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USGS Fire Science is fundamental to understanding the causes, consequences, and benefits of wildfire and helps prevent and manage larger, catastrophic events. USGS scientists and programs provide information and develop tools that are widely used by stakeholders to make decisions before, during, and after wildfires across the nation.

USGS scientists possess diverse technical capabilities that are used to address a wide variety of problems posed by wildland fires. Outcomes of USGS science are used by fire and land managers to respond to fire-related issues when they arise and promote sound land management decisions.

Wildland fire (including wildfires and prescribed fires) can be used by land managers to restore historical forests, preserve old growth, increase plant diversity, reduce hazardous fuels and future wildfire risk, and manage natural resources for the benefit of agriculture, ranching, forestry, and wildlife management. However, unplanned wildfires are expensive to manage and can have massive impacts on human communities, causing economic disruption and the loss of homes, livelihoods, and lives. Over the past two decades, a rapid escalation of extreme wildfire behavior has been observed, accompanied by significant increases in risk to responders and citizens, home and property losses, costs, and threats to communities and landscapes.

When fires occur, the USGS and its partners produce extensive data sets and tools necessary to detect fires and monitor fire progress, model fire and smoke behavior, determine health and safety implications from smoke, ash, structures, and soil, and develop new applications with emerging technology such as satellites. USGS science is also used to assess post-fire risks of water contamination and landslide hazards, and to relate fire severity to changes in land cover and ecosystems.  

Landsat 8
Landsat 8. (Public domain.)

To assist in these situations, the USGS can turn to data from their Landsat series of satellites, with over 40 years of multispectral remote imaging information for the earth. Among other uses, Landsat data are critical resources that permit detection of fires around the world and document burn severity and the extent of their impact of fires. These remote sensing platforms can be used to measure fuels on the surface (plants, logs, and litter on the ground) and in the canopy (leaves, stems, and trunks of trees and vines) before and after fires.

It’s not just homes and businesses burned in wildfires. There are many other social, economic, and environmental effects. According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), about 4.7 million acres burned in 2019 in 50,477 wildfires while 8.8 million acres burned in 2018 in 58,083 wildfires.  It costs an average of \$5 billion a year to respond to wildfires, and the net economic impact is about \$72 billion a year. 

A recent example is the well-known “Camp Fire” in Northern California during the month of November in 2018.. The wildfire was the deadliest and most destructive in that area to date, killing 88 people, destroying more than 18,500 structures, and costing an estimated \$15 billion. In all, 2018’s wildfire season burned 8.8 million acres, far surpassing the 10-year average burn area of 6.8 million acres per year. The total cost of the wildfire season was a staggering \$24 billion, primarily from the destruction of homes and infrastructure, along with firefighting costs. The 2018 wildfire season overtook 2017 as the most expensive, and the two years together caused an unprecedented $40 billion worth of damage.

Besides the use of pre, during and post wildfire satellite imagery for disaster preparation, migration, response and recovery, there are demonstrated cost effectiveness of such information. One such instance is the use of Landsat data in the Forest Service’s Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) program. The BAER program identifies imminent post-wildfire threats to human life and safety, property, and critical natural or cultural resources and can yield cost savings of up to $35 million over a five-year period.

For more information about the USGS support of and participation in wildfire science, go to this interactive Story Map:

Landsat images of the Camp Fire - Nov 2018
In 2018, the Camp Fire became the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. Landsat 8 captured an image of the fire hours after it started, and intense northeasterly winds and dry fuels caused the fire to spread rapidly. The Camp Fire burned over 100,000 acres in just two days. More than 6,500 homes were destroyed, most of them in Paradise, a city of 27,000 people.  (Public domain.)

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