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ISU Researchers, BLM Team to Predict Wildfire Hazards

ISU Researchers, BLM Team to Predict Wildfire Hazards

Pocatello ­ Idaho State University and the Idaho Upper Snake River District of the Bureau of Land Management are teaming to help southeast Idaho municipalities determine wildfire risks on their perimeters, which could some day help reduce damage by wildland fires such as the one that recently burned in the Pocatello Creek/Buckskin area of Pocatello.

“There has been increased danger from fires to private property as more people move into fringe areas where wildland meets urban areas and private developments,” said Felicia Burkhardt, BLM Upper Snake River District Geographic Information Systems (GIS) coordinator, who works in the Burley BLM Field Office.

“We’re teaming with local fire departments and individuals to help people make sensible choices and to implement practical ideas to reduce or mitigate the threat of wildfire,” she said.

A BLM program, “Wildland/Urban Interface and Communities at Risk Joint Cooperative GIS Review,” is funding a five-year fire risk study at ISU’s Geographic Information System Training and Research Center (GIS TReC).

ISU is in the process of completing a GIS analysis of wildland fires and a study of emergency response times to fires near Pocatello. ISU began a similar study of the Lava Hot Springs area this summer.

“We’re using data collected from 1939 to 2000 that details historical wildfire locations and data from NASA satellite images to create wildland/urban interface risk maps for Pocatello and other communities,” said Keith Weber, ISU GIS Director. “We use a variety of data such as vegetation growth, topography, steepness of slope, and the roads and streets of an area to determine fire hazards.”

For example, a vegetative analysis can be coupled with a moisture analysis to help determine a specific type of risk. Moist vegetation or vegetation near a water source, such as the Portneuf River flowing through Pocatello or Lava Hot Springs, can be less risk than thick vegetation on a remote dry slope. South slopes are much drier than north slopes, and flames travel more quickly up steeper slopes.

“Fire moves fastest up steep slopes, somewhat slower over flat land, and slowest when moving down slopes,” Weber noted. “We weave this information together to identify areas that are more at risk.”

The basic topography of an area plays an important role in relative fire danger. The ISU researchers are incorporating three years of data on lightning strikes, documenting more than 50,000 points of lightning strikes in the region to assess the risk posed by lightning. Mountainous and hilly areas are at much greater risk from lightning than are flat areas like the Snake River Plain.

“We’ve also completed response time modeling using GIS data of streets and roads in Pocatello to predict how long it would take emergency response vehicles to travel to an emergency,” Weber said. “The Pocatello Fire Department has used the data and found it to be accurate.”

Pocatello Fire Chief Ben Estes said he likes the information he’s received so far from the ISU studies, but is more excited about the future.

“This isn’t just mapping ­ it’s extensive GIS analysis of the wildland/urban interface that can provide information that is crucial to citizens’ needs, both private individuals and emergency response personnel,” Estes said. “I think what we have is a beginning, and the next phase of the project will be of great value as we incorporate the response time information with the current risk analysis data, and add to that body of knowledge. With more comprehensive information we will be able to create a model of wildland/urban area fire dangers that could be used anywhere. We’re fortunate to have the ISU GIS lab here or we wouldn’t be able to accomplish this project.”

Citizens living in areas of highest fire danger can then take steps to protect themselves by removing downed fuel and removing flammables 30 feet or more from their structures, noted Burkhardt. Fire departments can also plan better response times, possibly using the information to build new stations.

Researchers will have to continue to update data on the areas they study because conditions change in specific areas, and the wildland/urban interface varies widely between Idaho cites. Pocatello and Lava Hot Springs, located in mountain valleys in close proximity to public wildlands, have a much different set of wildfire problems than Burley, with the Snake River flowing through and situated on a flat, largely surrounded by agricultural lands.

“We anticipate other BLM offices across the state may participate with other higher education institutions to complete the same type of studies,” Burkhardt said. “We’re trying to collect information to provide to the public so individuals and local fire protection authorities can help protect their own backyards.”