New tool determines areas at high risk of forest fire

New tool determines areas at high risk of forest fire

18 June 2013

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USA — With California officials predicting the worst fire season in a century, finding areas at high risk of wildfire before the flames start is crucial.

That’s how a new tool to help forest managers assess regions exposed to multiple threats could save lives and resources. A May study published in the “Journal of Forestry” offers a way to identify areas where wildfire, insects and disease, and urban development threats intersect.

“Rather than looking at these individual threats, they can see where these threats combine,” the study’s lead author Jeff Kline said. “It matters where these threats overlap.”

Much of this assessment work already happens at the management level in the basin, according to U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit spokeswoman Cheva Heck. The Lake Tahoe Basin is a perfect example of a region where multiple threats intersect since much of the national forest is wildland-urban interface, the zone between development and unoccupied land, she said.

The LTBMU finalized its multi-jurisdictional fuel strategy in 2007, a 10-year road map focused on fuels reduction and forest health. Agencies from around the lake collaborated to create the strategic plan that focuses on areas with a high density of trees and fuel loading. The fire modeling is similar to what appeared in the “Journal of Forestry” study, Heck said.

“The U.S. Forest Service as an agency is committed to good science and research, and when people see us cutting down green trees, it’s about forest health not just fuels reduction,” Heck said.

If a forested area is at high risk of both wildfire and insects or disease, that could increase the region’s volatility and would highlight the area for further study or management. Devising ways to address these threats depends on determining where they occur individually and in combination, according to the recent study.

“We assumed that areas with relatively more concentrated threat may be of more policy interest than other areas,” the study read. “Our maps suggest three conclusions: that the combination of wildfire with insects and disease could affect extensive portions of the forest landscape in the northwestern United States; that the combination of wildfire with urban and ex-urban development appears to intersect over a smaller area; and that a combined triple threat in the study region … is fairly uncommon.”

The study analyzed the northwestern U.S., but Kline said the findings can be repeated across the country. Forest managers would need to develop their own threat threshold and then crunch the numbers with a GIS analyst.

“I think anyone can do this in a large area or a small area if they have the data available,” co-author Becky Kerns said.

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