By Josh McDaniel
Fact Sheet-Fire Behavior Modeling and Decision Support Systems
It is fair to say that wildland fire management has grown increasingly complex over the last few decades. Changing climates, an expanding wildland urban interface, and the ever-growing hazardous fuels problem have led to longer, more intense and complicated fire seasons.
In a parallel development, technological advances have dramatically increased the amount and quality of intelligence that a fire manager can bring to bear on a given fire. Fire behavior modeling, geospatial analysis, remote sensing, and weather forecasting, are available today that would have been inconceivable ten or even three years ago. Much of the new processes are being led by researchers at the U.S Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Despite the rapid changes that surround our personal and professional lives, the basic decision support application for line officers in fire management - the Wildland Fire Situation Analysis (WFSA) has remained essentially unchanged for nearly three decades. However, a number of changes are under way that signal a new era in wildland fire decision support.
Over the past decade many reviews of wildland fire business practices have highlighted concerns about the WFSA the most recent of which was an After Action Review (AAR) by the National Incident Commander/Area Commander Group following the busy 2006 fire season. They reiterated some of the common concerns about the WFSA system. Foremost among the concerns were their view that the system was “broken” and that “the WFSA process has become a justification tool for expenditure of dollars without any real solid connection to strategy and tactics on the ground.”
The Group recommended speeding up the development and implementation of the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) – a project that incorporates a number of new technologies in decision support along with the possibilities for redefining how the entire decision process might be changed to improve its usefulness.
At the request of the Wildland Fire Community and Agency Administrators – particularly the U.S. Forest Service, components of the WFDSS will be available online for this coming western fire season and, in fact, some are required to be used on larger U.S.Forest Service fires of regional ($5 million total cost) and national significance ($10 million).
WFDSS-FSPro. FSPro (Fire Spread Probability) is a spatial model that calculates the probability of fire spread from a current fire perimeter or ignition point for a specified time period. Inputs to the application are similar to the established FARSITE application, surface fuel model, aspect, elevation, slope, and canopy characteristics. These landscape characteristics are used in conjunction with historical ERC and wind data from a representative remote automated weather station (RAWS) as key model inputs. WFDSS-FSPro through the use of high end computers (there are 4 online for this season and will be staged at a secure IT center) can calculate fire spread probabilities out into the future. Projections can range from7 days to 90 days. The current “normal” projection is for a 10 – 14 day period.
WFDSS-RAVAR – RAVAR (Rapid Assessment of Values At Risk) is an economic process that uses the fire spread probability output from WFDSS-FSPro to provide inputs relative to the potential of a fire reaching identified areas of concern (structures, infrastructure, etc.) threatened by the fire, as well as assessments of non-monetary values such as critical habitat, cultural heritage sites. Working through a variety of partners: federal, state, and county estimated monetary values have been acquired for significant community assets. An indispensable partner in this process has been the Federal Geographic Data Committee Subcommittee for Cadastral Data lead by the Bureau of Land Management. This group has led the way in the partnering with individual counties all across the West in an effort to share information that they have gathered about their communities. (See ‘Calculated Risk’ in the March, 2007 issue for a more detailed description of WFDSS-FSPro and WFDSS-RAVAR).
The Stratified Cost Index (SCI) is a performance metric that Congress required the Federal agencies to begin to use in 2006. It compares fire expenditures by projected final fire size, to historical fires within the same region and with similar characteristics. The comparison occurs by looking at information at the ignition point concerning fuels, aspect, elevation, ERC, distance to communities and other boundary issues relative to land management allocation. A range of projected final fire sizes (acres) can be used. The use of SCI outputs during an active fire is intended to help better inform the Agency Administrator and the Incident Management team when discussions occur on suppression costs and strategies.
Eventually, WFDSS will replace the WFSA and WFIP (Wildland Fire Implementation Plan) process, but for the time being fire managers are being encouraged to use the online WFSA and WFIP site called the Wildland Fire AMR.
Wildland Fire AMR (Appropriate Management Response) – A New and Better Way
The Wildland Fire AMR site (www.wildlandfireamr.net) is essentially a turbo-charged version of the stand-alone WFSA and WFIP software. The system provides a number of features that make it a much more effective and efficient tool for decision support.
Most importantly, the online site facilitates communication and collaboration on the WFSA or WFIP. Now, fire managers can work on a WFSA or WFIP with state, regional or national offices to collaborate on complex decisions, and share risks more broadly through the management hierarchy. It can also speed up the process.
Ellen Bogardis-Szymaniak, a prescribed fire and fuels specialist with the Superior and Chippewa National Forests, used the online site to develop a number WFSAs during the 2006 fire season. “I work in northern Minnesota while my signing official is in Milwaukee. When I was using the stand alone WFSA software we had to do a lot of converting files into different formats, faxing back and forth, etc; completing the WFSA took up a lot of time. Using the online version was much quicker. If the signing official needed changes we could do it together instantly online.”
Working online also provides other advantages. Users can search for other WFSAs and WFIPs completed in their area, and compare how other managers have responded when faced with similar situations. ICs, fire planners, and other personnel can see information on the fire situation before they arrive on an incident. And, perhaps most importantly, with the current emphasis on management efficiency and cost savings, online WFSAs and WFIPs allow regions and agency administrators to track key decisions and rationale that influenced them earlier in the process.
A number of the features on the online AMR are notable improvements over the stand-alone WFSA/WFIP software. Using the site, it is no longer necessary to wake up the GIS specialist in the middle of the night - there is a user friendly mapping tool that allows a non-GIS trained user to map fire perimeter, calculate acreages, and identify structures and other values at risk with a labeling tool. Fire Perimeters and WFSA alternatives can be drawn on the map and become a part of the completed package.
John Szymoniak, Business lead for the WFSA/WFIP applications and WFDSS commented that “The WFSA has always had the problem of attempting to describe a spatial problem with text. The AMR mapping tool allows users to accomplish some basic, but powerful mapping as a part of the process. It is very intuitive and can really help to communicate the fire situation.”
There is also the ability to pull data from a number of sources. Users can easily download weather data from local RAWS stations and a number of weather forecasting tools are linked through the site. The newest feature relative to weather is to easily access, graph and store into the final decision documents, critical 7 day fire weather forecast elements from the Western Regional National Weather Services National Digital Database
Taking the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) to the Next Level
John Szymoniak sees the online AMR as the first step in a process to move decision support online. In the coming years, he believes WFDSS will become the primary tool and will replace the WFSA and WFIP.
“Everything is moving towards a web application. It opens up the ability to use a wealth of tools and data that would not be possible on individual computers. The potential to share in complex decision-making in an increasingly complex fire environment is extremely important.”
This year WFDSS – FSPro will be run by analysts trained at the Missoula Fire Lab. In the coming years, more and more of the controls will be handed over to users, but for now, users log on, create a profile, and provide some basic descriptive information regarding a fire. From there, analysts will work with them to gather data, run the models, and interpret the output.
Limited computing capacity requires that the system use priority settings. So, requests for WFDSS-FSPRO or WFDSS-RAVAR model runs are queued in the following order 1) fires of national significance, 2) fires of regional significance, and 3) other fires including emerging episodes (widespread lightning ignitions) wildland fire use and possibly prescribed fire planning.
In 2006, features of the WFDSS were used on 70 fires. While many of these were large fires in the first two categories, the system was also used on a number of smaller fires in California and the Pacific Northwest. Fire managers found that the system was useful in situations with lots of ignitions starting at once, requiring a prioritization process for distributing initial attack resources and requesting outside resources for fires with potential to become problem fires. WFDSS-FSPRO and WFDSS-RAVAR model runs helped to prioritize the fires, provide long term assessments, and to do some ‘gaming’ of different strategies and tactics.
John Szymoniak stresses that the Wildland Fire AMR site and WFDSS are the future of decision support and that the sooner fire managers begin working online, the easier the transition will be down the road. As we move into the 2007 fire season and beyond, fire managers across the country will have the opportunity to access these tools. And, as these online applications develop there is no doubt they have the potential to transform many aspects of fire management decision-making and how these wildland fire business practices are accomplished.
“Decision support is about getting the right resources in the right place for the right reasons,” says Szymoniak.” These tools help facilitate that process and make it more transparent. We need to be able to improve the way we share and display the complex decisions that are made in the management of wildland fire.”
Written by Josh McDaniel.