Improving Wildfire Risk Reduction through Ecosystem Mapping

A wildland firefighter holds a drip torch over dry grass amid trees. By Jeff Adams USFWS.

A wildland firefighter with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helps private landowners adjacent to the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge set a prescribed fire to manage vegetation and reduce the risk of an extreme wildfire. He holds a drip torch over dry waist-high grass interspersed with trees. Flames rise form the grass just behind him and a heat haze shimmers through the air. Photo by Jeff Adams, USFWS.


All types of vegetation can act as fuel for a wildland fire. By understanding what vegetation is present and how easily it will burn, fire personnel can better predict and respond to the movement of a fire. That information can also help land managers mitigate the risk of extreme fires by removing excess vegetation.

While existing datasets and tools have significantly improved fire response and fuel management, land managers have expressed the need for still greater accuracy to capture rapid changes to vegetation.

Since 1998, the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) has provided leadership to the fire science community by identifying high-priority needs and funding research to help address issues associated with wildland fire. The program is receiving an additional $20 million over five years through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to expand its efforts.

In 2022, JFSP solicited proposals to develop mapping protocols and products that capture ecosystem conditions at needed spatial and temporal resolutions. One proposal selected for funding under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will enable fire and fuel management specialists to complete strategic planning at large scales. 

Dr. Mike Duniway and his team with the U.S. Geological Survey at both the Southwest Biological Science Center and the Western Geographic Science Center will explore ways to adapt decision support and mapping tools for fire and fuel management in drylands. 

They will expand on their current mapping framework by integrating wildfire and fuel management needs. They will map current ecosystem conditions in groups, map desired ecological conditions for fire and fuel management, and develop maps that show any departure from these desired conditions. 

“The collaborative framework and mapping approach we have developed builds on core federal ecosystem inventories and monitoring data,” said Dr. Duniway. “This makes it possible to replicate the data for other landscapes, as well as update the data as conditions change.”

The products developed from this effort will be shared with land managers and wildland fire personnel through collaborative workshops and outreach. The USGS team will use this opportunity to explain how the new maps can be integrated into agency monitoring and management.

The dynamic maps will benefit land managers as they create regional and landscape-scale fire and fuel management strategies. The maps that show a departure from desired conditions will further benefit a wide range of communities, organizations, and individuals by quantifying the risks to property, livelihoods, and natural resources from wildfires. 

The maps will be available as published GIS products, which will enable novel studies of land cover changes, species assessments, and analysis of climate change impacts.

Dr. Mike Duniway is a soil scientist and ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Southwest Biological Science Center in Moab, Utah.

Karen Dante-Wood is the technology transfer specialist for the Joint Fire Science Program at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.