A Moment of Science

Mapping Wildfires

Wildfires usually strike without warning, and can consume thousands of acres of forest and destroy grasslands.

Wildfire Consumes

Photo: LouAngeli2008 (flickr)

As the population grows, people move to previously uninhabited places. This has been the cause of more human deaths because there's no match for those flames!

Wildfires usually strike without warning, and can consume thousands of acres of forest and destroy grasslands.

For all their fury, though, until recently wildfires didn’t cause many human casualties or destroy buildings and other property, for a simple reason. Most wildfires occur in the wild, places where people tend not to live.

In the past twenty years, though, as the population of the United States has expanded, more people are moving into previously uninhabited areas. Whatever they gain in terms of being closer to nature and away from the bustle of modern life, they also face the risk of increasingly violent wildfires. This has caused a rise in the number of deaths due to wildfires among firefighters and the civilians whose homes the firefighters are trying to protect.

Since there’s no way of knowing precisely when and where wildfires may occur, there’s no way of preventing them. However, there are ways to prepare and warn people who may be at risk.

Researchers at the LANDFIRE program at the Missoula fire sciences laboratory in Montana, create detailed, multilayered maps showing an area’s vegetation, wildfire fuel sources, and the proximity of human dwellings to where fires might reach. Using the maps, land managers can predict how rapidly fires will spread across a landscape, where fires will spread, and how much energy a fire will release.

The maps may not help stop wildfires before they begin, but they can help firefighters get a better sense of how to battle a blaze.

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