The USDA Forest Service has developed a new risk-assessment tool that helps scientists and decision makers manage natural resources and develop strategies that strengthen ecosystems.
The FireCLIME Vulnerability Assessment Tool, developed by Forest Service scientist and partners, measures how climate change and changes in wildfire patterns, impact the vulnerability of lands and other natural areas. The tool also helps land managers measure and compare the potential effectiveness of strategies for sustaining these areas.
Developing effective risk management strategies to strengthen our ecosystems, specifically with wildfire and climate change, is a significant challenge in the field of natural resource management.
“FireCLIME is a quick, flexible tool that helps land managers and industry partners compare how well treatments such as mechanical thinning or prescribed fire are able to prepare landscapes to adapt to future changes in climate or fire behavior,” said Megan Friggens, a research ecologist with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station.”
Changes in climate affect forests directly. For example, drought and heat stress are linked to tree mortality. Changes in climate also affect forests indirectly. Wildfire frequency, fire season length, and total area burned are all projected to increase in the coming decades in the western United States in response to warmer, drier conditions. However, it’s hard to predict how climate-driven wildfire patterns will influence a particular landscape and the organisms that depend upon it because climate, vegetation and wildfire interactions are complex and do not operate independently.
“FireCLIME can be used to identify at-risk resources and guide management actions,” Friggens said. “The tool works by comparing changes in desired future conditions under different climate-fire and management strategy scenarios.”
Despite these complexities, land managers are required to develop long-term plans and make site-specific decisions for managing natural resources and wildland fire based on the best available information and large-scale objectives. Once the desired future conditions are defined, users compile information about past fire history, current landscape condition, and future expected climate and wildfire within a Microsoft Excel-based program to produce impact scores representing potential negative outcomes.
The program can compare the effectiveness of up to three different management strategies for reducing negative impacts. As climate projections improve and climate-fire-ecosystem interactions are better understood, this tool can be updated to reflect the best available science. Forest Service researchers will continue to study risk-based wildland fire management to help managers make informed decisions for improving forest conditions.