A map of the Silver Fire showing soil burn severity information. Note the previous wildfire perimeters outlined in black (Evans 2014).

Topic: Communications / Outreach Wildfire Type: Tools / Resources

Striving for a More Complete Portrayal of Wildfires

Authors: Nick Goulette

The National Fire Protection Association recently blogged about confusing U.S. wildland fire statistics and called for more accurate and integrated wildfire data collection and reporting. I’ve also heard fire historian Stephen Pyne say something along the lines of: “those of us in the wildland fire community have lousy metrics.”

Zander Evans at the Forest Guild recently authored an analysis of the 2013 wildfire season in the Southwest that is intended to help address one aspect of this problem, the dearth of wildfire reports that enable one to understand a fire’s true ecological and socioeconomic effects.

The Forest Guild, incidentally, is helping spearhead FAC efforts in New Mexico and Evans expresses a desire for his study to help the public “better understand fire and create fire-adapted communities” and to “move the conversation beyond the simplistic ‘acres burned.’”

2013 Wildfire Season: An Overview. Southwestern U.S. (published by the Ecological Restoration Institute and the Southwest Fire Science Consortium) profiles eight large wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico in 2013, summarizing several types of data for each wildfire, including soil damage, canopy mortality, vegetation types (and associated fire regime descriptions), amount of housing development and degree of vegetation departure relative to pre-European settlement. Evans uses this information to draw conclusions about whether a given fire’s effects should be considered uncharacteristic.

2013 was a mild fire year in the Southwest, with only 317,000 acres burned versus an annual average of 700,000 acres since 2002. The lightning-ignited Silver Fire was the largest at 138,705 acres. More than 70,000 acres was mixed-conifer, which helps explain why the majority of acres burned across all eight fires were mixed-conifer. (The Thompson Ridge and Tres Lagunas fires were also mainly in mixed-conifer.) Only 26 percent of the area analyzed burned with high soil burn severity, and 31 percent had a high degree of canopy mortality. Only one fire, Yarnell Hill, had a significant amount of land designated as wildland-urban interface or intermix. In a nutshell, much of the fire in 2013 was the kind these landscapes need and are used to.

soil_burn_summary_graphFig29-_legend

Summary of acres burned in all eight wildfires by soil burn severity class (Evans 2014).

I suspect these numbers, which indicate that Southwestern ecosystems experienced a large amount of “good fire” in 2013, would be surprising to many outside the wildland fire community. The press hasn’t picked up this story, at least not yet (see press release), but the report has been downloaded more than 3,200 times from the Forest Guild’s website.

(Side note: Toward the end of February 2014, the Santa Fe New Mexican, Arizona Daily Star and radio station KUNM ran stories highlighting the need for Southwestern communities to learn to live with fire.)

What do you think? Would graphs and maps like the ones included in this post help in your efforts to educate the public about fire?

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