Scientists Look to Big Data to Address Local Fire Problems

Special session at international meeting explores technological developments in wildfire management

In Bastrop State Park, snags, surviving pines, aggressively resprouting holly (Ilex sp.), and clumped pine regeneration are seen 4 years after the Bastrop County Complex fire. Developed areas are visible in the background. Photo by Steve Norman, U.S. Forest Service.
In Bastrop State Park, snags, surviving pines, aggressively resprouting holly (Ilex sp.), and clumped pine regeneration seen 4 years after the Bastrop County Complex fire. Developed areas are visible in the background. Photo by Steve Norman, U.S. Forest Service.

The case of the Bastrop County Complex illustrates the need for a new way of thinking about the issue of wildfire. In September of 2011, a year of severe drought, a summer of record-breaking heat, winds from a tropical storm, and a few sparks combined to create the fire, which burned through 34,000 acres of southeastern Texas, claiming two lives and nearly 1,700 homes and leaving property damage totaling $325 million. In addition to human tragedy, the fire torched most of a unique population of loblolly pines in the area’s famous Lost Pines Forest.

Four years later, the memory still fresh in the minds of community members, 575 fire scientists and managers from around the world met nearby in San Antonio during the Association for Fire Ecology’s (AFE) Sixth International Congress — an important knowledge sharing event around the role of fire in land management that only happens once every two or three years. Among the attendees were scientists from the U.S. Forest Service Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center and partners from Oak Ridge National Laboratory who presented a large body of research during a special session focused on leveraging big data for fire monitoring, planning, and management.

“By big data we mean the use of large datasets that previously did not exist or that were too cumbersome to process or disseminate efficiently. Sometimes we mean a large number of datasets that can be integrated, as with risk assessments, or a single dataset that is big because of its spatial resolution or frequency. Many are large because they cover extensive areas, like the whole continental United States or Earth, but large datasets also result from very detailed analyses of smaller landscapes,” explains Steve Norman, research ecologist with the Eastern Threat Center who co-organized the special session along with Center Director Danny C. Lee.

“Not that long ago, such datasets did not exist and few people had the means to analyze them. Our session explored how technological developments can help us better address fire management and science questions we’ve long had, but have struggled with, as well as ask important questions we never thought to ask before.”

According to Norman, while fire and related data may be available for the whole country, this does not mean that the data are only useful for national and regional policymakers or experts. “These data products often have relevance for local areas, such as datasets that describe fire hazards and risks and that monitor forest change. We can narrow down to places like Bastrop, Texas, to understand fire impacts using the same tools that we use to track fires and fire hazards across the greater region,” says Norman. Fire behavior during the 2011 Bastrop County Complex was much more severe than had been experienced before in the area. Big data can provide insights toward better solutions for living with fire, especially as similar fire behavior changes are occurring elsewhere in the nation.

Norman says the highlight of the Congress for him was a day trip to lands burned in the Bastrop County Complex that allowed him and other attendees to better understand the fire’s aftermath. “Finding solutions to local fire problems is sometimes so difficult that we need to bring everything we have to bear on the issue,” says Norman. “The AFE International Congress provided a realized opportunity to network with scientists, non-governmental organizations, and forest managers — to learn from their successes and approaches to problem solving.”

Access program and session abstracts from the Association for Fire Ecology’s Sixth International Congress.

For more information, email Steve Norman at stevenorman@fs.fed.us.

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