Written in collaboration with the Western Regional Climate Center (WRCC)
The physical relationship between drought and fire is complex, due to the many and varied first- and second-order effects at national, regional, and local scales. The timing, intensity, and frequency of drought events can have wildly divergent impacts on fuel flammability, fire behavior, and subsequently, wildland fire management overall.
While local weather - temperature, wind, and humidity - drives day-to-day fire activity, seasonal climate affects the amount and condition of vegetation in a region. For example, an elevated risk for wildfires could be the result of wet periods that generate vegetation growth, followed by dry periods that convert that same vegetation into flammable fuel. Conversely, prolonged drought can limit the frequency and extent of fire, as the availability of fine fuels (e.g., grasses) are reduced due to lack of precipitation. There are many examples of potential second-order drought-fire impacts, ranging from unhealthy smoke concentration during a fire to hazardous debris flows following a fire.
Wildland fire management agencies are impacted by drought as it increases uncertainty in decisions and long-term planning, affects suppression and prescribed fire resource availability, and magnifies the need for cross-agency coordination. These agencies can benefit from drought information that is focused on wildland fire, improved communication networks, and research targeted at the relationships between weather/climate and vegetation flammability.
The NIDIS Drought and Wildland Fire Nexus (NDAWN) is a strategic, decision-support information network that responds to the needs and challenges of fire managers for effectively utilizing drought information. Through a partnership with the Western Regional Climate Center (WRCC) and the Desert Research Institute (DRI), and in consultation with the fire management community, NIDIS recently co-produced a four-year NDAWN Strategic Plan. This plan outlines the complicated relationship between drought and wildland fire behavior, how this relationship affects wildland fire response and management, and the gaps in research and operations that would improve the wildland fire community’s use and understanding of drought information in fire management to improve firefighter and public safety.
This plan is the culmination of a three-year initiative by NIDIS and the Climate, Ecosystems and Fire Applications (CEFA) program of the Western Regional Climate Center (WRCC) and Desert Research Institute (DRI), which centered around working with the wildland fire community to identify gaps in information and needs, improve collaboration between the drought and fire communities, and create a set of objectives over the next five years to respond to gaps and needs.
The NDAWN strategy is defined and informed by feedback collected during a series of surveys and workshops with fire managers and planners. Throughout the course of five workshops and a telephone survey, two major priorities were identified that would shape the development and structure of the NDAWN Strategic Plan:
- Improve use of drought information by fire management, air quality managers, and fire meteorologists and fire behavior analysts
- Enhance and develop products for fire management to successfully implement land management objectives and to improve firefighter safety, public health and safety, fuel treatment effectiveness pre- and post-fire
The fire community further identified five main categories of focus to help guide the identification of activities and outcomes that would meet these priorities:
- Knowledge Transfer;
- Tool Development;
- Science Research;
- Communication; and
- Evaluation and Metrics.
The NDAWN strategy uses a logic model to map out the context of the plan, its major priorities and partners, the five primary categories of activities, and the expected outcomes for the next five years, with objectives that range from short-term (less than a year) to long-term (5+ years).
The Plan sets out specific recommended activities under each of the five categories. Below are examples of recommended activities. The full NDAWN Plan can be read here.
Knowledge Transfer: Identify drought information and indices that are appropriate for fire management but are not being used, or those that could be modified to meet fire managers’ needs.
Tool Development: Develop new tools or products to meet needs that are not currently being met by existing sources. Consideration should be given to not oversaturate fire management with new tools and platforms. The priority is to identify new information with direct connections to drought and fire that can be integrated into existing fire management decision support tools.
Science Research: Investigate what adaptations will be required to manage the land and wildland fire in the future given projected environmental and societal change; Monitor drought impacts on fire behavior and effects to improve research questions and the development of tools and indices.
Communication: Improve public awareness and acceptance of prescriptive fire and other fuel treatments during drought events.
Evaluation and Metrics: Develop an evaluation plan to assess the efficacy of drought and fire research in informing the fire management community’s decision-making.