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Wildfire Risk Assessment and Management

Manage risks of wildfires effectively

Introduction to Wildlife Fires

Wildfires are becoming a worldwide challenge with hotspots being Western U.S.A, Canada, Australia. Others countries like Portugal and Spain in Europe, Nepal, Philippines, Indonesia in Asia, Major parts of Africa and South Africa have also been engulfed by this hazard due to natural or manmade triggers. In 2015, wildfires burned more than 10 million acres in the United States at a cost of $2.1 billion in government expenditures. A wildfire may move at speeds up to 23 kilometers an hour, burning everything in its path. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, that by 2050, the total amount of land burned annually will be at least twice as high as it is today. Wildfires are triggered by three conditions- fuel, oxygen in the air, and a heat source. Lightning, droughts, human sources, hot winds, the sun can all provide enough heat to spark a wildfire. In recent years, wildfires are becoming more extreme and disastrous, due to the increasing levels of fuel around us.

Bell Energy helps Governments develop a Wildfire Risk Management Plan that includes detailed and quantitative assessment of fire consequences and a prevention and mitigation plan to ensure that wildfire risks are well managed

Wildfires and Climate Change

Wildfire occurrence and climate change are intractably linked in a vicious cycle. Extreme wildfires release copious amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere which adds its bit to warming and climate change. On the other hand, wildfire occurrences are increasing in severity and length due to the effects of global warming. Increase in temperature, droughts lengthen the duration and severity of a wildfire which may have been triggered by other factors like lightning and human activities.

The Significance of Hazard Assessments

Wildfires, besides the immediate and visible impacts, also do have long-lasting impact on the surrounding environment, social, and economic systems. Developers setting up industrial or development projects in wildfire prone areas are often faced with the enormous economic and environmental challenge of sudden wildfires. Wildfire hazard mapping and effective hazard mitigation, if made inherent in the design and planning of the projects, will help project developers to make informed decisions regarding siting of the projects and risk reduction strategies. In order to do so, project developers require information on where fires are likely to occur, the intensity at which they might occur, and what impacts are likely on highly valued resources and assets. In the case of areas where wildfire hazard ratings are assessed to be extremely high, approval of project proposals may not be given or given conditionally. Wildfire hazard assessments may be carried out after project development, in order to increase safety measures and reduce the risk of adverse impacts.

Wildfire Hazard Assessment Methodology

Wildfire Hazard assessments are basically an estimation of the likelihood of a fire occurring, the associated fire behavior when a fire occurs (intensity), and the effects of the fire (susceptibility) on highly valued resources and assets(HVRA) like air quality, wildlife habitat, nearby urban areas, industrial and development projects, hazardous material storage etc.

Ignition probability or ignitions/area/time, is used to identify areas that have historically been more prone to fires. Burn probability is the probability that a particular location experiences a fire during a particular time interval from a fire starting at that location or ignited near the location.

The components needed to assess wildfire risk are wildfire hazard maps generated from wildfire simulation models, HVRA maps, and evaluation of the impact of wildfire on the HVRAs.

Wildfire Hazard Models

There are several simulation models which are currently in use:

  • Fire Spread Probability model (FSPro) is a stochastic model that simulates many weather scenarios for one wildfire in a specified duration. Burn probabilities are mapped as contours. It is utilized to support specific wildfire incident management decisions.
  • FSim is a stochastic model that simulates wildfires occurrence, growth and intensity across a large landscape. It focuses on the wildfires which escape initial attack and become large.
  • FlamMap5 simulates fire behaviour for constant weather conditions (mainly extreme fire) for every pixel on a gridded landscape. FlamMap does not simulate variations in fire behavior caused by weather and diurnal fluctuations. It is well-suited for landscape level comparisons of fuel treatment effectiveness.
  • FARSITE, a deterministic model is widely used by the U.S. Forest Service to simulate spread of wildfires. The model uses data on topography, vegetation, weather and fuel to predict 2-dimensional fire growth and area burned during a short period of time. The model is mainly used to recreate the growth of past fires and plan short-term fuel management.

Typical Inputs required for a model are:

  • Fuels: Type, location and moisture content
  • Vegetation: tree height, crown density
  • Weather: temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, precipitation, stability
  • Topography: elevation, slope, aspect, and isolation
  • Population density
  • Proximity to high value infrastructure or land
  • Historical Fire Occurrence
  • Ignition representations such as lighting strike density or proximity to roads or hiking trails

Wildfire Mitigation and Management

Community Participation

Human factors are the most important in preventing forest fires. Simple steps which can prevent forest fires are:

  • Community Education regarding causes of fire and prevention
  • Controlled access of humans in fire sensitive zones
  • High penalty and punishment to prevent fire due to arson
  • Use of controlled locations for burning
  • Prepare community for fire alertness, control of fire
Fuel Management

Fuel management is the planned manipulation of the amount, composition, and structure of the vegetation within forest ecosystems for the purpose of modifying potential fire behavior and effects. "Fire smart" landscapes are obtained by area-wide fuel modification and fuel conversion, rather than by fuel isolation.

Landscape management

It has been concluded from many studies that the main contributing elements of forest fires are drought, fire meteorology, accumulation of fuel and homogenous or fire prone landscapes, which are often caused by lack of appropriate land management. Preventive landscape management should include policy, cultural, technical, social, financial, organizational, and economical and market aspects. This includes combination of different landuses, planned suitable timing of agricultural activities etc.

Fire Breaks

These are thought to improve the forest area management by creating forest management units with a size compatible with local sustainable objectives and actions. The landscape is divided into smaller units in order to make it less vulnerable to wildfires and of a size compatible with local sustainable objectives and actions. The landscape diversity is promoted through the diversification of economic activities and sustainable practices.

Fuel Breaks

Fuel breaks are generally strips of land where the vegetation is reduced so that fire’s intensity is reduced in such places, helping to halt the progress of the wildfire.

Afforestation

This needs to be done keeping in mind, choice of tree species that are better adapted to different climatic regions and landscape units.

Prescribed Burning

Prescribed burning is the intentional introduction of fire, under favorable weather and fuel conditions, in order to remove old vegetation (fire fuel).

Wildfire Hazard Models as a Planning Tool - work in progress

Wildfire Simulations typically provide snapshots of landscape characteristics, and probability of fire risks in the form of burn probabilities and their impact on assets. Wildfires are affected by several factors which are complex to simulate. Matching the scale of an enormous natural hazard with the scale of a model is still a challenge. Often the models involve input and output parameters which are difficult to measure and monitor accurately. The models involve a combination of inputs like, vegetation cover inventory, weather, assets, and infrastructure which are extremely dynamic and in a constant state of change. It is a challenge to keep these parameters updated in order to keep the resulting wildfire hazard assessments accurate. The models support a project developer to take strategic decisions regarding a project. In that case, the model outputs need to be easy to comprehend, flexible to use and reasonable accurate in describing the project settings. Another challenge is, quantifying and monetizing the impacts of a wildfire on the non-marketable assets like, the surrounding environment which are essential to make economic decisions.

In this context, there is a need for an interface between the outputs of complex and sophisticated 3 D Hazard Assessment models and a simplified interactive protocol which can be used by the project developers. User Needs Analysis should be carried out with Project developers and managers to elicit questions that need to be answered. An effort needs to be made to measure the consequence of Wildfire on an area in terms of economic impact as well as social and environmental costs. This, however, should be done on a realistic scale to enhance decision making capabilities. Protocols need to be developed for specific use by administrators, planners, developers and home owners so that they can easily get fire hazard information for their area and use it for planning needs. There is also need for training to be given to user of the Hazard Assessment Protocols so that they understand the inputs, outputs, limitations, and assumptions to ensure they are used accurately and in the most effective manner.

References
  • Scott.H. Joe, Thompson Mathew, (2013), A wildfire risk assessment framework for land and resource management, USDA, Forest Service. Gen. Tech.
  • Scott.H. Joe, Understanding stochastic wildfire simulation results,Pyrologix, Missoula, MT
  • Miller Carol, Agar Alan, (2012), Recent Advances in risk analysis for wildfire management, USDA Forest Service
  • Gonsalves Sonia, Ruud Hoadijk(2013), Mitigation of forest fires at the municipal level
  • Thompson Mathew, Ager Alan, The science and opportunity of wildfire risk assessment, US Forest Service

About the Author

Ashish Kulkarni
Ashish Kulkarni
Ashish Kulkarni is the head of Bell Energy Technical Centre, a leading global professional services organization that provides energy assurance, business excellence, business security, business continuity and analytical services.

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