A three-day, near-term fire behavior analysis for the Moose Fire in Idaho in July 2022. The analysis was completed in the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) using LANDFIRE products. This fire behavior simulation helped with management decisions by evaluating fire spread potential. The light-gray diamond shows the point of origin of the fire within the large, shaded section showing the area burned. The shaded colors (green, yellow, tan, etc.) displayed on top of the topographic map are the surface fire behavior fuel models (as mapped by LANDFIRE). The black outlines extending east from the fire show the projected spread of the fire over one to three days.
BY ERIN MCDUFF
The woman jerks awake as her old terrier leaps from her lap in a sudden flurry of barking. It takes her a moment to distinguish the underlying thud of someone pounding on her door. She walks stiffly across the room, throws the latch, and blinks in surprise at the sheriff’s deputy.
He nods politely but doesn’t waste time. “An evacuation has been ordered. The wildfire is spreading this way. You need to go. If you don’t have anyone to stay with, a shelter has been set up at the fairgrounds.”
He glances up, and her gaze instinctively follows. She’s surprised to see thick, murky smoke chasing away the blue summer sky. But she still hesitates. “Are you sure we have to go?” Last night, the news said the fire was miles away.
“Grab what you can and leave in five minutes,” he tells her sternly, already moving toward the next apartment door.
Predicting a wildfire’s movement is a complex task. The terrain, vegetation, and weather all play a role in how it behaves. By developing models of the fire’s most likely path and how quickly it will spread, wildland fire personnel can not only identify the need for evacuations but also strategically position firefighting resources; conduct safe prescribed fires to reduce future risk; and plan how best to protect nearby homes, communities, and cherished natural and cultural resources.
Technology like the geospatial mapping program LANDFIRE makes the process more rapid and accurate. Short for Landscape Fire and Resource Management Planning Tools Project, LANDFIRE provides a nationwide, ecologically-based vegetation and wildland fire dataset. The dataset offers detailed, consistent information that’s essential for modeling in what direction a fire is likely to move and how quickly.
Historically, when a fire behavior specialist arrived at a wildfire, they had to manually develop a fire model from vegetation maps, and sometimes develop the vegetation maps when none were available. The process could take as long as a week.
After a landmark wildfire season, Congress directed the development of the National Fire Plan in 2000 to improve the nation’s response to severe fires. The plan precipitated changes in wildland fire management, including the creation of LANDFIRE. Findings by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2001 also supported development of the program, saying, “Federal land management agencies do not have adequate data for making informed decisions and measuring the agencies’ progress in reducing fuels.”
The Interior and Agriculture departments jointly developed LANDFIRE as a prototype in 2002. It was chartered by the Wildland Fire Leadership Council in 2004, and the first state maps were produced just a year later. By 2009, all states had been mapped.
“LANDFIRE creates detailed maps beyond simply labelling vegetation as a forest, shrubland, or grassland,” said Henry Bastian, with Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire, who oversees LANDFIRE.
The system maps the prevalence of individual plant species. This is critical for wildland fire management as fire behaves differently when it encounters different types of vegetation.
LANDFIRE is managed in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earth Resources Observation and Science Center and the USDA Forest Service Missoula Fire Sciences Lab. It produces consistent, comprehensive geospatial and ecological data on vegetation, wildland fuel, and fire regimes across the country.
“LANDFIRE is an integral tool in wildland fire management today,” said Bastian.
The system supports multijurisdictional wildland fire planning, management, and operations. By offering a national dataset, it supports the assessment of wildfire risk across communities.
Knowing where a fire is likely to move and how quickly is critical when minutes matter, such as when wildland fire personnel are determining the need for evacuations. LANDFIRE provides the data needed to rapidly conduct these analyses in systems like the Wildland Fire Decision Support System, known as WFDSS. It is a cornerstone of a fully integrated all-lands data approach to support wildland fire management, and it continues to improve.
The team that manages LANDFIRE is working toward an annual update rather than the current two-year remapping cycle. This will more rapidly account for changes to vegetation, recent fires, fuel management projects, and other disturbances. The team is also looking to the future in incorporating the latest science, such as exploring ways to add 3D modeling. These updates will further improve the accuracy of wildland fire modeling.
Erin McDuff is a public affairs specialist with Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire.