Mitigate Wildfire Risk
In August, firefighters across the country are hard at work fighting wildfire. Research by Northern Research Station scientists aims to provide land managers with information and tools that improve our understanding of fire and fire effects and mitigate wildfire risks. Our work includes building and sharing a dataset that informs local planning for wildfire, demonstrating how social media (Twitter) can help predict air quality during wildfires, and developing reliable and affordable equipment for monitoring fire effects. This month, we feature a scientist, partnership, research and product all focused on mitigating wildfire risk.
Matt Dickinson’s passion for the outdoors and pursuit of a career in natural resources follows a family tradition that goes back two generations. His father is a geographer, his paternal grandfather was an ornithologist who served as the Director of the Florida Museum of Natural History, and his maternal grandfather taught science education to high school teachers at the University of Florida. With family, friends and others, he spent a lot of time outdoors while growing up in Florida.
Dickinson works as an ecologist in the Northern Research Station’s “Sustaining Forests in a Changing Environment” research unit in Delaware, Ohio. His research focuses on better understanding the linkages among fuels, fire behavior and fire effects. Right now he is helping with fire instrumentation on two interesting projects, one on restoring barrens in northern Wisconsin where Aldo Leopold did early work on sharp tailed grouse, and the other on how best to reverse shrub invasion in Great Plains ecosystems.
Dickinson’s Master’s and Ph.D. degrees are from Florida State University. His Ph.D. research was focused on the ecology of regeneration in working forests in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. His interest in studying fire was sparked when he assisted with fire ecology research while working at the Tall Timbers Research Station in Florida and in helping The Nature Conservancy with prescribed fires.
“Doing research to increase our understanding on how ecosystems and ecological processes work so we can better restore and manage habitats is very rewarding,” said Dickinson. “Through this work we benefit not only the habitats but also the threatened and endangered species that depend on them.”
Data set on Change in the Wildland Urban Interface
The wildland-urban interface (WUI) -- an area close to or intermingled with forests and grasslands that has at least one home per 40 acres – presents both beautiful vistas and implications for firefighting and the spread of invasive plant species. A new data set developed by scientists with the USDA Forest Service, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and other partners provides the first high-resolution data on WUI change between 1990 and 2010, revealing how housing growth and wildland vegetation have combined over time.
Today, one-third of all homes in the United States are within the WUI, an area that occupies 10 percent of the Nation’s land area. Working with lead author Volker Radeloff of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, research scientist Miranda Mockrin of the Northern Research Station co-authored a study based on the data set, “Rapid growth of the U.S. Wildland Urban Interface raises wildfire risk.” Researchers found WUI growth has been notable over the past twenty years: between 1990 and 2010, the Nation’s WUI increased from 30.8 to 43.4 million homes (41 percent growth) and expanded in area from 143,568,227 acres to 190,271,144 acres in area, or 33 percent.
The expansion of WUI housing has many implications for wildfire management and other natural resource management issues, and the availability of the new data set provides valuable information for policy makers, land managers, fire managers and others who want to learn about WUI locations at the local, state, or national scale. This data set is unique because it tracks change in WUI homes and vegetation at the level of the individual census block, the smallest unit used by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The greatest expansion of WUI area occurred in the East, with the highest gains in number of houses and people in the WUI in the South and Southwest. Growth rates — the percent increase in WUI homes and area — were highest mostly in the West. For example, the number of WUI homes increased by 70 percent or more in Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Utah, and Colorado between 1990 and 2010. WUI area grew by 60 percent or more in Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Montana, and Idaho.
“Data on the extent of the WUI and where people and nature are intersecting is essential for planning that can help reduce the risk of wildfire for residents and firefighters,” Mockrin said. “Developing sound science and making data available for the good of people as well as forest health is central to the mission of the Forest Service’s Research and Development Program.”
Social Media and Fire
Whether they are in a traffic delay or an earthquake, people share information via social media as fast as they can type. Sonya Sachdeva, a research social scientist with the Northern Research Station’s People and their Environments Research Work Unit in Evanston, Ill., wondered if the information people share on Twitter might be harnessed to monitor air quality during wildfires.
As wildfire continues to increase both in frequency and severity, concerns about wildfire smoke have also grown. Whether it is caused by wildfire or prescribed fire, smoke can have serious health ramifications, including aggravating respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. “Models for predicting the extent and range of impact of smoke dispersion from wildfire events can be a critical tool in safeguarding public health, and we’re finding that information people share in social media has great potential for improving those models,” Sachdeva said.
Working with Sarah McCaffrey, a scientist with the Rocky Mountain Research Station specializing in the human dimensions of wildfire, Sachdeva began with a study of 700 tweets related to the 2014 King Fire in California. By comparing the location and timing of tweets to fine particulate pollution monitoring data collected by the Environmental Pollution Agency (EPA), Sachdeva and McCaffrey were able to demonstrate that tweets about the King Fire reliably indicated the presence and severity of wildfire-related air pollution.
In a new study aimed at finding out whether their findings held true on a bigger scale, Sachdeva and McCaffrey evaluated 39,000 California tweets that mentioned the names of the state’s most destructive fires over the course of the entire 2015 wildfire season. Tweets were again geocoded so scientists could plot their location and timing and then compare references to smoke with EPA air quality data.
“We found that on a state-wide basis, tweets were an accurate indicator of air quality impacts resulting from wildfire smoke, and our study suggests that they also have the potential to improve rescue and relief efforts,” Sachdeva said. “People used Twitter both to express the need for assistance as well as to volunteer to help or to share resources, such as vehicles, which could potentially lead to improved rescue and relief efforts.”
Researchers also found very different Twitter conversations depending on tweeters’ proximity to the fire. For example, people tweeting near a wildfire generally focused on concern for the safety of firefighters and the status of warnings and evacuation orders. Further away from wildfire, tweets were often focused on issues like the cause of the fire, something rarely mentioned by people with greater proximity to wildfire. Sachdeva talked to Science Friday about the research on July 27, 2018.
New Low Cost Measurement Methods to Advance Fire Science
Good quantitative measurements are at the heart of understanding impacts of wildfires and prescribed fires and developing models that can help researchers and land managers predict their effects. However, obtaining these measurements can be challenging when the instruments needed either don’t exist or are too expensive to allow for enough replication. (Replication helps decrease variability and increase confidence in measurements.) Three USDA Forest Service research Stations -- the Northern Research Station, the Southern Research Station, and the Rocky Mountain Research Station – teamed up with the Rochester Institute of Technology to develop new low-cost technologies that would lead to advancements in fire science.
Understanding fire at landscape scales requires collecting good measurements on the ground (e.g., of flames and energy transfer) and relating them to remotely-sensed measurements of fire radiation from aircraft. Because fire and its effects are complex, expertise in a variety of areas is needed. “One benefit arising from the collaboration is the breadth of experience and interest individual scientists bring to the group,” said Matt Dickinson, research ecologist with the Northern Research Station. “Scientists in the partnership bring knowledge in ecology, mechanical engineering, fire science and physics to solving fire instrumentation problems.”
To keep costs low, scientists rely on adapting off-the-shelf technology so new technologies are more affordable. “Currently, the partnership is developing camera systems and radiometers mounted on towers to measure radiation coming off the flame front for use on prescribed fires,” said Dickinson. The partnership is also improving existing tools that measure radiation impacting trees and other surfaces in fires and the energy carried in the flames themselves.
“The long-term goal of the partnership is to develop equipment that is reliable and can be used by anyone to do high quality monitoring on fires,” Dickinson said.