MYNORTHWEST NEWS

UW helps create new tool that may lead to fewer Northwest wildfires

Aug 29, 2023, 8:00 AM

Washington wildfires...

OMAK, WA - AUGUST 22: A makeshift fire truck puts water on a wildfire, which is part of the Okanogan Complex, as it burns through brush on August 22, 2015 near Omak, Washington. The fires have burned more tha 127,000 acres. (Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

(Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

A University of Washington (UW) research scientist has helped develop a modeling tool that may lead to fewer wildfires in the Northwest in the future.

“We’re not going to escape wildfire seasons. There will be fires in the future. I wish I could say the opposite,” UW scientist Susan Prichard told MyNorthwest.com. “But the hopeful message is that we can and ought to get ahead of some of these wildfires by reducing the fuels before wildfires come.”

Prichard said that if we do more proactive work with controlled burning and letting late-season fires burn under mild weather, we can expect less severe wildfire seasons, despite climate change.

According to a news release from the University of Washington:

The tool, known as REBURN, can simulate large forest landscapes and wildfire dynamics over decades under different wildfire management strategies. The model can simulate the consequences of extinguishing all wildfires regardless of size, or of allowing certain fires to return to uninhabited areas. REBURN can also simulate conditions where more benign forest landscape dynamics have fully recovered in an area.

Prichard said this can lead to forests that are better managed and conditions that are less smoky for the entire region.

Simulations showed setting prescribed burns and allowing smaller wildfires to burn can yield more varied and resilient forests over time.

Along with colleagues from the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station — Paul Hessburg, Nicholas Povak and Brion Salter — and consulting fire ecologist Robert Gray, Prichard has created a modeling tool that will allow managers to make severe wildfires rare events, the release states.

Related story: Over 40 fires at Rainier, Gifford Pinchot Forest sparked by lightning

“The model allows us to simulate what can happen when different management scenarios are applied before the fact, including how small or medium-sized fires in uninhabited areas can reshape forest vulnerability to fires,” Prichard said in the statement. “We found that having a more complex forest environment — in terms of tree age, composition, density, fuel content — makes it harder for large fires to spread and become severe.”

REBURN can be adapted to other regions in the western U.S. and Canada. Researchers are currently adapting it to simulate forest development in the vast forests of southern British Columbia and northern California, including regions recently hit by wildfires.

“The model allows us to simulate what can happen when different management scenarios are applied before the fact, including how small or medium-sized fires in uninhabited areas can reshape forest vulnerability to fires,” Prichard noted in the release. “We found that having a more complex forest environment — in terms of tree age, composition, density, fuel content — makes it harder for large fires to spread and become severe.”

Knowing when, or whether, to allow a small fire to burn in an uninhabited region is complex. Fire managers are tasked with protecting people, their homes and livelihoods.

“This is a new type of tool that couples forest and non-forest development models over time, fuel fall-down after fires, and a fire growth model,” Hessburg said in the release.

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UW helps create new tool that may lead to fewer Northwest wildfires