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October 15, 2020

Visit our USGS Wildland Fire Science webpage to learn how USGS science is making a difference.

Landsat 8 imagery shows the growth of the LNU Complex Fire in California during 2020 fire season.

It has been a harrowing equation out West over the past few months:

Abundant fuel + hot temperatures + winds = large, fast-moving wildfires.

At one point San Francisco was bathed in an eerie orange glow that evoked comparisons to post-apocalyptic times. The Beachie Creek Fire in Oregon spread massively over a single night, from 500 acres to over 159,000 acres due to a windstorm with wind gusts as high as 50 miles per hour. People living in Portland, Oregon, were immersed in dense smoke with record poor air quality that on some days was listed as the worst air quality on Earth.

In 2020, wildfire activity in California and the Pacific Northwest has been extreme, with more than 45,700 wildfires raging across 8.3 million acres (as of October 15, 2020). This puts the 2020 Fire Year on pace for being the most extensive of the last decade, even outpacing the fires of 2017 and 2018.

What does this all mean? Fires are a new year-round reality across much of the U.S. We know it’s not a question of “if” more fires will burn, but rather what we can do to be better prepared to manage them – including understanding the factors that influence where, when, and how fires burn, and what the consequences of fires are for humans and ecosystems. Science can provide these answers and, in the process, can also save lives, property and money.

A Hotter, Drier United States

“People accidentally or intentionally starting fires, warmer temperatures, dry and wet spells, and accumulation of fuels are some factors that have led to longer wildfire seasons, increases in the number of large and long-duration fires, and more severe effects from the wildfires,” said Paul Steblein, USGS fire science coordinator. “Such conditions – along with the wildfires that accompany them – are likely to increase in the future.”

Yet Steblein is optimistic about our ability to better manage wildfires of the future, in part because of the large cadre of federal, university and other fire researchers committed to science that not only supports the immediate needs of managers during a wildfire, but also will help managers determine the very best ways to manage lands to lessen wildfire risks.

Fire science underlies all the training and tools used by firefighters today. Fire science is also critical for understanding the complex and changing situations encountered by communities and land managers, finding ways to address the rising wildfire risk to save lives, property, our wildlands and money.

Keauhou fire in Hawai'i Volcanoes Naonal Park in 2018
Keauhou fire in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park in 2018 (National Park Service).

USGS Science on Fire

“Because USGS is positioned at the crossroads of academia and the federal emergency response agencies, we are able to quickly bring cutting-edge fire science to help firefighters, land-use and crisis managers and others address real-world fire scenarios,” said Steblein.

And, Steblein emphasizes, wildland fires are an important ecosystem process on our planet. For example, many coniferous forests have a natural frequent fire regime of low-intensity fires, which played an important role in reducing hazardous fuels and in rejuvenating the forests. Similarly, in the chaparral shrublands of California, high-intensity crown fires have helped guide the evolution of plant life and ecological communities.

In contrast, in many desert habitats, fires occur far less frequently and often are a more severe disturbance. Today, the natural role of fire in these ecosystems is complicated by the fact that fire often favors non-native and invasive plants, which, in turn, can lead to more frequent and more intense fires to the detriment of native desert plants.

Detailed USGS studies on fire patterns and histories on the Department of the Interior lands and forests are foundational to restoring fire cycles that will safeguard human lives and property and benefit the richness of land types across the country. Likewise, Steblein said, USGS’s ability to provide timely and accurate data and maps helps managers mitigate the effects of wildfire.

“Not only do we have experienced fire scientists at USGS,” said Steblein, “but we also have other researchers who bring their expertise to bear on complex issues surrounding wildfires, such as impaired water and air quality, debris-flow risks and how to manage and lessen the risk of wildfires in urban and wildland areas.”

Visit our new USGS Wildland Fire Science webpage and read about the projects below to learn how USGS fire science is making a difference:

screenshot of Wildfire Risk to Communities map of Custer County, SD
Screenshot of wildfire risk for Custer County, SD from Wildfire Risk to Communities, a U.S. Forest Service tool that represents the first nationwide wildfire risk assessment for the United States. The tool leans heavily on data from LANDFIRE, a multiagency fuels mapping partnership whose data is produced by the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science Center.

LANDFIRE! USGS Data Provides Insight into Vegetation, Terrain, Hydrology and More

Management agencies and elected officials need sound information about the effects of large wildfires to make effective policy and make management decisions. The national LANDFIRE data set, a product co-produced by USGS, Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service does just that. One specific real-time tool of LANDFIRE, the Wildfire Decision Support System, is used by incident-management teams on the front lines of fighting wildfires in the field. LANDFIRE is also used by fire managers before fires to help discern where the highest wildland fire risks are and to take steps to reduce risks in those potential hot spots. The data are also used to reduce risk to areas of specific concern, like areas with giant sequoias, endangered species and even cultural artifacts.

Monitoring Burn Severity Trends Helps Forecast Erosion, Debris-Flows and Flooding in Areas Burned by Wildfire

Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity (MTBS) is an interagency program that maps the burn severity and extent of large fires, 1,000 acres or more in the West and 500 acres in the East, across all lands of the United States from 1984 to present. These data have already saved lives by enabling USGS scientists to use them in computer models that forecast potentially catastrophic flooding, debris-flows or mudslides in urban and suburban areas following wildfires.

MTBS data are freely available to many users including policy-makers and others focused on implementing and monitoring national fire management strategies; field management units such as national forests, parks and other federal and tribal lands that benefit from GIS-ready maps and data; other federal land-cover mapping programs such as LANDFIRE, which uses burn severity data in their own efforts; and academic and agency research entities.

MTBS data are generated by leveraging other national programs such as the Landsat satellite program, jointly developed and managed by the USGS and NASA. One of the greatest strengths of the program is the consistency of the data products going back to 1984, which would be impossible without the historic Landsat archive, the largest in the world. Download the MTBS Overview paper here.

mud around house and car upside down
The aftermath of the January 9, 2018 debris flows in Montecito, California.

Wildfires Threaten Future Water Supplies in the West

Across the West, wildfires are expected to increase in frequency, size and severity. Not only is fire a threat to life and property, but it can also reduce the quality of water supplies by increasing the amount of sediment entering streams – turning clear mountain waters brown. These impacts can persist for years and require costly restoration.

In 2017, researchers modeled how increased wildfire activity might impact future water supplies in the West. These projections demonstrated the first assessment of fire-induced soil erosion for the West – and found that wildfires could double soil erosion in a quarter of western watersheds by 2050. Learn more about the study.

Invasive Plants, Changing Wildfire Patterns, and Human Land Use: Three Challenges for the Greater Sage-Grouse

The Greater Sage-grouse is a small bird found only in the sagebrush steppe of the Great Basin. Evolving wildfire patterns is just one of many concerns, including invasions of non-native grasses, grazing from livestock, and human land uses are changing this unique ecosystem.

USGS research is helping managers in the Great Basin understand the best ways to deal with the effects of more frequent and often larger wildfires on animals like the at-risk greater sage-grouse, a species dependent on sagebrush habitat for food, cover and breeding. By analyzing 30 years of data, USGS modeled how sage-grouse populations are responding to changes in wildfire, rainfall and soil temperature in this region. This research demonstrated that if left unchecked, wildfires could cause significant habitat decline and a loss of nearly half of current sage-grouse populations in the next three decades.

USGS research provides federal and state management agencies with the science needed to improve the effectiveness of rangeland fire suppression and conservation actions to benefit sage-grouse and other wildlife. For more about this project visit the USGS project site.

Permafrost: Wildfires Could Accelerate Degradation of Alaska’s Permafrost

In interior Alaska, permafrost is insulated and protected from thaw by a layer of organic soil. In addition to changes in climate, a wildfire can alter permafrost conditions by burning the protective soil layer. Given that wildfire frequency and severity are predicted to increase in Alaska, researchers examined the sensitivity of permafrost to wildfire. Focusing on the region’s black spruce forests, researchers found that combined with warming temperatures, fire could significantly accelerate the degradation of Alaska’s permafrost – particularly in upland forests, which have a thinner soil layer. Read more about it here.

Thawing permafrost on various peatlands in Alaska.
Thawing permafrost on various peatlands in Alaska. Permafrost thaw results in ground subsidence and inundation that kills black spruce and other understory plants living on the permafrost plateau. The black spruce forests found on permafrost plateaus are replaced with sedge- and moss-dominated bogs and fens, altering the ecosystem structure and function.

Linking Atmospheric Rivers to Wildfire Patterns in the Southwest

In 2017-2018, parts of drought-stricken California were besieged by heavy flooding, mudslides, and feet of snow. The cause? A meteorological phenomenon known as an atmospheric river, in which high concentrations of moisture are carried in narrow bands, often from the tropics, up to western North America.

While we know these events can produce heavy precipitation along the West Coast, researchers wanted to see if atmospheric rivers influence wildfire patterns. Results show that atmospheric rivers can increase the area burned by fires in the year following an event, particularly in the aridest parts of the Southwest. This is because the extra precipitation spurs vegetation growth, providing fuel for fires once it dries out. Learn more at the Climate Adaptation Science Centers project website.

Do Fires Help Protect Forests from Drought?  

Even ancient humans used fire as a tool for food and landscape alteration, but did you know USGS scientists are using it to protect forests from drought? USGS ecologist Phil van Mantgem tests whether “prescribed fire” can reduce competition for resources like water, nutrients and sunlight among trees in the Sierra Nevada. His studies could help management agencies like the National Park Service make western forests more resilient and resistant to the harmful effects of longer, more severe droughts in the future. Visit the USGS website to learn more.

Fires Becoming Increasingly Frequent at High Elevations in Sierra Nevada

The effects of fire in high-elevation forests can be particularly severe. Fires are historically rare in higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada, meaning vegetation may not be adapted to frequent fire activity. Researchers found that the upper elevation extent of fires in California’s Sierra Nevada has been increasing over the past 100 years. Researchers hypothesize that this could be due to changes in fire management, temperature, available fuels or ignition frequencies – or a combination of these factors. Whatever the cause, more frequent fires in these subalpine forests could affect their structure, composition, and function. Read more about the study or similar research here.

Wildfire Risk for California Communities

Every year, wildfires across California can cause severe property and ecological damage, with 2017, 2018, and 2020 being very damaging. USGS ecologist Jon Keeley and partners study the ecological factors, such as invasive grasses, that increase the risk of wildfire damage to homes, people, roads and other infrastructure. Their work and other USGS fire research supports science-based decisions to keep people and property safer during California’s fire season. Check out this Living with Fire video and visit the USGS project website for more information.

Frosted flatwoods salamander
Frosted flatwoods salamander, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Florida (Katie O'Donnell, USGS).

Legendary Lizard-Like Creatures that Can Live in Fire?

Ancient legends tell of mythical fire-dwelling lizards appearing from flames when a fire was lit. The creatures, thought to be immune to fire, were named salamanders, which (no joke) meant "legendary lizard-like creatures that can live in fire." Now we know salamanders are not mythical beings (though they are amazingly awesome), but instead live in the logs used in fires, causing them to scurry away once the logs were lit. But as USGS scientists can tell you, salamanders and fire still go hand-in-hand: many species, including the frosted flatwoods salamander, rely on fire-dependent ecosystems.

In St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), USGS scientists work closely with fire managers to help them make the most effective recovery actions of the federally protected frosted flatwoods salamander. During breeding season, females lay eggs on the outskirts of dry wetland basins, but for this to happen, the ground must be clear of plant detritus, like fallen leaves, branches, bark and stems. Prescribed burns are a critical tool in the recovery plan for the salamander; such fires help clear out accumulated plant litter and other vegetation to provide the best habitat conditions for breeding salamanders. For more information, please visit the USGS project website.

USGS Fire Resources

The goal of USGS wildfire research is to better understand the causes, consequences, and benefits of wildfire, as well as help reduce the likelihood of larger, catastrophic events. Because the USGS is a diverse and multidisciplinary research agency, we are well equipped to address a variety of problems posed by wildland fires. Fire and land managers use our research to respond to fire-related issues when they arise. For a bit more information on USGS capabilities, here are a few additional resources:

Wildfire in Montana with elk in the foreground.
A raging wildfire in Montana (John McColgan, U.S. Forest Service).

Wildfire Partnerships

Beyond land and fire managers, the USGS works with other partners to provide information on wildfires at the wildland-urban interface to help people understand what makes homes and communities vulnerable and what they can do to reduce the risk of wildfires. From the swamps to the prairies to the wildland-urban interface, the USGS provides critical information to understand and address the challenges of wildland fire.

Some of our key partners in keeping communities safe include the National Weather Service; Federal Emergency Management Agency; Natural Resources Conservation Service; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; U.S. Forest Service; Bureau of Land Management; National Park Service; California Geological Survey; Cal FIRE; Washington State Geological Survey; Oregon Department of Geology and Minerals Industries; University of Nevada, Reno; North Carolina Geological Survey; and Colorado Geological Survey, among others.

Fire management at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Nebraska.
Fire management at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Nebraska (Northern Great Plains Fire Management Office, National Park Service).

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