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Title: Wildfire danger in the USA : an analysis of the National Fire Danger Rating System
Author: Walding, Nicholas
ISNI:       0000 0004 7653 6514
Awarding Body: University of Exeter
Current Institution: University of Exeter
Date of Award: 2018
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The United States of America (US) has a long-standing history of fire management through the United States Forest Service. Despite this history of fire management, the US faces significant increases in fire potential across the 21st Century owing to future climate change and due to a legacy of past fuel management policies. Since the 1970s the US Forest Service (USFS) has operated a fire danger rating system, known as the National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS), which has aimed to portray, anticipate, and mitigate wildfires across the country. Fire danger ratings essentially aim to describe how dangerous a fire would be if it were to ignite and are used to inform not only the general public about wildfire risk but are also used by forest and fire managers to determine their actions in regards to fire suppression. The US Forest Service’s NFDRS currently produces 1-day forecasts of fire danger through the Wildland Fire Assessment System, and other state-focused outlets. The system quantifies common aspects of fire behaviour over wide spatial extents through a number of fire danger indices. These indices represent aspects of fire danger in terms of the likelihood of ignitions, rate of spread, potential heat release, and difficulty of control. Despite the NFDRS’s long-standing utility across the US, relatively few studies have sought to relate fire danger observations and forecasts to records of wildfire activity across its operational spatial extent. The majority of assessments of the NFDRS have been conducted at either single sites or on small spatial scales, despite it being a nation-wide system. This thesis analyses the NFDRS in respect to the occurrence of wildland fires and the final fire sizes they attain over an eight year period (2006-2013) through a number of analyses that; (i) examine the system’s ability to portray wildfire activity across the conterminous US; (ii) assess the NFDRS 1-day forecast’s accuracy; (iii) explore the impact of forecasting inaccuracy on wildfire activity across the conterminous US; and (iv) ascertain what outputs from the NFDRS relate most strongly to the formation of large wildfires. Firstly, this thesis shows that different regions of the US display different levels of correspondence between each observed fire danger indices and recorded fire activity. Areas in the Southern and Eastern Geographic Area Coordination Centers (GACCs) exhibit weaker correlations than those in the Northwest, Northern Rockies, Great Basin and Northern California GACCs. Peaks in fire occurrence are shown to occur at mid–low values of fire danger whereas final fire sizes increase monotonically with each fire danger index. Secondly, it is shown that the 1-day NFDRS forecasts have a strong correspondence with observed fire danger indices across the USA in the majority of locations. However, it is clear that there are multiple instances when these 1-day forecasts either over- or under-predict fire danger conditions, where there is systematic over-prediction of low-end fire danger values and under-prediction of high-end fire danger values. These predictive errors likely stem from errors in forecasted fire weather conditions, the subsequent derived fuel state and the reporting time of daily observations. Thirdly, when the inaccuracy of these forecasts was assessed spatially and temporally, the regions with the highest percentage of inaccurate forecasts were found to be in the Northern Rockies and Great Basin Geographic Area Coordination Centers (GACCs). Over-prediction was found to mainly occur between February and May, whilst peaks in the under-prediction of fire danger were found to be in spring and late summer. Finally, large wildfires appear to occur when fire danger indices are highly variable throughout the lifetime of a fire. As such this highlights the importance of considering daily variations in specific fire danger indices and that current understanding of variable fire danger conditions does not allow for the near-term prediction of large wildfire potential.
Supervisor: Belcher, Claire Sponsor: European Research Council
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: fire danger ; fire risk ; wildfire ; wildfire management