Los Alamos National Laboratory, USGS Partner To Advance Wildland Fire Research

Photo Courtesy LANL


Los Alamos National Laboratory and the U.S. Geological Survey have entered a partnership to produce advanced computer models to predict the behavior of wildfires and prescribed fires. Models will help fire, land and emergency managers plan for, respond to and study the effects of fire on natural landscapes and in the wildland-urban interface. They will also help design the safest, most effective prooactive measures such as prescribed fire and other fuel treatments.  

The partnership, which was formalized with the signing of a memorandum of understanding, combines the long-term fire and land management science and vegetation mapping expertise of the USGS with the advanced modeling capabilities of Los Alamos.

“We are aiming to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the independent parts,” said Rod Linn, who leads wildfire modeing at Los Alamos. “Increasingly available, higher-fidelity data describing the fire environment, such as fuels, atmosphere and topography, enables modeling efforts to envision and realize a more comprehensive description of fire behavior and fire effects. Forward-thinking model development can inspire creative data collection and mapping directions.”

“The partnership between these two agencies creates an unparalleled opportunity to meet fire managers’ needs at local to continental scales in USGS priority areas of climate-fire impacts, natural hazards and risk reduction and ecosystem response to fire,” said Dave Applegate, associate director of Natural Hazards Exercising the Delegated Authority of the Director with USGS.

“Fire is an unavoidable element of many ecosystems and attempting to exclude fire can lead to unhealthy landscapes and catastrophic fires,” Linn said. 

Prescribed fires are intended to enable fire to serve its critical ecosystem functions while reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

“Unfortunately, dynamic and mixed environmental conditions can present challenges to safe execution of these fires, as we have seen in New Mexico this year,” said Linn. “Gaining better understanding of the science of fire and the coupled dynamics of the fire envirionment—winds and vegetation—is crucial to planning and carrying out prescribed fires with the least negative impact.”

Fire models help managers plan prescribed fires, including where, when and how these should be completed to reach their wildfire risk-reduction and ecological objectives, while minimizing safety risks and smoke exposure. They also can help managers understand and forecast where a wildfire will move and its intensity, saving lives and money. But current fire models have limitations that reduce their usefulness and accuracy.

Over the last 20 years, Los Alamos has developed advanced fire modeling tools, called coupled fire-atmospheric feedback models, that overcome the limitations of existing fire models. The Lab’s fire models integrate fire behavior with ecological variation, such as subtle changes in vegetation, before, during and after fires. However, the models need up-to-date, high-resolution data, like weather conditions, as well as abundance and conditions of burnable material, called fuels, to produce high-quality results on fire and smoke behavior.

For decades, the USGS has produced fire-related science, national datasets and tools to support Department of the Interior land management agencies. More recently, the USGS has collected high-resolution lidar data, used to classify vegetation and other fuels on the landscape. The USGS lidar data will increase the accuracy of the Los Alamos models.

This partnership leverages USGS expertise in 3D mapping of terrain and vegetation to support the application of the Los Alamos suite of advanced fire modeling tools and will provide the science support to both research communities and fire managers who will increasingly rely on more sophisticated understanding of fire behavior to confront novel fire behavior under a changing climate,” said Anne Kinsinger, associate director for ecosystems with USGS.

Beyond advancing fire behavior models, this partnership will also formalize work already being undertaken between the two agencies to test the model’s results on federal lands. It will allow for creating a virtual, interagency fire-climate-ecosystem modeling center to sustain and apply emerging modeling technology to real-world fire challenges faced by federal, tribal, state and local land managers.