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Rick Stratton of the USDA Forest Service remembers life before LANDFIRE.

A fire would ignite, setting Stratton and his fellow fire analysts to work gathering data on slope, elevation, weather conditions and vegetation types in hopes of modeling where the fire might go and how large it might get.

Image of LANDFIRE remap
Graphic showing LF Remap GeoAreas.

If the fire was contained within a National Park or other well-studied area, the vegetation data were easier to come by. If it moved outside well-mapped boundaries, however, Stratton and his colleagues spent days cobbling together disparate sources of information on vegetation and fuels to do the job—time that fire crews didn’t have to spare.

LANDFIRE’s first release in 2005 put an end to those desperate days. It offered consistent data on vegetation and fuels from one end of the country to the other for the first time, and quickly became indispensable.

Results came faster, models improved, treatments grew more useful.

“And every year, LANDFIRE improves,” Stratton said. “It’s one of the greatest success stories in our realm that I’ve ever been a part of. It’s like milk, gas, or electricity for us—it’s essential to what we do.”

This week, the multi-agency partnership released the most significant upgrade in its 15-year history—the most comprehensive land cover dataset the partners have ever produced. The LANDFIRE Remap for the conterminous U.S. (CONUS) includes new national base maps across the product suite, as well as a promise of improved accuracy and ease of use for what has become one of the most widely-cited data sources in the Nation, both in and outside of the fire science community.

USGS Landsat satellite data, light detection and ranging (lidar) data and over 1 million ground control plots were used to create base maps that reflect 2016 conditions.

The time had come for an update, according to Henry Bastian, the LANDFIRE Business Lead for the Department of the Interior. LANDFIRE products are refreshed periodically to reflect changes on the landscape consistently across all data layers, but each version had been built atop the original base maps from c2001.

“It’s kind of like your wedding picture,” Bastian said. “When you first get married, you get that picture taken. That’s what LANDFIRE National did. Now it’s 15, 16, 17 years later and you need to take a new picture, because there are probably some kids that have been added and a few other things that have changed. LANDFIRE was at the point in time where we needed to take that new picture. Now, that new picture can start to show us what has changed and what’s important.”

New Techniques, New Data Lead to Significant Improvement

Taking that new picture of the Nation was anything but simple.

LANDFIRE’s base maps are built out into a dizzying array of data points across every 30-meter plot of land in the United States. LANDFIRE characterizes 9 billion 30-meter pixels in total—pixels packed with information on vegetation type and height, fuel sources and density, fire regimes, historical and annual disturbances and more.

Color map showing LANDFIRE Reference Dataset
LANDFIRE Reference Database plot locations. 

“We’ve got six GeoAreas in just the conterminous United States,” said Tim Hatten, the LANDFIRE Project Manager at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center. “In each of those areas, we have between 200 to 250 distinct ecological vegetation types. If you go across the country, cumulatively, you get into that 800 to 850 range. That’s a big job. It’s far more detailed than some of the other land cover products you’ll see out there.”

For the Remap project, the EROS team leaned on every advantage it could to erase previous errors and tease out new details. The first national LANDFIRE map used a limited number of Landsat images from c2001, for example, but Remap was built in the age of free and open Landsat data. The team also had access to high-performance computing resources at EROS to process all that data this time around, and a set of sophisticated algorithms developed by program scientists over the years to find the clearest pixels.

The wealth of ground control data further refined the product’s accuracy for hard-to-classify shrub and rangeland areas, and lidar data added the kind of three-dimensional view of tree canopy that space-based imagery could not.

“It’s basically like we had 15 years of experience (with LANDFIRE) and a lot of lessons learned,” said Jeff Hess, a contractor and LANDFIRE team leader at EROS. “Here, we were able to ask ‘If you could do it all again, how would you do it differently?’ That’s what we were given the opportunity to do.”

The resulting base maps have fewer seamlines—the inexplicable changes from one vegetation type to the other that bedeviled early LANDFIRE products—and there are new details and refinements woven into each product. Vegetation height products have a finer resolution, there are more vegetation types mapped, and time since disturbance products fold in fires from 2001-2016 to create “capable fuels” layers—capable of representing fuels for effective years, like 2019 or 2020, without additional steps by users.

Remap and its improvements have rolled out in stages, with the first GeoArea released in mid-2019. The improvements have been met with enthusiasm thus far, Bastian said.

“People are saying that this really does a much better job of mapping the location and distribution of vegetation types across the landscape,” he said. “From a wildfire standpoint, we can now ask ‘How do these Remap refinements improve our analyses of fire behavior, rates of spread, and flame lengths?’ Over on the wildlife and natural resource community side, people comments are, ‘Oh, yeah, this indeed does a better job of showing where those key habitat types are. Now where do we need to focus our efforts on a particular species and how to manage it?’”

Benefits of Remap Widespread

On the U.S. Forest Service side, Stratton said, the Remap will be used to complete a fire risk assessment for the Northeast region. LANDFIRE has already served as the basis of the recently-released Wildfire Risk to Communities tool, as well as for other regional risk assessments that look at a wider range of potential wildfire impacts.

The release of Remap comes with the promise of more reliable risk assessments, Stratton said.

“For that Northeast Region, they’ve decided that they are going to use the Remap data to give them the most accurate look at risk for those states,” he said.

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 (EROS) Center.

The value of Remap, like that of LANDFIRE products in general, extends well beyond the fire science community. Randy Swaty is an ecologist on the LANDFIRE team with its non-profit partner, The Nature Conservancy. More than 1,200 peer-reviewed studies have cited LANDFIRE over the past decade, Swaty said.

The data have been used to inform forest thinning projects, habitat maps for threatened or endangered species, and to model for the impact of invasive species or post-fire erosion. One research team even used LANDFIRE data to model the climate impacts of a nuclear arms conflict.

The scope of its use speaks to its position as a consistent, reliable, nationwide data source, Swaty said—the only nationwide source for much of the information—and helps explain why the DOI named LANDFIRE its “Environmental Dream Team” in 2017.

“The public will probably never hear of LANDFIRE in media, but many of the land management decisions that they are aware of are powered by it behind the scenes,” Swaty said.

He’s been impressed by the quality of the Remap products and is excited about the additional details he sees as useful for land managers seeking guidance. Canopy height, for example, now breaks down height in one-meter increments, where previous products only offered a range—five to 10 meters, 10 to 20 meters, and so on. The Remap product also offers additional Existing Vegetation Type (EVT) information, mapping to both the Ecological System level and National Vegetation Classification (NVC) System level.

The wealth of available data and improved accuracy across the product suite will help users fine-tune their analyses, Swaty said, and extend the value of LANDFIRE products even further for years to come.

“The level of detail is really incredible,” he said. “It gives the user a lot more power and a lot more information.”

LANDFIRE Remap is compete for CONUS, but there is more work to be done. Remap data will be released for Alaska, Hawaii, and U.S. Insular Areas through 2021.

Click here to dig into the details of the LANDFIRE Remap.

Click here to access the LANDFIRE Viewer

Click here for an interactive map of LANDFIRE-informed research projects

Click here to subscribe to the LANDFIRE Postcard.




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