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Connecting dryland fine-fuel assessments to wildfire exposure and natural resource values at risk

June 26, 2023


Wildland fire in arid and semi-arid (dryland) regions can intensify when climatic, biophysical, and land-use factors increase fuel load and continuity. To inform wildland fire management under these conditions, we developed high-resolution (10-m) estimates of fine fuel across the Altar Valley in southern Arizona, USA, which spans dryland, grass-dominated ecosystems that are administered by multiple land managers and owners. We coupled field measurements at the end of the 2021 growing season with Sentinel-2 satellite imagery and vegetation indices acquired during and after the growing season to develop predictions of fine fuel across the entire valley. We then assessed how climate, soil, vegetation, and land-use factors influenced the amount and distribution of fine fuels. We connected fine fuels to fire management points, past ignition history, and socio-economic vulnerability to evaluate wildfire exposure and assessed how fuel related to habitat of the endangered masked bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus ridgwayi).


The high amount of fine fuel (400–3600 kg/ha; mean = 1392 kg/ha) predicted by our remote sensing model (R2 = 0.63) for 2021 compared to previous years in the valley was stimulated by near-record high growing season precipitation that was 177% of the 1990–2020 mean. Fine fuel increased across the valley if it was contained within the wildlife refuge boundary and had lower temperature and vapor pressure deficit, higher soil organic content, and abundant annual plants and an invasive perennial grass (R2 = 0.24). The index of potential exposure to wildfire showed a clustering of high exposure centered around roads and low-density housing development distant from fire management points and extending into the upper elevations flanking the valley. Within the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, fine fuel increased with habitat suitability for the masked bobwhite quail within and adjacent to core habitat areas, representing a natural resource value at risk, accompanied with higher overall mean fine fuel (1672 kg/ha) in relation to 2015 (1347 kg/ha) and 2020 (1363 kg/ha) means.


By connecting high-resolution estimates of fine fuel to climatic, biophysical and land-use factors, wildfire exposure, and a natural resource value at risk, we provide a pro-active and adaptive framework for fire risk management within highly variable and rapidly changing dryland landscapes.

Publication Year 2023
Title Connecting dryland fine-fuel assessments to wildfire exposure and natural resource values at risk
DOI 10.1186/s42408-023-00196-1
Authors Adam Gerhard Wells, Seth M. Munson, Miguel L. Villarreal, Steven E. Sesnie, Katherine M. Laushman
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Fire Ecology
Index ID 70246249
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center