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Wildfire Risk and Fuels Management

Large, severe, wildland fires are major threats to property, lives, and ecosystem integrity. These wildfires increase the likelihood of adverse impacts at both local and landscape level, including flooding, erosion, reduced water quality, loss of key wildlife habitat, and other ecological and economic values. Human activities at the local, landscape, and global level are believed to contribute to the increased size, severity, and frequency of wildfires. Our efforts to suppress wildfire over the last century have altered fire regimes, so that our landscapes are in ‘disturbance deficit.’ Specific factors contributing to exceptional wildfires are believed to be the result of: 1) years of fire suppression that led to fuels buildup; 2) forest management practices that altered natural disturbance regimes; 3) extensive expansion of communities and homes into the wildland urban interface (WUI), increasing the complexity of both pre-fire forest management, and management during fires; 4) increasing use of the wildlands and the likelihood of fire initiation; 5) invasive plants that displace the native plant community that differ in flammability; 6) outbreaks of native species (e.g., bark beetle) altering fuels; and 7) altered climate regimes with longer fire seasons, and hotter droughts. Wildfire can also be a ‘change agent,’ facilitating shifts in vegetation types to those more adapted to current environmental conditions. A clear understanding of the interaction among these factors and their relative local to landscape significance is needed to craft strategies to lessen the impact of severe wildfires. WWETAC supports studies, syntheses, assessments, model development, and predictive tools that clarify relationships between wildfire, other disturbance agents, management practices, and landuse at the local to landscape level.

Wildfire risk assessments are comprised of thousands of simulated wildfire behavior to predict the likelihood and intensity of fire on a given landscape. The assessments quantify the potential impact on high value resources: urban interfaces, old growth forests, recreation sites, high quality water sources, wood products, carbon storage, and habitat for rare and endangered species. Several approaches for future research and development in wildfire risk analysis have been proposed: develop integrated decision environments (e.g., fuel reduction, ignitions, and suppression activities); address temporal dynamics of fuels, ignitions, vegetation and fuels succession; improve resource valuation; build empirical knowledge; and validate and communicate uncertainty levels. Conducted at several scales, assessments can be used to prioritize fuel management and wildfire preparedness activities of communities.

WWETAC scientists developed ArcFuels, a quantitative wildfire risk assessment tool built to streamline fuel management planning. The application uses a toolbar in ArcMap which interfaces stand- to landscape-level forest growth simulations (eg FVS) and a fire behavior model (eg FlamMap) to aid fuel treatment planning, wildfire behavior modeling, and wildfire risk assessments. The Threat and Resource Mapper (TRM) provides vetted maps of high value resources that can be overlain with environment threats, such as wildfire risk.

Links to highlighted studies (next update June 2018):

Research perscribed burns in Sycan Marsh inform fire research.
Evaluating the tradeoffs between ecosystem services and fire risk.
Using LiDAR and LANDSAT to assess burn severity.