Managing Fires with High-Quality Information
The recent news coverage of wildfires in California, complete with images of smoke billowing from the treetops, reinforces in our minds the awesome power of this natural process. But many recent large-scale wildfires are in part the result of land management decisions and, possibly, the effects of a changing climate. Past management suppressed all natural wildfires; that allowed burnable material, such as dead branches and leaves, to accumulate. Combined with recent extremes in warm and dry climate conditions, this accumulation can increase the size and severity of wildfire events.
It is those images of destruction that makes a project like LANDFIRE so vital, and its application of NatureServe expertise so unique. A five-year inter-agency effort lead by the U.S. Department of the Interior and USDA Forest Service, LANDFIRE forms the foundation for the National Fire Plan and community wildfire protection plans. The project provides comprehensive maps and consistent data that describe vegetation, wildland fuels, and expected natural fire regimes across the United States.
This is where NatureServe and its network of natural heritage programs come in. LANDFIRE uses the NatureServe Terrestrial Ecological Systems Classification as the basis for its maps and spatial modeling. The national mapping effort, which amalgamated hundreds of thousands of field-based observations, used satellite imagery and data on local climate, landform, and soil variables to map the more than 500 forest, shrubland, grassland and wetland ecosystem types throughout the contiguous United States. Advanced models then depicted locations of highest wildfire risk to help inform fire managers’ strategic and tactical decisions.
“Standardized maps and ecological classifications form the basis for many natural resource decisions. The ecological classifications spearheaded by NatureServe and network ecologists are in use throughout the Americas. LANDFIRE provides one important example of their many applications,” says ecologist Pat Comer, NatureServe’s acting Vice President for Conservation Science.
The new U.S. national map of terrestrial ecological systems and land cover is a major scientific achievement and one that represents a culmination of many years of work. Systems maps of Alaska and Hawaii are well underway and will soon complete the mapping for the United States.
“The NatureServe Network has a long history of providing leadership on the issue of ecological classifications,” says Comer. “These national mapping efforts certainly point to the power of our network and its ability to bring essential information to the table, leverage investments by others, and bring unprecedented new products to our conservation partners.”