GIS Assessment Tool Will Help Foresters Target Where and When to Implement Wildfire Prevention Efforts

Its "weather generator" simulates local climate conditions that may result from wildfires

Release Date: May 14, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- As parts of the Western and Southwestern United States prepare for wildfire season, which experts predict again will be severe, researchers at the University at Buffalo and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are developing a new software tool to use geographic information systems (GIS) to help forest managers optimize efforts to prevent wildfires.

The new tool uses GIS to help managers better target when and where to implement preventive fuel-management activities, such as thinning, logging, mulching and the setting of prescribed or controlled fires.

"This tool will help managers set priorities, ensuring a better use of financial and natural resources," for the prevention of wildfires, says Chris Renschler, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Geography in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, who is the project leader.

The new capabilities are being added to an existing software package called GeoWEPP (Geo-spatial interface for the Water Erosion Prediction Project) that the UB team developed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the Agricultural Research Service over the past three years.

While that version of the software focused on helping land managers assess where to target soil and water conservation measures following a fire, the new capabilities will help managers plan their fuel management efforts to reduce the risk of wildfire and its adverse environmental and economic impacts.

The tool includes a feature called the "weather generator," which can generate different climate change scenarios based on an extensive climate database, far into the future.

Users will be able to assess how a wildfire with various burn severities will affect specific watersheds and their surroundings 50 or 100 years from now, based on multiple climate scenarios that statistically are likely.

"There are no such things as average years," explains Renschler. "So many different environmental processes need to be considered, such as precipitation, soil type, vegetation, even climate change, and their interactions," he says.

"Those interactions can be complex, particularly in the time period of recovery after a fire, whether it's a wildfire or a prescribed fire," he adds.

"For instance, an increase in precipitation due to climate change is likely to result in more runoff," he explained. "But at the same time, more precipitation -- particularly during the vegetative periods -- also may mean more vegetation cover, which in turn, results in reduced sedimentation in the runoff. Our software is able to take all of these interactions into consideration."

The result, he said, is that users are able to generate climate change scenarios far into the future, and to see how various scenarios of wildfires or spatially distributed prevention activities may impact a watershed's hydrology, as well as its vegetation, runoff, erosion, sedimentation and other factors over the course of 50, or even 100 years or more.

"Once the vegetation is burned in an area, severe sediment-loaded runoff or even mudflows may occur for five or 10 years following the fire," explains Renschler. "That can create more potential for runoff and erosion, severely impacting downstream water quality and ecosystems, such as wetlands, streams, lakes and drinking water reservoirs."

Using the software, natural resource managers then can implement different prevention and post-fire strategies that will better serve the environment in the long term, by modifying scenarios that bear a high risk of environmental damage, Renschler says.

The software will be able to provide a temporal context for management measures, he says, so that managers not only know where to implement them but when.

It also provides tools to assess scenarios very quickly, through easy access to national GIS databases, a critical advantage, Renschler adds.

Renschler and his research partner, William J. Elliot, Ph.D., a project leader at the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station in Idaho, have received funding to further develop GeoWEPP and its new prevention features from the Joint Fire Science Program, a multi-agency organization that focuses on scientist-manager partnerships to develop state-of-the-art wildfire prevention and assessment solutions.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.

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