DOI: 10.3390/land12122172 ISSN: 2073-445X

Wildfire Risk Assessment for Strategic Forest Management in the Southern United States: A Bayesian Network Modeling Approach

Sandhya Nepal, Lars Y. Pomara, Nicholas P. Gould, Danny C. Lee
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Ecology
  • Global and Planetary Change

Wildfire occurrences have increased and are projected to continue increasing globally. Strategic, evidence-based planning with diverse stakeholders, making use of diverse ecological and social data, is crucial for confronting and mitigating the associated risks. Prescribed fire, when planned and executed carefully, is a key management tool in this effort. Assessing where prescribed fire can be a particularly effective forest management tool can help prioritize efforts, reduce wildfire risk, and support fire-resilient lands and communities. We collaborated with expert stakeholders to develop a Bayesian network model that integrated a large variety of biophysical, socioecological, and socioeconomic spatial information for the Southeastern United States to quantify where risk is high and where prescribed fire would be efficient in mitigating risk. The model first estimated wildfire risk based on landscape-scale interactions among the likelihoods of fire occurrence and severity and the people and resources potentially exposed—accounting for socioeconomic vulnerabilities as well as key ecosystem services. The model then quantified the potential for risk reduction through prescribed fire, given the existing fuel load, climate, and other landscape conditions. The resulting expected risk estimates show high risk concentrated in the coastal plain and interior highland subregions of the Southern US, but there was considerable variation among risks to different ecosystem services and populations, including potential exposure to smoke emissions. The capacity to reduce risk through fuel reductions was spatially correlated with risk; where these diverged, the difference was largely explained by fuel load. We suggest that both risk and the capacity for risk reduction are important in identifying priorities for management interventions. The model serves as a decision support tool for stakeholders to coordinate large-landscape adaptive management initiatives in the Southern US. The model is flexible with regard to both empirical and expert-driven parameterizations and can be updated as new knowledge and data emerge. The resulting spatial information can help connect active management options to forest management goals and make management more efficient through targeted investments in priority landscapes.

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