Developing custom fire behavior fuel models from ecologically complex fuel structures for upper Atlantic Coastal Plain forests
Currently geospatial fire behavior analyses are performed with an array of fire behavior modeling systems such as FARSITE, FlamMap, and the Large Fire Simulation System. These systems currently require standard or customized surface fire behavior fuel models as inputs that are often assigned through remote sensing information. The ability to handle hundreds or thousands of measured surface fuelbeds representing the fine scale variation in fire behavior on the landscape is constrained in terms of creating compatible custom fire behavior fuel models. In this study, we demonstrate an objective method for taking ecologically complex fuelbeds from inventory observations and converting those into a set of custom fuel models that can be mapped to the original landscape. We use an original set of 629 fuel inventory plots measured on an 80,000 ha contiguous landscape in the upper Atlantic Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States. From models linking stand conditions to component fuel loads, we impute fuelbeds for over 6000 stands. These imputed fuelbeds were then converted to fire behavior parameters under extreme fuel moisture and wind conditions (97th percentile) using the fuel characteristic classification system (FCCS) to estimate surface fire rate of spread, surface fire flame length, shrub layer reaction intensity (heat load), non-woody layer reaction intensity, woody layer reaction intensity, and litter–lichen–moss layer reaction intensity. We performed hierarchical cluster analysis of the stands based on the values of the fire behavior parameters. The resulting 7 clusters were the basis for the development of 7 custom fire behavior fuel models from the cluster centroids that were calibrated against the FCCS point data for wind and fuel moisture. The latter process resulted in calibration against flame length as it was difficult to obtain a simultaneous calibration against both rate of spread and flame length. The clusters based on FCCS fire behavior parameters represent reasonably identifiable stand conditions, being: (1) pine dominated stands with more litter and down woody debris components than other stands, (2) hardwood and pine stands with no shrubs, (3) hardwood dominated stands with low shrub and high non-woody biomass and high down woody debris, (4) stands with high grass and forb (i.e., non-woody) biomass as well as substantial shrub biomass, (5) stands with both high shrub and litter biomass, (6) pine-mixed hardwood stands with moderate litter biomass and low shrub biomass, and (7) baldcypress-tupelo stands. Models representing these stand clusters generated flame lengths from 0.6 to 2.3 musing a 30 km h-1 wind speed and fireline intensities of 100–1500 kW m-1 that are typical within the range of experience on this landscape. The fuel models ranked 1 < 2 < 7 < 5 < 4 < 3 < 6 in terms of both flame length and fireline intensity. The method allows for ecologically complex data to be utilized in order to create a landscape representative of measured fuel conditions and to create models that interface with geospatial fire models.