A simulation of probabilistic wildfire risk components for the continental United States

Abstract

This simulation research was conducted in order to develop a large-fire risk assessment system for the contiguous land area of the United States. The modeling system was applied to each of 134 Fire Planning Units (FPUs) to estimate burn probabilities and fire size distributions. To obtain stable estimates of these quantities, fire ignition and growth was simulated for 10,000 to 50,000 “years” of artificial weather. The fire growth simulations, when run repeatedly with different weather and ignition locations, produce burn probabilities and fire behavior distributions at each landscape location (e.g., number of times a “cell” burns at a given intensity divided by the total years). The artificial weather was generated for each land unit using (1) a fire danger rating index known as the Energy Release Component (ERC) which is a proxy for fuel moisture contents, (2) a time-series analysis of ERC to represent daily and seasonal variability, and (3) distributions of wind speed and direction from weather records. Large fire occurrence was stochastically modeled based on historical relationships to ERC. The simulations also required spatial data on fuel structure and topography which were acquired from the LANDFIRE project (http://www.landfire.gov). Fire suppression effects were represented by a statistical model that yields a probability of fire containment based on independent predictors of fire growth rates and fuel type. The simulated burn probabilities were comparable to observed patterns across the U.S. over the range of four orders of magnitude, generally falling within a factor of 3 or 4 of historical estimates. Close agreement between simulated and historical fire size distributions suggest that fire sizes are determined by the joint distributions of spatial opportunities for fire growth (dependent on fuels and ignition location) and the temporal opportunities produced by conducive weather sequences. The research demonstrates a practical approach to using fire simulations at very broad scales for purposes of operational planning and perhaps ecological research.

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Acknowledgments

The authors are indebted to Brent Timothy, Jim Hutton, Stu Bedoll, Tom Quigley, and Danny Lee for their hard work and dedication to developing and operating the simulation system. This effort was made possible by the financial and logistical support provided by Bill Breedlove, Barb Loving, and Donna Scholz on behalf of FPA.

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Correspondence to Mark A. Finney.

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Finney, M.A., McHugh, C.W., Grenfell, I.C. et al. A simulation of probabilistic wildfire risk components for the continental United States. Stoch Environ Res Risk Assess 25, 973–1000 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00477-011-0462-z

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Keywords

  • Fire Behavior
  • Fire Spread
  • Large Fire
  • Fire Occurrence
  • Fire Size