Simply knowing how much fuel is present at any particular location on the ground is often the weakest link in the planning process.
Managers now have a new tool to assign and calculate fuel loadings and other fuelbed characteristics anywhere in the continental United States, making the job of estimating fire hazard and fire effects faster and more accurate. The recently released software, called the Fuel Characteristic Classification System (FCCS), was developed by scientists at the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory. The Seattle-based lab is part of the USDA Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station.
The FCCS is based on a data library of nearly 250 fuelbeds. "Each fuelbed is a unique description of fuel from the ground to the canopy," says Roger Ottmar, a research forester and member of the FCCS development team. "This is the first time anyone has developed a system to create and store fuelbeds for assigning real fuels to predict fire effects and fire behavior."
The software allows fire managers to determine the amount of fuel, how it is distributed on the forest floor and in the tree canopy and understory, and the potential behavior of a fire once it ignites.
And there are other applications. "Not all fires are created equal; different fuels produce different amounts of smoke," says Don McKenzie, a research ecologist and developer of a map of FCCS fuelbeds for the continental United States. "The national map can be used to estimate how much smoke will be produced by wildfires and how much air pollution will be experienced in different areas of the country. This will help us do a better job of complying with pollution regulations."
The FCCS is rapidly becoming the new standard for quantifying and mapping fuels in the United States and beyond. For example, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in north-central Washington is mapping FCCS fuelbeds across millions of acres of fire-prone forest land.
"Much of the interior West has lots of trees and other vegetation because we have excluded fire for several decades," adds Ottmar. "Making a dent in those fuel loads is a big job, and fire managers need the best information to help them get it done. We expect that the FCCS will soon provide the scientific basis for most fire planning and hazard- reduction activities in the United States."