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Assessing wildfire risk to communities and to natural and cultural resources

Date: August 21, 2015

New risk assessment methods help fire managers and communities


Climate change, increasing human development into fire-prone areas, and the accumulation of fuels from historical management practices, among other factors, have led to increasing complexity, difficulty, and costs of wildfire management within the United States. It is therefore crucial that areas of high wildfire risk and options for mitigating that risk be identified and evaluated. Rocky Mountain Research Station scientists affiliated with the National Fire Decision Support Center, in cooperation with the Agency's Western and Eastern Threat Centers, are developing novel methods to assess wildfire risk to communities, watersheds, wildlife habitat, and natural and cultural resources.

Key components of risk assessment are exposure analysis and effects analysis. This framework systematically portrays how fire likelihood and intensity influence risk to social, economic and ecological resources.
Key components of risk assessment are exposure analysis and effects analysis. This framework systematically portrays how fire likelihood and intensity influence risk to social, economic and ecological resources.
Outputs from wildfire simulation models are paired with maps of highly valued resources, and where appropriate, with response functions that characterize fire effects. This approach is based on the Environmental Protection Agency's Ecological Risk Assessment framework, which incorporates resource exposure as well as the effects of that exposure. The risk assessment framework considers both beneficial and detrimental fire effects, and can be used to monitor trends in wildfire risk over time and space. Furthermore, the framework prioritizes investments in prevention planning, fuels management, landscape restoration, and suppression response. A key strength of the framework is scalability, meaning the same techniques and methods can be applied from local to national planning scales.

These new wildfire risk assessment methods form the scientific basis for the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, an effort of federal, tribal, state, and local governments and non-governmental organizations to collaboratively address the growing wildfire challenges. Researchers participate on analytical teams focused on furthering the science of wildfire risk analysis within the Cohesive Strategy and within other federal programs, such as the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. The assessment framework is helping to plan fuel treatments on the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon, and assess landscapes on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Lewis and Clark National Forests in Montana. Lastly, results are being distributed through peer-reviewed literature to engage and seek feedback from the broader scientific community. These findings will lead to modifications of existing decision support systems and ultimately to improved management of wildfire risk.

Featured Publications

Scott, Joe H. ; Thompson, Matthew P. ; Calkin, Dave E. , 2013
Malcolm, Karl ; Thompson, Matthew P. ; Calkin, Dave E. ; Finney, Mark A. ; Ager, Alan , 2012
Calkin, David E. ; Ager, Alan ; Thompson, Matthew P. ; Finney, Mark A. ; Lee, Danny C. ; Quigley, Thomas M. ; McHugh, Charles W. ; Riley, Karin ; Gilbertson-Day, Julie M. , 2011
Calkin, Dave E. ; Finney, Mark A. ; Ager, Alan A. ; Thompson, Matthew P. ; Gebert, Krista M. , 2011


Forest Service Partners: 
National Fire Decision Support Center
Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center
Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center