It has been a harrowing equation out West over the past few months:
Abundant fuel + hot temperatures + winds = large, fast-moving wildfires.
At one point San Francisco was bathed in an eerie orange glow that evoked comparisons to post-apocalyptic times. The Beachie Creek Fire in Oregon spread massively over a single night, from 500 acres to over 159,000 acres due to a windstorm with wind gusts as high as 50 miles per hour. People living in Portland, Oregon, were immersed in dense smoke with record poor air quality that on some days was listed as the worst air quality on Earth.
In 2020, wildfire activity in California and the Pacific Northwest has been extreme, with more than 45,700 wildfires raging across 8.3 million acres (as of October 15, 2020). This puts the 2020 Fire Year on pace for being the most extensive of the last decade, even outpacing the fires of 2017 and 2018.
What does this all mean? Fires are a new year-round reality across much of the U.S. We know it’s not a question of “if” more fires will burn, but rather what we can do to be better prepared to manage them – including understanding the factors that influence where, when, and how fires burn, and what the consequences of fires are for humans and ecosystems. Science can provide these answers and, in the process, can also save lives, property and money.
A Hotter, Drier United States
“People accidentally or intentionally starting fires, warmer temperatures, dry and wet spells, and accumulation of fuels are some factors that have led 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 for understanding 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.
USGS Science on Fire
“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 the 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 Wildland Fire Science webpage and read about the projects below to learn how USGS fire science is making a difference:
LANDFIRE! USGS Data Provides Insight into Vegetation, Terrain, Hydrology and More
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 Burn Severity Trends Helps Forecast Erosion, Debris-Flows and Flooding in Areas Burned by Wildfire
Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity (MTBS) is an interagency program that maps the burn severity and extent of large fires, 1,000 acres or more in the West and 500 acres in the East, across all lands of the United States from 1984 to present. These data have already saved lives by enabling USGS scientists to use them 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.
Wildfires Threaten Future Water Supplies in the West
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.