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The Burning Question of Our Forests This Year’s “HOT” Topic

William E. Schlosser, Ph.D.
Forester, Northwest Management, Inc.

The forest management issues in the interior west incorporate a variety of topics including insect and disease control, forestland taxes, access, log markets, societal values, and fire management, to name a few. Each of these topics moves into the forefront of discussions and then just as easily moves back out of vogue again. Today, fire management on forestlands is a “hot” topic that has captured the attention not only of the interior west, but the nation as well.

For the first time in history, our nation has embraced a National Fire Plan to address the need to assess, identify, and mitigate potential losses created from unchecked wildland fires that ravage the once remote forestlands of the region. The west has received much of the national attention as raging fires have been played on the evening broadcasts for the country to see “first hand” how Denver, Missoula, Boise, Spokane, or any of a hundred cities, are dealing with wildfire induced casualty loss.

This fiery problem is exacerbated by our nationwide four-decade-exodus from cities to urban areas. The resulting wildland-urban interface has created a logistical nightmare for wildland fire protection agencies and rural fire protection departments to protect homes while attempting to halt the forest fire. These efforts are complicated by houses with no defensible space, driveways that cannot accommodate firefighting equipment, and steep slopes that lead up to the house (with a “grand view”).

In a 10 year plan, the Bush Administration has encouraged the creation of Fire Mitigation Plans, developed at the County and community level. These plans are designed to identify the fire risk in each area, prioritize risk zones, develop and implement mitigation activities so that the potential for casualty loss as a result of a wildfire is averted before the fire is ever ignited.

This year, Northwest Management, Inc., has had the privilege to work with six counties in Idaho, and one Indian Reservation in Montana to develop a new and insightful analysis technique to assess wildfire risks. Our approach integrates geographical information systems (GIS), global positioning systems (GPS), and remote sensing (satellite imagery), with on the ground observations, measurements, and predictions of fire behavior. The goal of this investigation is to reduce the potential of casualty loss in the wildland-urban interface where life and property are at risk to wildfires.

Our analysis first evaluates plant cover in the region to identify where forest, shrub, and grass communities are prone to rapid fire spread, such as lodgepole pine, Douglas-fir, or sagebrush, among others. This is done using satellite imagery to analyze cover characteristics. Then, we overlay that information with measurements of where the land is the driest in the summer fire season; those areas which face either southerly or westerly. We remove riparian zones from the target areas to reflect the wetter conditions commonly found in these places. Finally, we combine all of these factors with slope to place the lowest risk factor on flat ground and the highest risk factor on the steepest slopes.

The result of these measurements is mapped with roads, communities, property ownership, and structure locations to identify not only where the highest fire risk areas are located, but where they are closest to homes and communities. This technique, developed by Northwest Management, has been instrumental in identifying where the greatest risks are in each community, where the fires are likely to spread once ignited, and where initial mitigation efforts should be concentrated.

We have combined this information with rural fire districts and wildland fire agencies to identify where fire fighting resources and personnel are in relation to the greatest fire risks.

Samples of these maps are posted on our web site at and can be viewed as either a graphic image or as a PDF file. If you are interested in learning more about what Northwest Management, Inc., and our partners are doing with fire mitigation efforts, we welcome you to contact us!

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