How we measured U.S. Forest Service wildfire prevention work

Author

George LeVines

Source(s)
NPR

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The Forest Service primarily tracks work that counts toward wildfire mitigation projects in two different datasets within its Forest Service Activity Tracking System (FACTS) database. One is the Hazardous Fuel Treatment Reduction dataset and the other is called the Timber Harvests dataset. Both are required to get a robust picture of wildfire mitigation work. 

The hazardous fuels data track a variety of landscape treatments designed to reduce the fuel (trees, plants, etc.) available to a forest fire. Examples of those activities include piling, thinning, prescribed burning, chipping, rearranging, crushing and making fuel breaks. (Technical definitions are available here.) The timber harvest data include activities that involve the commercial sale of timber including cutting the larger trees in an area and salvage logging after a fire has burned through.

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The quality and timeliness of the data entries by the Forest Service also vary widely from forest to forest and district to district. For example, in the case of the Trestle Project the agency made additions and adjustments to records of treatments throughout our nine-month investigation, even though those treatments were completed months prior. Additionally, some districts track planned treatments while others do not, and some forests use one column to calculate acreage while others use another column. 

The Forest Service aims to keep its records up to date and consistent across the entire agency, but it’s difficult, said Eldorado National Forest’s District Ranger Scot Rogers.

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To get those numbers we used several geographic information systems (GIS) transformation techniques  in a software program called QGIS, namely merging, dissolving and clipping. This combination had the effect of reducing any overlapping projects into a single layer. We then calculated the area of that layer. We found the Forest Service treated 2,137 acres of the 15,000 planned by the time the Caldor Fire burned.

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