers a window into fire risk for every community in the U.S.
 

Details

Episode Number: 24

Date Taken:

Length: 00:10:53

Location Taken: Sioux Falls, SD, US

Credits

Guest: Frank Fay, USDA Forest Service
Host: John Hult (Contractor for USGS)
 

Transcript

JOHN HULT
Hello, everyone. Welcome to this episode of Eyes on Earth. We are a podcast that focuses on our ever-changing planet and on the people here and around the world who use remote sensing to monitor and study the well-being of Earth. I'm your host John Hult. Today, we're talking wildfires. Specifically, the risk wildfires pose to communities in the United States. Around 73,000 wildfires burn average of 7 million acres of private, state, and federal land every year in the U.S. EROS uses data from Landsat satellites and a variety of other sources to make maps of vegetation and fuels through an interagency partnership called LANDFIRE. That information helps land managers, firefighters, and scientists understand and respond to those fires. Recently, LANDFIRE data was used to help build a new Forest Service tool called Wildfire Risk to Communities. The tool has interactive maps, charts, and resources to help communities understand, explore and reduce wildfire risk. So today, we're talking with Frank Fay, who works for the U.S. Forest Service and serves as the business lead for the LANDFIRE program. Frank, welcome to Eyes on Earth. 
FRANK FAY:
Thanks, John.
HULT:
Alright, so today we're talking Wildfire Risk to Communities. It's this new tool. What was the impetus for the creation of this tool. There was an act of Congress, obviously, but what's the back story there? 
FAY:
Yeah. We were directed, the forest service was directed, to create this in the 2018 appropriations act. Congress wanted the Forest Service to work with partners to provide more information and resources communities that might be threatened by wildfire. The target audience was local community leaders like mayors, or city councilors, fire marshals, people like that. So we built a website that we thought they could use, people with a limited amount of time and some experience, but not a depth of knowledge. HULT:
Right, so it's meant to be user friendly, and kind of more general public friendly. 
FAY:
That's right. 
HULT:
Okay. So the website, it also says that this tool, itís the first time the wildfire risk has been mapped nationwide, and it almost seems hard to believe, given that it's 2020. What makes this tool so unique compared with the other wildfire risk tools that are out there right now?
FAY:
Risk is a consideration of likelihood, intensity, exposure, and susceptibility. To my knowledge, this is the first time that wildfire risk has been mapped in all 50 states. We're using nationally consistent data. Thereís lots of other states and regions have completed quantitative wildfire risk assessments. Most of our Forest Service regions have completed regional assessments. Some of those Forest Service assessments only look at National Forest system lands, and some look at all lands. There's another tool thatís quite popular called the Wildfire Hazard Potential. It looks at likelihood and intensity for the lower 48 states. It doesn't the valued assets like homes and infrastructure. Itís not really a risk assessment. There are three parts to the website. The first one helps you understand the components of risk and how those are calculated. The second part is the explorer, where you can interact with the maps and see risk at different scales, different areas. And the third part is to reduce your risk or mitigate your risk. And there we provide links to organizations or federal programs that can help you learn more about how to do actions in your community, or sometimes even access resources like grants help you do those things.
HULT:
Right, so it's kind of a it's kind of a wealth of information if you're going to use it as a starting point. It gives you a lot of direction from the jump. 
FAY: 
Yeah, I think so. I like to think itís a good place to jump off, but donít assume that itís going to solve the communityís problems. We're not replacing the places that already have a wildfire risk assessment. But I think Wildfire Risk to Communities can provide a floor for communities, and a starting point for further analysis. 
HULT:
I'm glad that you brought that up, because it says on the website, some of the language in the frequently asked questions says, this is a tool that might be most valuable for comparison - one community versus another community. You're not supposed to use this to be the be-all, end-all tool for your community, but it's a way to sort of measure, nationally, with a consistent dataset. Is that right? 
FAY:
Yeah, thatís right. I donít think this tool is appropriate to zoom in to your house, or even to your neighborhood. To compare one community within a state to another community, or to communities in different states? I think thatís a valid comparison. One of the other corners we had to cut, if you will, was that we had to assume that the susceptibility of every home is the same, and we know that's not the case. Some homes do a really good job of cleaning up around their space, the home ignition zone. Some homes have better materials that they're built with and so have lower susceptibility to wildfire.
HULT:
So if you're looking at the tool and it says you should do these three things to protect your house, and you look around you say we've done that, or our community has done that, good for you. And if you haven't done that, it's kind of a jumping-off point. 
FAY:
Yeah, I think so. It's a good place to start a conversation with others in your community. 
HULT:
Let's talk about LANDFIRE. Can you briefly describe what LANDFIRE is, and then talk a little bit about the role LANDFIRE data played in the creation of this tool.
FAY:
LANDFIRE is a program that map's vegetation and fuels. It is almost 20 years old now, from the first time somebody thought this was possible. LANDFIRE uses a combination of satellite imagery from Landsat, field plots, and biospatial information like radiance, and elevation, and aspect, and rainfall, and growing days. And we use these data sets to combine them with algorithms to predict what the vegetation is going to be like in places where we don't have plots. The LANDFIRE data provides vegetation and fuel conditions that we use to predict fire behavior, through a model. We used a model called the large fire simulator that was developed by the fire lab in Missoula, Montana. That model combines topography, which is a USGS product, fuels from the LANDFIRE project, weather from the National Weather Service, and then fire history that's gathered at the interagency fire Center in Boise. Those four things are combined to create a simulation based on probabilities of a single fire year. And that fire probability is repeated over and over, tens of thousands of times. The resulting product is a map that shows the likelihood that a fire will occur and the intensity.
HULT:
So LANDFIRE was a very important part of the mix of data sources for this product. Was it always part of the discussion?
FAY:
LANDFIRE is really the only option. There are no other data sources that have the scope, scale, and detail needed to run this simulation. I don't think we talked about any options for vegetation and fuels besides LANDFIRE, because we already knew that the LANDFIRE data would work.
HULT:
Now it's my understanding that was a trial roll out here. It was just released to the public here in April, but was there a trial run with this?
FAY:
We did a pilot effort in the state of Washington to see what was feasible. We did one last winter and completed the pilot in June of í19, and distributed the results in the summer of í19. We selected Washington for the pilot because they had recently completed a statewide analysis, and that allowed us to spot check our results and see how some of these techniques of played out and whether they gave meaningful results. We have some good feedback from reviewers about the pilot, and we were able to incorporate those ideas into the national product.
HULT:†
It's my understanding that this is not the end of this of this tool. This is not a one-time snapshot deal. Can you talk a little bit about the updates that might be coming, and what the timeline might, excuse me, and what the timeline might be on those?
FAY:
Sure, John. There are some additional things that we wanted to do that came out of the pilot. Thereís some additional data and functionality that we'd like to add to the website, and we think we can roll that out in  this summer. Maybe August. We havenít got a date.  But we also get a lot of questions about can we update this with the new base data. That data for the continental United States is going to be completed this summer, and then Alaska Hawaii will be released the spring of next year. You may have noticed the Census is gathering data right now. That should all be available in 2021. So, you know, we definitely could do an update, but it's going to depend on how much interest we get, the Congressional support and do we have available funding to make this happen.
HULT:
Right. But ultimately, all the†data that goes into this, from the weather data to the Census Data to the LANDFIRE data, is being updated, and you could potentially move this forward as those projects move forward as new information becomes available. 
FAY:
Yes, we could. Itís a bit labor intensive, so weíll have to have the money to support those actions, but yeah, we could.
HULT:
Let me ask you this, Frank. This was, this off-the-cuff question here. What do you see as a measure of success for this? I mean, a year from now, what kind of feedback would you have heard to say ìYes, this was a good thing. I'm glad we did this.î What are you hoping to hear? What are your metrics there? 
FAY:
Iím hoping Ö well, weíre measuring people who visit the website, and we're going to be able to tell what sort of searches they perform. So I'd like to see that there's been widespread use across the country. Iíd like to hear from back from a few communities who say ìyeah, this got us off the dime, and weíve taken some steps.
HULT:
From your position, do you find that communities are often caught flat-footed here? Or is it kind of a patchwork? I am trying to imagine Ö if you're the mayor of a town or if you're a land manager, there are so many things that are running through your mind. How close to the forefront is wildfire? And does this bring it closer?
FAY: 
Yeah, um, years ago I was on a county commission, er, a town council. I was president of the town council for a small community in Oregon. And there are a lot of things on their plate, and they don't have a lot of time to think about all the issues. And so yeah, sometimes this does slip off the plate. Most communities with a significant wildfire risk I think are aware of that, but the impetus to take action Ö it's too busy with everything else: itís a virus, itís your police force, or itís zoning. Thereís just a lot of things to do. 

HULT:
This has been a fascinating discussion, Frank. Thank you so much for joining us.
FAY:
Thank you, John. Iím glad you asked. 
HULT:
We hope you join us next time for the next episode of Eyes on Earth. This podcast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of Interior.