april 2013

The Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) web-based application 
leverages geospatial data to inform strategic decisions on wildland fires. A specialized data team, working within the Wildland Fire Management Research Development and Application group (WFM RD&A), assembles authoritative national-level data sets defining values to be protected. The use of such high-quality trusted data ensures that critical resources, infrastructure and firefighter risk exposure are considered in both the planning and implementation phases of incident management (Figure 3 and Table 1).

Figure 3: Fire spread probability simulation (FsPro) outputs provide a geospatial display of infrastructure values overlaid on various fire spread 
probability bands (produced in WFDSS). Managers can readily see what the projected probability of fire spread is to the existing values.

Since wildland fires are most expensive when they occur adjacent to populated areas, affect multiple jurisdictions, and damage private property and structures, the need for more and better data to represent homes and individual structures throughout the country has become increasingly important. An accurate accounting of the number and approximate location of structures within the planning area for an individual fire is prerequisite to sound decision-making.

Successful acquisition and management of national-level data require considerable collaboration and communication among all affected jurisdictions and across all levels of government. The best data on where people live is maintained by county government agencies in the form of cadastral, or tax parcel, data. Since there are over 3,000 county governments in the United States, the magnitude of the necessary acquisition effort led to a partnership with wildland fire management agencies and other federal, state and local governments. This partnership was established by the creation of the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) National Cadastral Sub-Committee.

Starting in 2006, this partnership has developed business cases, established necessary data standards, and outlined procedures to consolidate and use cadastral data. The cadastral sub-committee has reached out to local county assessors, planners, natural resources and GIS staffs to acquire county geospatial parcel records. From this, authoritative county data can be consolidated by trusted state data stewards to provide information needed by federal wildland fire managers for incorporation into WFDSS.

From the cadastre record, building clusters representing the general structure locations are derived. When wildfires occur, local jurisdictions can immediately see the importance of their own data in improving decision-making and assessing wildland fire risk to property and homes.

Table 1: Tabular display of infrastructure values within each fire spread probability band (produced in WFDSS).

The WFM RD&A acquires nearly 40 geospatial data sets for use within WFDSS on an annual basis. Cadastral data is one example of leveraging geospatial data to provide real-time intelligence and enhance wildland fire managers’ decision-making capabilities. It is also a good example of information that did not exist in a readily usable format as little as 10 years ago.

Local land-use situations are changing rapidly with housing and infrastructure values dramatically expanding across the landscape. The ability to have and use this kind of data strongly advances decisions regarding kinds, types and numbers of firefighting response resources, tactics that will be used and where the highest priorities are.

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Ben Butler is Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) GIS Specialist with the 
Wildland Fire Management Research, Development, & Application Program at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Butler has an undergraduate degree in geography/GIS and a Master of Natural Resources degree with a concentration in fire ecology.

Andrew Bailey is Data Manager for Wildland Fire Management Research, Development, 
& Application Program, based at National 
Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Bailey has 10 years of experience in wildland fire management, fuels and smoke research, land management planning and GIS. Previously, he was with the North Carolina Forest Service where he served as GIS Coordination Forester.