United States Geological Survey (USGS)
It was a catastrophic, often heartbreaking equation at work in northern California these last few months: dryness or drought + vegetation + hotter temperatures + wind = wildfire.
Wine country residents had little warning when wildfires ignited early October, late on a Sunday night, rapidly spreading with wind gusts as high as 50 miles per hour. A 5-year drought left the region parched. And last winter’s heavy rains, though a welcome relief, kick-started abundant vegetation growth, which then dried out over the hot, dry summer and early fall.
The fire’s toll is tragic and devastating: more than 40 people confirmed dead and thousands of homes and business destroyed over the 100,000 acres burned. We know it’s not a question of “if” it will burn, but rather what can we do to better be prepared. Science helps answer this question, and in the process can also saves lives, property and money.
With one month left in 2017, the nation has been ravaged by more than 50,000 wildfires that have burned more than 8.9 million acres, the third-highest number of large wildfire acres in the last 10 years.
“Human caused ignitions, warmer temperatures, dry and wet spells, and accumulation of fuels are some of the factors contributing to longer wildfire seasons, increases in the number of large and long-duration fires, and more severe effects from the wildfires,” said Paul Steblein, USGS fire science coordinator. “Such conditions – along with the wildfires that accompany them – are likely to increase in the future.”
Yet Steblein is optimistic about our ability to better manage wildfires of the future, in part because of the large cadre of federal, university and other fire researchers committed to science that not only supports the immediate needs of managers during a wildfire, but also will help managers determine the very best ways to manage lands to lessen wildfire risks.
Fire science underlies all the training and tools used by firefighters today. Fire science is also critical to understand the complex and changing situations encountered by communities and land managers, finding ways to address the rising wildfire risk to save lives, property, our wildlands and money.
“Because USGS is positioned at the crossroads of academia and the federal emergency response agencies, we are able to quickly bring cutting-edge fire science to help firefighters, land-use and crisis managers, and others address real-world fire scenarios,” said Steblein.
And, Steblein emphasizes, wildland fires are an important ecosystem process on our planet. For example, many coniferous forests have a natural frequent fire regime of low-intensity fires, which played an important role in reducing hazardous fuels and in rejuvenating the forests. Similarly, in the chaparral shrublands of California, high-intensity crown fires have helped guide the evolution of plant life and ecological communities. In contrast, in many desert habitats, fires occur far less frequently, and often are a more severe disturbance. Today, the natural role of fire in these ecosystems is complicated by the fact that fire often favors non-native and invasive plants, which, in turn, can lead to more frequent and more intense fires to the detriment of native desert plants.
Detailed USGS studies on fire patterns and histories on Department of the Interior lands and forests are foundational to restoring fire cycles that will safeguard human lives and property and benefit the richness of land types across the country. Likewise, Steblein said, USGS’s ability to provide timely and accurate data and maps helps managers mitigate the effects of wildfire.
“Not only do we have experienced fire scientists at USGS,” said Steblein, “but we also have other researchers who bring their expertise to bear on complex issues surrounding wildfires, such as impaired water and air quality, debris-flow risks and how to manage and lessen the risk of wildfires in urban and wildland areas.”
Visit our new USGS fire webpage and read about the projects below to learn how USGS fire science is making a difference:
Management agencies and elected officials need sound information about the effects of large wildfires to make effective policy and make management decisions. The national LANDFIRE data set, a product co-produced by USGS, Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service, does just that. One specific real-time tool of LANDFIRE, the Wildfire Decision Support System, is used by incident-management teams on the front lines of fighting wildfires in the field. LANDFIRE is also used by fire managers before fires to help discern where the highest wildland fire risks are and to take steps to reduce risks in those potential hot spots. The data are also used to reduce risk to areas of specific concern, like areas with giant sequoias, endangered species and even cultural artifacts.
Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity (MTBS) is an interagency program that maps the burn severity and extent of large fires, 1000 acres or more in the West and 500 acres in the East, across all lands of the United States from 1984 to present. This data has already saved lives by enabling USGS scientists to use it in computer models that forecast potentially catastrophic flooding, debris-flows or mudslides in urban and suburban areas following wildfires.
MTBS data are freely available to many users including policy-makers and others focused on implementing and monitoring national fire management strategies; field management units such as national forests, parks and other federal and tribal lands that benefit from GIS-ready maps and data; other federal land-cover mapping programs such as LANDFIRE, which uses burn severity data in their own efforts; and academic and agency research entities.
MTBS data are generated by leveraging other national programs such as the Landsat satellite program, jointly developed and managed by the USGS and NASA. One of the greatest strengths of the program is the consistency of the data products going back to 1984, which would be impossible without the historic Landsat archive, the largest in the world. Download the MTBS Overview paper here.
In fire emergencies such as the devastating and tragic wildfires in California and elsewhere, accurate, timely information is critical. Such information is available on GeoMAC Wildland Fire Support a site managed by USGS and multiple federal and state partners, that allows citizens, emergency managers, and fire responders to access online maps to track where fires are burning and their perimeters. Visit and use GeoMAC, but people near fires should rely on information from local emergency managers for evacuation or other instructions.
Data are updated daily from incident intelligence sources, GPS data, and infrared imagery from fixed-wing and satellite platforms. GeoMAC users can manipulate map information displays, zoom in and out to show fire information at various scales and detail, including downloading desired perimeter data. Users can display current information on individual fires such as its name, current acreage, the amount of area a fire has grown, and the direction the fire is moving. USGS operates GeoMAC in partnership with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, and state agencies. Read more about GeoMAC.
Across the West, wildfires are expected to increase in frequency, size and severity. Not only is fire a threat to life and property, but it can also reduce the quality of water supplies by increasing the amount of sediment entering streams – turning clear mountain waters brown. These impacts can persist for years and require costly restoration.
To determine how future water supplies in the West could be impacted by fire, researchers with the Department of the Interior Northwest Climate Science Center (managed by USGS) modeled future wildfire activity though 2050. Researchers used these projections to produce the first assessment of fire-induced soil erosion for the West – and found that wildfires could double soil erosion in a quarter of western watersheds by 2050. Learn more at the CSC website.
U.S. Geological Survey scientists and partners are taking technology to the next level at Tall Timbers Research Station in North Florida where they are using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, to acquire both fire intensity and emissions data during prescribed burns. This effort combines expertise from multiple USGS partners that could reduce the harmful effects of smoke impacts from use of prescribed burns. Lessening the risk to property and lives during wildfires is a primary purpose of prescribed fires. Yet continued growth of residences and public buildings into forested areas has increased the wildland-urban interface and the consequent risks for property and health from uncontrolled wildfires.
This cutting-edge collaboration, includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Canadian Forest Service and the University of Dayton Research Institute with support from the University of Florida Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Program.
U.S. federal agencies spent $13 billion from 2006 to 2014 on fighting wildfires. Yet far more than the money spent are the lives lost: 26 percent of firefighter deaths are due to flying over to observe and control wildfire burns. Studies from the USGS and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln show that using drones could help reduce the extreme danger for our nation’s firefighters, and also save Americans money. Drones are relatively easy to use and the training needed to fly them not only saves lives and money, but also helps prevent wildfire spread by being able to know exactly where the fire is. After NASA approved the prototype, the FAA gave permission for testing.
The same team also designed a drone prototype that drops ping-pong sized balls injected with a special chemical mix, which ignites a fire as a way to more effectively control burning or prescribe fire management. This kind of management action starts fires to manage or restore landscapes and to protect land from invasive species or an overabundance of fuels. Because these drones can eliminate the need for people to manually set controlled fires, they reduce the human risk, as well as the cost. Although this prototype has many benefits, more testing needs to be done.
USGS research is helping managers in the Great Basin understand the best ways to deal with the effects of more frequent and often larger wildfires on animals like the at-risk greater sage-grouse, a species dependent on sagebrush habitat for food, cover, and breeding. By analyzing 30 years of data, USGS modeled how sage-grouse populations are responding to changes in wildfire, rainfall, and soil temperature in this region. This research demonstrated that if left unchecked, wildfires could cause significant habitat decline and a loss of nearly half of current sage-grouse populations in the next three decades. USGS research provides federal and state management agencies with the science needed to improve effectiveness of rangeland fire suppression and conservation actions to benefit sage-grouse and other wildlife. For more about this project visit the USGS project site.
In interior Alaska, permafrost is insulated and protected from thaw by a layer of organic soil. In addition to changes in climate, wildfire can alter permafrost conditions by burning the protective soil layer. Given that wildfire frequency and severity is predicted to increase in Alaska, researchers with the DOI Alaska Climate Science Center (managed by USGS) examined the sensitivity of permafrost to wildfire. Focusing on the region’s black spruce forests, researchers found that combined with warming temperatures, fire could significantly accelerate the degradation of Alaska’s permafrost – particularly in upland forests, which have a thinner soil layer. Learn more at the CSC website.
Last winter, parts of drought-stricken California were besieged by heavy flooding, mudslides, and feet of snow. The cause? A meteorological phenomenon known as an atmospheric river, in which high concentrations of moisture are carried in narrow bands, often from the tropics, up to western North America.
While we know these events can produce heavy precipitation along the West Coast, researchers with the DOI Southwest Climate Science Center (managed by USGS) wanted to see if atmospheric rivers influence wildfire patterns. Results show that atmospheric rivers can increase the area burned by fires in the year following an event, particularly in the most arid parts of the Southwest. This is because the extra precipitation spurs vegetation growth, providing fuel for fires once it dries out. Learn more at the CSC project website.
Even ancient humans used fire as a tool for food and landscape alteration, but did you know USGS scientists are using it to protect forests from drought? USGS ecologist Dr. Phil van Mantgem tests whether “prescribed fire” can reduce competition for resources like water, nutrients and sunlight among trees in the Sierra Nevada. His studies could help management agencies like the National Park Service make western forests more resilient and resistant to the harmful effects of longer, more severe droughts in the future. Visit the USGS website to learn more.
The effects of fire in high-elevation forests can be particularly severe. Fires are historically rare in higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada, meaning vegetation may not be adapted to frequent fire activity. Researchers with the DOI Southwest Climate Science Center (managed by USGS) found that the upper elevation extent of fires in California’s Sierra Nevada has been increasing over the past 100 years. Researchers hypothesize that this could be due to changes in fire management, temperature, available fuels or ignition frequencies – or a combination of these factors. Whatever the cause, more frequent fires in these subalpine forests could affect their structure, composition, and function. Learn more at the CSC website.
Every year, wildfires in southern California cause property and ecological damage, sometimes severely. USGS ecologist Dr. Jon Keeley and partners study the ecological factors, such as invasive grasses, that increase the risk of wildfire damage to homes, people, roads and other infrastructure. This study and other USGS fire research supports science-based decisions to keep people and property safer during California’s fire season. Check out this Living with Fire video and visit the USGS project website for more information.
Ancient legends tell of mythical fire-dwelling lizards appearing from flames when a fire was lit. The creatures, thought to be immune to fire, were named salamanders, which (no joke) meant "legendary lizard-like creatures that can live in fire." Now we know salamanders are not mythical beings (though they are amazingly awesome), but instead lived in the logs used in fires, causing them to scurry away once the logs were lit. But as USGS scientists can tell you, salamanders and fire still go hand-in-hand: many species, including the frosted flatwoods salamander, rely on fire-dependent ecosystems.
In St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), USGS scientists work closely with fire managers to help them make the most effective recovery actions of the federally protected frosted flatwoods salamander. During breeding season, females lay eggs on the outskirts of dry wetland basins, but for this to happen, the ground must be clear of plant detritus, like fallen leaves, branches, bark, and stems. Prescribed burns are a critical tool in the recovery plan for the salamander; such fires help clear out accumulated plant litter and other vegetation to provide the best habitat conditions for breeding salamanders. For more information, please visit the USGS project website.