Editor’s Note: Tyler A. Beeton and Katarina Warnick are Research Associates with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University. They recently took part in a well-attended February, 2021 virtual workshop hosted by the Rocky Mountain Research Station’s (RMRS) Wildfire Risk Management Science team (WRMS). The workshop focused on Potential Operational Delineations also called PODs. The POD framework is an emerging collaborative spatial fire planning and decision support tool. Here Tyler and Katarina share their perspective on three key themes that emerged from the February workshop. They focus on how PODs can change the game for fire operations, strategic multi-year restoration investment and planning, and co-managing wildfire risk.

It was clear from the get-go that we weren’t the only ones excited for the inaugural Potential Operational Delineations (PODs) Collaborative Fire Planning Workshop, hosted by the Rocky Mountain Research Station’s (RMRS) Wildfire Risk Management Science team (WRMS) held virtually in February 2021. Well over 500 people registered in just 3 weeks after registration went live, which maxed out the Zoom room capacity and forced the planning committee to close registration. This event and topic was something folks were ready to engage on. And there is reason why – the PODs process is an exciting and emerging framework that leverages local expertise with sophisticated modeling tools to identify features on the landscape – the streams, roads, ridges and fire scars – that have a high likelihood of containing a fire (see example below). Since taking off, the PODs framework has been developed and deployed in different contexts across the United States (over 40 national forests and counting). And while PODs were initially envisioned to support incident management, managers and communities have expanded the application of this tool in a number of ways. Several key themes related to the potential benefits of PODs emerged from the workshop, here are three.

PODs network on the Pike San Isabel National Forests. Fire managers deliberate and hand-draw effective control lines based on their local knowledge and spatial analytical tools. The control lines are then digitized to develop the PODs network seen here.

Leveraging local knowledge with spatial analytics for risk-informed decision-making

PODs are developed in a collaborative workshop setting with the input and knowledge of firefighters and local land managers who know the landscape like the back of their hand. During these workshops, local knowledge and expertise is combined with advanced spatial analytical models, including the Suppression Difficulty Index (SDI) and Potential Control Line (PCL) analysis. The SDI depicts areas of high and low risk to firefighter safety, while the PCL identifies where and what factors contributed to past fire containment or spread. Pairing local knowledge with advanced analytics helps to shift prioritization away from the next ridge and instead toward the right ridge for safe and effective response.

PODs are often combined with Quantitative Wildfire Risk Assessments (QWRAs). Like PODs, QWRAs pair sophisticated fire modeling with local expertise to identify what resources and assets of management concern need to be considered, where they occur on the landscape and the positive and negative effects of wildfire on resources and assets. Risk assessment results can be summarized into strategic response zones for each POD. For example, “maintain zones” are areas where wildfires are expected to provide positive benefits, so that under the right conditions a fire may be managed for resource benefit (see map below). A workshop participant cautioned, however, that the decision to manage a fire, rather than suppress it must ultimately rest on whether it is the right time (e.g., did the start occur during range permittee turn-out times?), right place (e.g., are there sensitive species habitat concerns?), right conditions (e.g., what are the expected weather conditions?), and whether adequate personnel and other resources are on board to maximize safe and effective response.

PODs network and Strategic Response Zones on the Pike San-Isabel National Forests. Strategic response zones summarize quantitative wildfire risk assessment results for each POD. Green zones indicate areas where fire is likely to have positive impacts on resources, yellow zones are areas where fire may provide positive benefits under the right fire weather conditions, and red zones are areas where fire under any condition will negatively impact resources and assets.

Shifting strategy from random acts of restoration to a targeted approach

Several individuals emphasized that the current model of ‘stands and compartments’ vegetation management where ‘random acts of restoration’ occur opportunistically on the landscape have been largely unsuccessful at managing wildfire at scale. Big, bad fires are still happening and worsening, and the social and ecological impacts are significant. Panelists and participants noted that PODs provide a framework to shift our strategy to long-term, landscape-scale treatment prioritization. The scale of actions needed to restore fire-adapted ecosystems is immense, and it is impractical to treat the entire landscape. Using the adage ‘the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at time,’ one panelist suggested the need to strategically restore landscapes one POD at a time. Doing so could contribute to meaningful outcomes at meaningful scales, in this case changing wildfire behavior across the “fireshed”. A fireshed is conceptually similar to a watershed, though is defined as areas that encompass similar wildfire risk and where the identification and prioritization of treatments can modify wildfire behavior (Bahro et al. 2007).

The Arapaho Roosevelt National Forests leadership tested this new model of thinking. Forest managers worked with partners to construct a line of PODs running north to south slated for thinning treatments and prescribed fire, the goals of which were to inhibit fire spread and protect communities and other assets to the east. This line of defense was tested during the 2020 Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado state history. Although the fire occurred before the strategy was fully implemented, fire behavior was significantly modified in most cases where it interacted with treated PODs and previous fire scars. Check out the video below depicting the fire spread, dark red polygons depict previous fire scars. Blue polygons denote PODs that were treated (thinning, burned) prior to the fire.

This shows that if the management objective is to change wildfire behavior and risk across large landscapes, there is a need for a multi-year restoration strategy. PODs provide a useful way to carve up the landscape making it more manageable for restoration and more relevant for fire operations. In addition, PODs can provide more meaningful outcomes and a more useful and visual tool in communicating the “what” and “why” of management actions across specialists, organizations and communities. Lastly, the strategy of collaborative planning allows for a shift in focus from standard performance-measures that emphasize outputs, such as timber volume, to outcomes that promote resilient landscapes and communities.

Breaking down boundaries to co-manage wildfire risk

Part of the power of PODs is that it’s a highly collaborative process that facilitates communication and planning across boundaries, extending outside the fire shop and out to communities, cooperators and local leadership. Workshop participants noted that the collaborative nature of the PODs process helps to break down internal agency silos. Having the fire staff, timber staff and myriad “-ologists” in the room helps communicate where lines are, why they are there and what resources and assets of concern are contained within PODs. Among cooperators, the exercise of co-developing control lines helps illustrate why jurisdictional boundaries may not provide the most appropriate containment features. It also allows for discussions early on about potentially conflicting management objectives that may affect fire response so that there are no surprises when smoke is in the air. Finally, collaborative pre-season planning and communication with communities and local government officials can help return fire to the landscape. The WRMS team collaborated with the Tonto National Forest in several workshops to delineate PODs and develop strategic response zones. The District Fire Management Officer took this information to county commissioners, city council and the mayor to discuss options for managing a wildfire. Just a couple months later in a community meeting about the 2017 Pinal Fire, the Forest Supervisor on the Tonto National Forest was pleasantly surprised when the mayor stood up and voiced support for the need to manage the fire and not suppress it.  When local leaders are engaged in the process prior to smoke being in the air they are more likely to understand and support management objectives, leading to forest and fire managers not feeling alone in managing risk. PODs are not just a scientific tool for fire operations and planning – it’s also a catalyst for social change in the world of wildfire management.

Closing the workshop, RMRS research forester and WRMS team member Matt Thompson advocated for focusing future efforts on conversation and collaboration to co-manage wildfire risk. He encouraged the investment of resources in helping others learn more about PODs and expanding the process to other places through community coalitions and other boundary-spanning organizations. He noted that the fostering of an inclusive, diverse community of practice for sharing lessons learned, mentoring and networking is the best way for us all to work towards a better future with fire.

If you are interested in connecting with and learning more about PODs, check out the following resources:

  1. A PODs webpage developed by the WRMS team which is full of great information and resources about PODs
  2. Recordings from the workshop and breakout groups.

The WRMS team is convening a PODs community of practice. For any questions, feedback or comments related to PODs in general, or to express interest in joining the community of practice send an email to SM.FS.WRMS@usda.gov.

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