In recent years, the frequency and severity of wildfires have increased significantly, posing a growing threat to ecosystems, communities, and economies worldwide. As a result, there is an urgent need for effective decision-making tools to assess and manage wildfire risks. In response to this challenge, managers have been utilizing the aid of wildfire risk and treatment prioritization support tools for decision making. A wildfire risk decision support tool is a software application, framework, or system that assists fire managers and land management agencies in assessing, analyzing, and making informed decisions related to wildfire risks. These tools utilize various data sources, modeling techniques, and visualization capabilities to provide a comprehensive understanding of fire behavior, potential impacts, and management strategies. They help users evaluate the likelihood and severity of wildfires, identify areas at high risk, and determine appropriate actions to mitigate those risks.

By leveraging these tools, fire managers can make data-driven decisions regarding fire suppression strategies, resource allocation, evacuation plans, and fuel treatment prioritization. The tools facilitate collaboration and communication among stakeholders by providing a common operating picture and enabling the sharing of information and analysis results. They enhance situational awareness, improve response coordination, and support the development of effective wildfire management plans and treatment prioritization. These tools can vary in terms of their focus, framework, functionality, and scale across different agencies and regions in the Western United States.

A prescribed burn in Northern California forests, often used as a tool in treatment prioritization for mitigating high severity fires (photo credit: Liz Young, USFS).

In response to the wildfire crisis and rapidly evolving field of wildfire management, the availability of decision support tools (DSTs) has grown significantly, providing fire managers and land management agencies with a breadth of options to assess wildfire risks. However, this abundance of tools often presents a significant challenge when it comes to selecting the most appropriate tool for a given situation. With multiple decision support tools offering overlapping functionalities, fire managers face a daunting task of navigating through a complex landscape of decision support options. The number of DSTs available can be overwhelming, making it difficult for fire managers to evaluate and compare them effectively. Moreover, there is often limited information and guidance for fire and land managers available on the strengths, limitations, and suitability of specific tools for answering a variety of questions regarding wildfire planning and management.

Figure 1. Boundaries of the state regions for California’s Regional Resource Kit (Andreozzi et al., 2023).

In California, DSTs are also widely utilized. The Regional Resource Kit (RRK) is an extensive toolkit designed to help communities, local governments, and organizations assess and enhance their resilience to wildfires and other disturbances such as climate change. RRK has been developed collaboratively by various agencies, including the Governor's Office of Planning and Research, the Office of Emergency Services, and the Strategic Growth Council, with input from local governments, non-profit organizations, and academic institutions. It aims to provide a comprehensive set of resources and guidance to support communities in developing and implementing effective resilience strategies. The RRK is split into several different subregions to help manage and prioritize the efficiency of increasing decision support and regional resilience across the state of California (Fig 1). In the North Coast subregion, geospatial data is continually being advanced to improve the decision support space.

Figure 2. Tile plot of DSTs and what common objectives, questions, and applications they can answer. A filled-in tile represents that the tool has the ability to achieve that application to some capacity.

Tools: Cal-Adapt (CAA), PreSet, Ecological Decision Restoration Tool (eDRT), First Order Fire Effect Model (FOFEM), ForSys, Interagency Fuels Treatment Decision Support System (IFTDSS), LANDIS-II (LANDIS), LandTender (LT), Postfire Spatial Conifer Restoration Planning Tool (POSCRPT), Promote (PRT), and Planscape (PS).

As a Conservation Connect Fellow, I am classifying and organizing the available California-specific and nationwide tools based on their functionalities, intended uses, and what type of wildfire risk objectives the tool can answer so fire managers can gain a clearer understanding of the suitability of available tools. A well-defined categorization framework of decision support tools can provide insights into the distinctive features and redundancies, and how these tools enhance wildfire resilience through the regional resource kit, enabling fire managers to make informed decisions about which tool(s) is best suited for a particular scenario. Figure 2 shows a glimpse of some of these tools and the functions and capabilities they have for meeting a variety of managerial questions and objectives. By creating an enhanced and streamlined decision space through this classification, fire managers can save time, effort, and resources that would otherwise be spent on evaluating multiple tools with overlapping uses.

An example of a decision support tool dashboard (LandTender) from the quantitative wildfire risk assessment process.

Given the dynamic nature of wildfire management and ongoing advancements in decision support tools, it's crucial to keep stakeholders updated with the latest developments. Through the implementation of a well defined classification framework, fire managers in California and the Western United States can navigate this complex landscape more effectively, resulting in a better streamlined decision space. This work will continually aid land and fire managers through the day-to-day stresses of managing the ongoing wildfire crisis in the Western United States.

Tristan O'Mara is a 2023 Conservation Connect Fellow and a PhD student at Northern Arizona University. Tristan’s dissertation work is focused on creating a strategic prioritization and restoration decision support toolkit for wildfire risk in woodland and forest ecosystems in Northern and Central Arizona.

National Forest Foundation