USGS studies wildfire ecology in the western United States

ghly sensitive to this kind of local variability in fuel type, but previous fuel maps derived from remote sensing data have been unable to capture this level of detail. Moreover, the depth of information contained in the map allows researchers to conduct both long-term and real-time predictive modeling.

The map and model have already been used on several occasions to predict the behavior of natural fires. From each such application, further refinements are made. In these initial tests, such as during Yosemite's Horizon Fire in 1994, the model performed well, said van Wagtendonk, providing managers with maps showing where fire perimeters would be at various future times, based on existing or changing weather conditions. The model has since been used to plan and execute prescribed burns in the park and to predict fire behavior on landscapes subjected to different techniques of understory fuel reduction, from mechanical thinning of trees to prescribed burning.

Van Wagtendonk says potential applications go beyond managing fires within the park. The mapping and data analysis techniques he has developed can in principle be extended to much larger areas, such as the entire Sierra Nevada. The fuels modeling package can also be used as a research tool. For example, scientists can approximate what the local landscape might look like without a history of fire suppression, by allowing past suppressed fires to "burn" and run their course on computers.

While advanced imaging and computer technology can help predict fire behavior in the future, tree ring analysis reveals fire patterns of centuries past. At Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, USGS researchers and collaborators from the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research have put together the longest and most detailed fire histories anywhere. The records, assembled from fire scars in the annual growth rings of giant sequoias, extend back over 2,000 years, and show that fire typic

Contact: Catherine Haecker
United States Geological Survey

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