Tool Saves Millions of Dollars After Wildfire

By Marguerite Huber

Wildfire conflagration on forested hillsides

Wildfire seasons are getting longer and burning more acres. Photo by USDA Forest Service.

Fueled by drought, disease, and suburban sprawl, wildfire seasons are getting longer and burning more acres of land. Last August, the Elk Complex wildfire burned more than 130,000 acres east of Boise, Idaho. Nearly 75% of the burned area had high to moderate burn severity, threatening the ecosystem and the region’s water. Substantial fires have already flared up this summer around San Diego, California, and Flagstaff, Arizona.

Once a fire is about 80% contained, scientists and other experts from the Department of the Interior’s National Interagency Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) team can go into the region and help develop emergency stabilization plans. They are aided by a resource—the Automated Geospatial Watershed Assessment (AGWA) tool—developed by researchers from EPA, the Agricultural Research Service (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture), and the University of Arizona.

Originally developed as a computer model for use managing and analyzing water quantity and quality, fire recovery teams are now tapping it to identify potential threats to people, wildlife, and the land from post-fire flooding and erosion.

Watershed managers use AGWA to identify and assess downstream impacts and risks from increased flooding and erosion resulting from fire-related changes to habitats and soils. The tool can also be used to target restoration efforts, such as where to apply mulch and seed with native plant stock, to reduce such downstream risks.

“AGWA is a good example of a science product developed between two leading federal research agencies with mutual interest,” said EPA research ecologist William Kepner. “The tool provides a practical application with immediate benefits.”

For the Elk Complex wildfire, the BAER team estimates it saved approximately $7,000,000 to $8,000,000 by using AGWA to target 2,000 acres for treatment instead of the initial 16,000 acres identified through more traditional methods.

“AGWA is able to help the team develop a stabilization plan where post-wildfire impacts pose immediate and significant threats to people and property,” Kepner adds.

Additionally, the emergency response team has successfully used the tool for post-fire watershed assessments following fires in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Idaho, and Washington. More than 8,000 users, spanning six continents, 163 countries, and 4,903 cities, have registered to use the Automated Geospatial Watershed Assessment tool .

The AGWA tool has been included as an ecosystem services analysis tool in the new EPA EnviroAtlas, and can be downloaded here. It provides an important resource for meeting the challenge of longer, more destructive wildfire seasons.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.