You are here


Evaluating wildfire benefits by integrating fire and ecosystem simulation models in a spatial domain.

The accumulation of canopy and surface fuels, coupled with a general warming of the climate, have contributed to an increase in the frequency, severity, and size of wildfires in the western United States. Contemporary wildfires and their control have become a contentious issue in the US because of their high cost, capability to damage property and hurt people, and potential to cause ecological harm. On the other hand, these same wildfires can also reduce fuels, restore fire to fire-adapted ecosystems, and increase ecosystem health. Unfortunately, government agencies in charge of suppressing wildfires have few tools available to evaluate whether a wildfire is causing ecological harm or providing benefits to the landscapes in which it burns. If the wildfire poses no threat to humans and is actually improving ecosystem integrity, then why not let it burn? The challenge is to develop a real-time, operational tool that fire managers could use to quickly evaluate if the wildfire is actually improving ecosystem health and landscape condition. The problem with most current tools is they tend to be somewhat subjective and too complex which makes them difficult to employ in real-time, operational wildfire efforts. Data used to evaluate values at risk, especially GIS layers, can be incomplete, incompatible, and inconsistent. This project is developing a process implemented into a software application that can be used to provide wildfire suppression teams an objective evaluation of the ability of a wildfire to improve or degrade landscape and ecosystem health. This computer program, called FLEAT (Fire and Landscape Ecology Assessment Tool), merges currently available fire behavior, fire effects, and landscape simulation models together into a platform that objectively evaluates the degree to which a wildfire is moving the landscape toward or away from a simulated range of historical conditions. This estimate is synthesized into a simple index that can provide wildfire managers valuable information to determine how aggressive to fight a wildfire and where to put fire fighting resources. While this tool does not directly assess all potential values at risk during a wildfire (e.g., power lines, water supply watersheds), it provides a generalized and simplistic index that can be used in conjunction with other analyses, such as RAVAR (Rapid Assessment of Values At Risk), to manage wildfires and wildland fire use fires.

The project has one primary objective: to create a platform that can be used for real-time wildfire management that objectively evaluates the effect of the wildfire on the landscape in which it is burning based on the historical range and variability of the landscape composition of that same landscape. The audience for this effort is managers and researchers interested in a tool for evaluating benefits of wildland fires, both wildfires and wildland fire use. This research may lead to new methods of balancing the cost of fighting wildfires with the ecological benefits that they provide.

Photo: A controlled wildfire being managed for resource benefit. FLEAT would quantify the benefit of allowing this fire to burn.

Photo: Controlled wildfire
Modified: Jul 07, 2014

Select Publications & Products

Keane, Robert E. and Karau, Eva. 2010. Evaluating wildfire benefits by integrating fire and ecosystem models. Ecological Modelling 221:1162-1172