A wildland firefighter monitors a prescribed fire in Florida. Photo by NPS.
BY ERIN MCDUFF
Anything that can burn is fuel for a fire, including all types of vegetation, from dead leaves and fallen pine needles, to grasses and shrubs, to towering trees. As vegetation builds up, the risk of an extreme wildfire that torches an entire landscape and threatens lives and property increases.
An important tool in mitigating the risk of wildfires to communities and landscapes is the strategic removal of excessive vegetation. These fuel treatments often include mechanical removal and prescribed fire.
Planning fuel treatments that will have the greatest impact and successfully protect people, homes, infrastructure, and important ecosystems requires a complex analysis of factors ranging from topography to flora, weather to safety, and much more.
In the early 2000s, systems to support fuel management planning proliferated, but they lacked central control and a uniform vision. An evaluation showed that fire and fuel managers were faced with an assortment of unconnected software with little guidance on how to use them and integrate the data. This software chaos made fuel treatment planning confusing and time-consuming.
Starting in 2008, the Interagency Fuel Treatment Decision Support System (IFTDSS) was designed to simplify this process. Commonly pronounced if-T-diss, it provides a single platform to meet fuel treatment planning and analysis needs. It has been managed jointly by the wildland fire management programs for the Interior and Agriculture departments in coordination with the Wildland Fire Information Technology Program since shortly after the program was created in 2014 to develop technology to serve the entire wildland fire community.
IFTDSS helps wildland fire practitioners consider the landscape and what needs to be accomplished, then develop information to help them determine the best course of action.
“IFTDSS has taken a lot of the complexity out of fire modeling, making the process user friendly and efficient,” said Henry Bastian with Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire, who oversees IFTDSS.
When a prescribed fire specialist is planning a controlled burn, they can use IFTDSS to run models of the area under various conditions, such as different weather scenarios. These models can project flame lengths, the rate at which a fire will spread, and possible effects of a fire (such as impacts to air quality). The system uses the adaptive management cycle, an iterative process for robust decision making in the face of uncertainty that learns from land management outcomes.
The system can help land managers ensure compliance with environmental standards by assisting in the completion of a National Environmental Policy Act assessment of a planned fuel treatment.
It can also evaluate the effectiveness of fuel treatments by identifying where they intersect with wildfires. This is helping the wildland fire community better understand how fuel treatments can slow the growth of a wildfire and protect communities.
This already powerful tool is continuing to improve. A few years ago, a quantitative fire risk assessment feature was added. This critical tool provides information on the probability of a wildfire and an analysis of the risk it poses to infrastructure, ecosystems, and other resources. Rather than a one-time, static analysis, IFTDSS is a living system that can evaluate risk over time, taking into account fuel treatments that have been completed and other changes to the landscape.
The next major update currently in development is the creation of a comparison function for factors such as weather, fuel behavior, topography, and more.
Land managers who want to learn how to use the system have plenty of help available. “IFTDSS has one of the most robust help desk systems with information broken down into easy-to-understand examples that will guide you step by step,” said Bastian. Training curriculum on the system is also available through the Wildland Fire Learning Portal and has been a central component of recent fuel management academies.
As climate change propels more extreme fire activity, IFTDSS is putting the power of data into the hands of fire and fuel specialists, enabling them to prioritize fuel treatments to have the greatest benefit and better mitigate the risk from wildfires to communities and landscapes.
Erin McDuff is a public affairs specialist with the Office of Wildland Fire.