Seeing the forests, buildings, and trees: Combining tree canopy and wildfire mitigation goals in Montana’s wildland-urban interface

Research Issue

Mount Helena in Montana, USA, overlooking the city of its name.Over the past decade, wildfires in the United States have caused an unprecedented level of loss in property and lives. Those living in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) – where houses meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland – are facing new challenges in maintaining community tree canopy and mitigating wildfire risk. Knowing the location of structures and vegetation is key to minimizing wildfire risk, yet fire managers typically use coarse-level data sets to understand risk, prioritize outreach, and plan mitigation activities in the WUI.

High-resolution land cover mapping is a powerful approach that can reveal more accurate parcel-level information by aggregating 1-meter resolution data. Since 2007, the Forest Service’s Urban Tree Canopy (UTC) Assessments have pioneered the development of high-resolution land cover, providing detailed information on the location and extent of tree canopy and forest cover alongside building and parcel data in urban areas and regions.  

Our Research

This project will combine the expertise of researchers, state and local fire managers, and local community leaders and forest managers to address community canopy goals and wildfire management/defensible space goals through high-resolution land cover mapping. Project partners will create high-resolution maps for the Helena, MT area, using LiDAR and artificial intelligence-based image detection of aerial imagery (National Agricultural Imagery Program). These data will provide location of forest and wildland vegetation, at 1-meter resolution; location of homes and structures, at 1-meter resolution; and the extent and height of vegetation, including around buildings, at 1-meter resolution. With an understanding of the extent and amount of vegetation around homes and other buildings, state and local project partners will convene to make informed decisions about the management of the community forest, including wildfire risk reduction, tree maintenance, and potential plantings.

Expected Outcomes

Combining high-resolution land cover with administrative data on parcels in the WUI will provide an unprecedented level of insight regarding risks, resource needs, and tradeoffs.  We seek to work with communities on the front lines of wildfire planning and mitigation to co-develop a transformative approach to informing, budgeting for, and achieving both community tree canopy and wildfire mitigation goals.

Foundational Research Products

Kramer, Heather Anu; Mockrin, Miranda H.; Alexandre, Patricia M.; Radeloff, Volker C. 2019. High wildfire damage in interface communities in California.

Mockrin, Miranda H.; Locke, Dexter H.; Stewart, Susan I.; Hammer, Roger B.; Radeloff, Volker C. 2019. Forests, houses, or both? Relationships between land cover, housing characteristics, and resident socioeconomic status across ecoregions. Journal of Environmental Management. 234: 464-475.

Radeloff, Volker C.; Helmers, David P.; Kramer, H. Anu; Mockrin, Miranda H.; Alexandre, Patricia M.; Bar-Massada, Avi; Butsic, Van; Hawbaker, Todd J.; Martinuzzi, Sebastián; Syphard, Alexandra D.; Stewart, Susan I. 2018. Rapid growth of the US wildland-urban interface raises wildfire risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 115(13): 3314-3319.

Locke, D.H.; Romolini, R.; Galvin, M. F.; O’Neil-Dunne, J. P. M.; Strauss, E. G. 2017. Tree canopy change in Coastal Los Angeles, 2009 - 2014. Cities And The Environment (CATE) 10(2) 3, p1-18 

Martinuzzi, S.; Ramos-González, O. M.; Muñoz-Erickson, T. A.; Locke, D.H.; Lugo, A. E.; Radeloff, V. C. 2017. The assessment of urban vegetation from high-resolution aerial imagery and its relationship to socioeconomic factors in a tropical city. Ecological Applications doi:10.1002/eap.1673 

Locke, Dexter H.; Grove, J. Morgan. 2016. Doing the hard work where it's easiest? Examining the relationships between urban greening programs and social and ecological characteristics. Applied Spatial Analysis and Policy. 9: 77-96.

Locke, Dexter H.; Landry, Shawn M.; Grove, J. Morgan; Roy Chowdhury, Rinku. 2016. What’s scale got to do with it? Models for urban tree canopy. Journal of Urban Ecology. 2(1): juw006-.

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

  • Miranda Mockrin, Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Research Scientist  
  • Dexter Locke, Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Research Social Scientist
  • J. Morgan Grove, Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Research Forester
  • Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Faculty Research Associate and Director of the Spatial Analysis Laboratory at the University of Vermont

Research Partners

  • Jamie Kirby, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Urban Forester
  • Erik Warrington, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Forest Stewardship Program Manager
  • Crystal Beckman, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Forestry Assistance Specialist
  • Amanda Egan, Northern and Intermountain Regions, Urban and Community Forestry Program Manager
  • Last modified: October 27, 2020