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Mayors, city councilors and county commissioners have a lot on their minds.

Questions of policing, budgeting, or public health gobble up time and attention week after week, leaving little room for assessing risk of potential dangers like wildfire – especially for the part-time leaders who make up the bulk of the nation’s local officials.

Screenshot of Wildfire Risk to Communities Tool
Screenshot for the landing page of Wildfire Risk to Communities, a USDA Forest Service tool that represents the first nationwide wildfire risk assessment for the U.S. 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.

There’s plenty of data out there on fire risk, and plenty of risk. A third of U.S. homes are in what’s known as the wildland urban interface – the  space where forests and homes intermingle. But wildfire risk models tend to be steeped in the kind of jargon that simplifies communication for fire scientists but lives outside the lexicon of the average elected official.

That’s just one of several reasons the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service created a tool called “Wildfire Risk to Communities.” The new website boils down fire risk for every community in the United States and presents it through a simple online map interface designed with the general public in mind.

“I think most communities with a significant wildfire risk are aware of that, but the impetus to take action is competing with everything else,” said Frank Fay of the Forest Service. “It’s a virus, or it’s your police force, or it’s zoning … there’s just a lot of things to do.”

It’s the first time that wildfire risk has been mapped on a national scale. The tool’s models zeroed in on homes using U.S. Census data, then added weather data from the National Weather Service, topography from the USGS, fire history information from the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, MT, and a base map of vegetation and fuels from LANDFIRE, an interagency partnership whose datasets are built by remote sensing scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center near Sioux Falls, SD. 

The tool isn’t meant to replace local or regional risk assessments, Fay said. It’s nationally consistent, but not fine-tuned at the community level, for example. It also assumes that all homes have the same risk, as it doesn’t factor in risk mitigation steps homeowners or communities may have already taken.

It does, however, allow communities to take stock of their risk and see what can be done to address it. It also lets communities gauge their risk against others in a way that wasn’t possible before, offering links to helpful programs or grants that can be used to address and reduce wildfire risk.

Color photo of Frank Fay of the USDA Forest Service
Frank Fay of the USDA Forest Service. Fay is the business lead for the multiagency LANDFIRE program.

“I like to think it’s a good place to jump off, but don’t assume that it’s going to solve the community’s problems,” said Fay, who also serves as the business lead for the LANDFIRE program. “I don’t 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 that’s a valid comparison.”

Dearth of Data Makes Assessment Difficult in Some Communities

Many communities have never taken stock of their risk in that manner, according to Kelly Pohl, the policy director for a non-profit group called Headwaters Economics. Many don’t have data on their own risk, let alone their region’s risk.

“A lot of the communities we work with have no data available,” said Pohl, whose group was a partner in the creation of Wildfire Risk to Communities.

Headwaters helps communities around the country address fire risk through a partnership with the Forest Service known as Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire. The group also specializes in the creation of easy-access online tools like the Economic Profile System, which lets communities create and download socioeconomic reports and comparisons to inform land management decisions.

“The Forest Service brought us in to this project because of those two things,” Pohl said. “We have this ability to make really engaging, interactive web pages that provide customized data and make pretty complex data accessible, and because we have this experience working with communities on the ground on wildfire reduction.”

The comparison piece of the new online tool is critical to its success, Pohl said, as all wildfire risk is relative. A community surrounded by fire-fueling vegetation that experiences frequent drought is at a higher risk than one circled by prairie grass and blessed with higher seasonal rains. But how does one high-risk community compare with another? What might a lower-risk version of a high-risk community have done to improve its odds in the event of a wildfire? Where would the higher-risk community start if it sought to reduce its risk?

Those are the kinds of questions the national tool is designed to both spark in communities, and to help a community begin to answer.

screenshot of Wildfire Risk to Communities map of Custer County, SD
Screenshot of wildfire risk for Custer County, SD from Wildfire Risk to Communities. The graph on the left shows Custer County's base risk for wildfire in comparison to other counties in South Dakota.

“They’re able to see what policy actions can be taken,” Pohl said. “It’s not just go see how at-risk you are. It’s also ‘what can I do about it?’”

Community feedback gathered through a pilot project in Washington state suggested that those were the answers mayors and county commissioners were looking for. It also helped Headwaters and another project partner called Pyrologix of Missoula, MT refine the tool to make it more accessible and useful.

“One of the bits of feedback we got was that some of the underlying data and terminology used in general in the wildfire world is jargony and technical,” Pohl said. “There are a lot of components that play into wildfire risk, and the modeling behind it is very complex. So they were eager to find ways to simplify the information and also to be able to drill down and understand what’s behind the risk.”

LANDFIRE Provides Reliable, Consistent Input for Fire Fuels

A key component of that risk calculation, of course, came from LANDFIRE. It was, Fay said, the only reliable vegetation and fuel source dataset that made sense for nationwide fire risk modeling.   

“There are no other data sources that have the scope, scale, and detail needed to run this simulation, Fay said. “I don't think we talked about any options besides LANDFIRE, because we already knew that the LANDFIRE data would work.”

LANDFIRE program manager Tim Hatten, based at EROS, said the tool shows how the day-to-day work that goes into building the project’s 20 geospatial data layers translates into actionable information for the world at large.

“This is just one example of LANDFIRE data being used downstream to help communities respond to conditions on the ground,” Hatten said.

The LANDFIRE data is in the process of updating its base maps this year, as well, as is data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That means it’s possible that the risk tool could be updated in the future with new information – if funding is available.

One metric for whether the tool proves its value, Fay said, will be how much traffic the website receives and how often the data is downloaded and used.

“We’re measuring people who visit the website, and we're going to be able to tell what sort of searches they perform,” Fay said. “So I'd like to see that there's been widespread use across the country. I’d like to hear back from a few communities who say, 'Yeah, this got us off the dime, and we’ve taken some steps.'”

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