Smokey the Bear is iconic and ubiquitous, created in the 1940s to educate the public on the dangers of wildfire. The mascot points to the level of fire danger across a landscape – low to extreme.
Matt Jolly, a fire sciences ecologist at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, is helping to create what he calls “an automated Smokey-the-Bear map so we can categorize fire danger across the country.”
Imagine, he says, a much more sophisticated indicator of fire danger, informed by satellite imagery, so what Smokey the Bear’s hypothetical hand points to “is actually based on computer models that integrate weather, fuels and sometimes ignition sources to rate what the fire danger is for that day.”
Jolly and fellow researchers call it TopoFire, a new tool that helps fire managers predict the potential for, and the movement of, blazes in near real-time. It is now available online, but remains in development phase.
Wildfires are a natural part of many ecosystems, but changes in climate have led to more severe, and more unpredictable, wildfire activity, challenging fire managers and communities across the West.
Zachary Holden, an ecologist from the University of Montana, who leads the TopoFire team, describes it as a web-based predictor of fuel moisture, soil moisture and canopy conditions across Montana and Idaho – available to anyone with a computer and, soon, a smartphone.
The team includes scientists from the University of Montana, the University of Idaho, and the U.S. Forest Service, with support from NASA.
“One of the real big needs that I see is understanding better how landscape scale variation – fuel moistures and fine-scale climate effects – show how fires burn,” Holden says. “If we understand that better we are able to make much better decisions about how to manage a particular fire.”
In 2009, the team began deploying more than 2,000 temperature and humidity sensors across the Northern Rockies. That data, combined with satellite imagery and other climate-related inputs, is now being put to work.
Nikia Hernandez, a Forest Service fire management officer based in Libby attests to TopoFire’s usefulness. He employed the interactive map during 2015’s fire season.
“Basically I went from spending about one-and-a-half hours compiling the data each and every morning to opening the website, clicking on the layer, and getting a spatial representation of the data instantaneously,” Nikia says. “The manual method also required me to email the information to others for it to be shared. TopoFire completely simplified the whole process for me as a manager.”
TopoFire considers insects, too, which significantly alter fuel dynamics. When mountain pine beetles attack trees, trees die, and their needles turn red. Jolly says red needles have ten times less moisture than healthy foliage, and ignite three times faster.
The effect of mountain pine beetles adds significant complexity to fire management decisions. Fire managers typically rely on aerial maps from the prior year to quantify the extent of beetle damage across a landscape. TopoFire tells fire managers where tree-killing insects are at the moment, where they’ve been, and where they’re likely to move.
“The great thing about it is the amount of information that is available,” Nikia says. “I was only using it from a fire season severity standpoint, but there is so much more potential. The layers they have available with close to real-time data could be tremendously informative and useful to land managers and decision makers. Before TopoFire I would have to navigate to at least a dozen or more different websites to get the same fire intelligence.”