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Forest Disturbance Processes

Improving the Deployment of Wildland Fire Suppression Resources

[photo:] Wildfire control in Georgia forest. Photo from Georgia Forestry Commission Archive, Georgia Forestry Commission, Bugwood.orgResearch Issue

As a strategy for preventing large and costly wildfires, fire managers prioritize aggressive initial attack of fire ignitions, especially in places where people live and fire intensity may be high.  Managers make their best estimates of where to have equipment and crews (e.g., engines, dozers, hand crews, and helicopters) on the ready to meet expected demand for fire suppression in coming days, weeks, or months.  While fire managers typically aim to minimize the number of escaped fires, they have limited funds to acquire suppression resources or construct operating bases.  As a result, they must efficiently deploy costly firefighting resources across dispersed locations with considerable uncertainty about where fires will ignite and how difficult they will be to control.

Our Research

We developed a computer model to help fire managers evaluate and improve the deployment of wildfire suppression resources. Our model optimizes both seasonal deployment and daily dispatch decisions. Ignition uncertainty is characterized with a set of fire scenarios, each listing the location and intensity of multiple fires that could occur in a single day. Each potential fire also has an associated standard response—defined as the required number of resources that must reach the fire within a maximum response time—based on fire location and intensity.  The model deploys resources to fire stations at the beginning of a planning period before the number, location, and intensity of ignitions are known, and then the model dispatches those resources to fires contingent on the standard response requirements of the fires that occur in each scenario. The objective is to minimize the expected number of fires that do not receive a standard response subject to budget and station capacity constraints. We demonstrate the model by assessing the deployment of fire suppression resources among three central Sierra planning units administered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE).   

Expected Outcomes

Our model results suggest that, under the current budget and capacity constraints, a range of engine, dozer, hand crew, and helicopter deployments, including the current CALFIRE deployment, may perform equally well in terms of fire containment. Model results further suggest that there are a few central locations that are logistically ideal for major equipment and staff stations because equipment and staff can be quickly sent from these locations to many fire prone hot spots. This may achieve greater fire containment success and likewise ensure equitable protection across the fire-prone landscape. Together these findings suggest that, given current levels of equipment and staff, there is no need for major rethinking of deployment processes, and that there is a lot of flexibility available to meet expectations of protecting life and property. With additional capacity, increasing centralized equipment and staff stations could be an effective approach.

Research Results

Lee, Yohan; Fried, Jeremy S.; Albers, Heidi J.; Haight, Robert G. 2013. Deploying initial attack resources for wildfire suppression: spatial coordination, budget constraints, and capacity constraints. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 43(1): 56-65.

Research Participants

  • Yohan Lee, Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, Oregon State University
  • Jeremy S. Fried, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station
  • Heidi J. Albers, Applied Economics/FES, Oregon State University
  • Robert G. Haight, Research Forester, USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station
Last Modified: May 13, 2013