Photo Credit: Spatial management processes, such as the development of Potential Operational Delineations, is creating pathways for more informed, collaborative and safety-focused wildfire management. Photo by USDA Forest Service

At the end of a windy summer day, an engine captain receives a smoke report from the dispatch center, readies his crew, and heads up the mountain in search of the fire. The crew rounds a bend and finds the flames. The fire is approximately 1-acre and located on a steep, rocky hillside. The area is covered in dead, standing trees that were killed during the last bark beetle outbreak. In our suppression-dominated past, the captain and his crew would have left their engine and trekked a thousand feet up the hillside, dragging heavy hand tools, chainsaws and supplies with them. Once there, they would begin cutting trees, digging line, spraying water, and trying to keep the fire as small as possible. Without having completed a detailed cost-benefit analysis or risk assessment, those firefighters would have a singular focus: putting the fire out as quickly as possible.

In scenes like that, or during wildfire response more generally, it is often difficult for firefighters to quickly and fully consider the risks that they expose themselves to, the potential ecological benefits that the fire could provide, or if the nearby values at risk actually necessitate fire suppression. When firefighters do stop to consider these factors, they may find that it makes sense to back off to a nearby road, for either ecological or safety reasons. Still, they often have little agency to change strategy, and even if they could, they are unsure if their decision would be supported and who would be blamed if things went awry.

In an effort to change this approach, scientists at the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute are promoting a new initiative that combines local knowledge from firefighters and resource specialists with advanced spatial analysis. The resulting output is a detailed risk assessment, capable of informing wildfire planning and response before the fire even starts. By mapping potential control lines that could be used to help contain wildfires (i.e., control features such as roads, trails, ridgelines, drainages, old burns, recent fuel treatments and pretty much anything that could keep a fire in check), land managers collaboratively develop Potential Operational Delineations (PODs).

PODs can range in size from several hundred to several thousand acres and are mapped irrespective of jurisdictional boundaries. Experienced firefighters already think about the landscape in this way, but in the past, this information remained in their heads and was unavailable to others who were less familiar with a given firescape.

Map with hand-drawn polygons and post-it notes on it

Hand-drawn Potential Operational Delineations (PODs) on a map of the northern Colorado Front Range. These PODs consider control features in relation to topography, timber, wildlife habitat and critical water infrastructure. Credit: Mike Caggiano, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, Colorado State University

Improved Situational Awareness

In addition to mapping out control features, PODs can incorporate other information, such as values at risk, topography and vegetation. The process incorporates these data into models that then help stakeholders understand the difficulty of suppression, the likelihood of a given control line’s effectiveness, and the ecological effects fire could have under a range of conditions. Seeing all of that information on one map allows stakeholders to better understand potential risks and benefits and to develop fire management strategies. In short, it frontloads much of the planning associated with wildfire response, control features and wildfire behavior.

Heightened Communication, Stronger Relationships

Because these maps are developed collaboratively, they also help improve relationships and stakeholder buy-in. They improve communication among resource specialists, line officers and the public. Further, this effort serves to empower firefighters to make decisions that not only encourage safe and effective fire response but also improve forest health. Because the maps are developed collaboratively and utilize detailed risk assessments, local firefighters know they are making smart decisions and that their actions will be supported by the line officers, agency administrators and communities.

People drawing on a map

Firefighters, land managers and resource specialists use the POD process to develop spatial fire management strategies for a portion of the Colorado Front Range. This particular effort was supported by the Northern Colorado Fireshed Initiative, a local watershed collaborative that includes the USDA Forest Service, fire departments, conservation groups, businesses and community members. Credit: Mike Caggiano, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, Colorado State University

An Example from Arizona

The Tonto National Forest recently conducted POD planning, and last year it successfully leveraged that effort to manage several wildfires, illustrating the utility and flexibility of this approach. In areas with high values at risk, such as communities living in the wildland-urban interface, fires were aggressively attacked and kept small using pre-identified control features, such as roads. Fires in PODs that were in poorly accessible wilderness were managed when conditions were favorable, and then controlled from POD boundaries when conditions changed. PODs aren’t one-size-fits-all prescriptions, and they don’t limit the decision-making process. However, through pre-planning before the fire, they provide a detailed analysis, clearly articulated objectives and an informed response strategy. Firefighters can now focus on incident strategies and tactics, while knowing that they have the support of managers and buy-in from local stakeholders.

Map of Tonto National Forest’s Potential Operational Delineations, color-coded according to the ideal management strategy for each respective POD.

A map of Tonto National Forest’s PODs, color-coded according to the ideal management strategy for each respective POD. Credit: Kit O’Connor, Rocky Mountain Research Station

Recently a manager explained the benefit of this effort from her perspective. She explained that conducting the analysis ahead of time improved situational awareness and communication flows, as well as provided consistent responses. After having gone through this mapping and analysis process with her staff and local cooperators, it took pressure off firefighters, incident commanders and agency staff. Her team can now view ignition locations in the context of PODs, allowing them to quickly identify and implement objectives as well as wildfire response and management strategies under a range of conditions. POD preplanning facilitates smart and transparent decision making, allows good fire to burn under the right conditions, and informs aggressive strategies when fires need to be suppressed.

In terms of the fire I described at the beginning of this post, after going through a spatial fire management planning effort, perhaps the fire could be managed differently. Out of consideration of crew safety, the incident commander might decide to back off to the road to the valley bottom which was already identified as the most effective nearby control line. The fire would then be allowed to burn, slowly backing down the hill, consuming dead beetle kill, and recycling nutrients back into the soil. Clearing the forest of dead trees would help create a healthy and more heterogeneous forest stand structure, one capable of improving the watershed while protecting communities from future, more catastrophic fires.

Author’s note: If have questions about the POD approach and/or are interested in receiving assistance in developing PODs for your local landscape, please contact me. You can also learn more about the science and application of PODs by viewing this webinar, or by reading this paper.

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