USGS introduces new strategy for their 100 scientists engaged in studying wildland fire

It defines critical, core fire science capabilities for understanding fire-related and fire-responsive earth system processes, and informing management decision making

USGS wildland fire strategic plan

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is rolling out a new Wildland Fire Science Strategic Plan that guides the activities of their 100 scientists whose research focuses on fire-related topics.

The plan has four integrated priorities, each with associated goals and specific strategies for accomplishing the goals:

  • Priority 1: Produce state-of-the-art, actionable fire science;
  • Priority 2: Engage stakeholders in science production and science delivery;
  • Priority 3: Effectively communicate USGS fire science capacity, products, and information to a broad audience; and
  • Priority 4: Enhance USGS organizational structure and advance support for fire science.

Here is how the USGS describes the plan:

To help address growing wildfire-related challenges in America, the U.S. Geological Survey is rolling out a new Wildland Fire Science Strategy that lays out the critical needs for wildfire research over the next five years. Released today, this strategy can be used to better understand the balance between fire’s benefits and its detrimental impacts.

Wildfires in the United States can be devastating, with 2017, 2018 and 2020 being particularly damaging and deadly years. The new fire strategy will guide future USGS research and help the agency provide timely and relevant information for land managers to tackle fire risks before they occur, during wildfire response and after the flames go out. It also addresses emerging priorities such as climate change and supporting underserved rural communities and tribes.

fire monitoring
Fire monitoring during wildfires helps researchers understand the complex relationships among fuels, fire behavior and fire effects. Fire behavior instruments are deployed during wildfires and prescribed fires to provide data on the types of fire environments that damage archaeological resources. In the photo, equipment is seen being tended to by U.S. Forest Service employees Dan Jimenez and Cyle Wold. The instruments, developed and owned by the USFS Missoula Fire Science Lab, quantify fire behavior on the landscape.(Credit: Rachel Loehman, USGS)

“Now is the time to act, and USGS science is leading the way,” said David Applegate, USGS Associate Director exercising the delegated authority of the USGS Director. “This new fire science strategy provides the roadmap for developing the research, data and technologies that are critically needed to help the country better face future wildfire challenges.”

The USGS employs more than 100 scientists whose research focuses on fire-related topics, including using high-resolution remote sensing to characterize vegetative fuel loads; applying the latest satellite technology to detect fires and map wildfire perimeters; evaluating best practices to reduce wildfire risks; and assessing post-wildfire flooding and debris-flow hazards. This work also includes creating and sharing best practices to support recovery across landscapes. Together, USGS expertise and monitoring capabilities are greatly improving the safety of first responders and the public-at-large.

The new strategy also emphasizes the importance of bridging fire and post-fire science to develop the most effective response, recovery and pre- and post-fire mitigation strategies to reduce risk. It highlights the use of computer simulations to help predict burn severity, which can then pinpoint areas that would likely be vulnerable to hazards during and after fires. Recognizing that post-fire hazards span many branches of science, the strategy integrates different research branches to improve planning for and response to fire-related disasters.

“Cutting-edge research and multidisciplinary teamwork are key to better understanding and addressing wildfire challenges in the 21st century,” said Anne Kinsinger, Associate Director for USGS Ecosystems. “Scientists from different fields – fire ecology, hydrology, geology, remote sensing and botany – are pooling their expertise to evaluate wildfires, linking initial fire behavior to post-fire hazards and applying that information to ecosystem recovery.”

Researchers across the USGS are working with the interagency fire community to expand the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and other rapid-computing capabilities. For example, the USGS uses artificial intelligence with satellite imagery to detect fire boundaries and develop burn severity maps, and to identify distribution and abundance of fire-adapted invasive species like cheatgrass in the Great Basin.

“This strategy will help the local, state, tribal and federal collaboration to address the wildfire issue that our nation is experiencing,” said Jeff Rupert, Director of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire. “The science needs identified in the strategy will support firefighters that respond to wildfires and prevention efforts to protect communities, resources and people.”

fire effects monitoring
Pre- and post-fire measurements of fire effects help ecologists, fire scientists and managers determine how the severity of wildfires affects plants, animal habitat and ecosystem services. (Credit: Rachel Loehman, USGS)

For example, the USGS is partnering with the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Tall Timbers Research Station to model fire behavior, fire weather patterns, 3D fuel loads and smoke conditions to evaluate how fuel treatments can reduce fire risk across a changing landscape. The USGS is also strengthening its partnerships with the Fire Science Exchange Network to foster increased access and use of its fire information, data and tools while learning about needs of practitioners in the field.

The USGS Wildland Fire Science Strategy aligns with national initiatives as defined in the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Developed by a broad swath of stakeholders at all levels, the Cohesive Strategy calls for science and management that promote resilient landscapes and fire-adapted communities for safe and effective wildfire responses.

For more details about the new USGS Wildland Fire Science 2021-2026 Strategic Plan, read the full report.

For more information about USGS fire science, visit

The caption in the second image was edited to correctly indicate that the personnel in the photo are USFS employees and the equipment seen was developed and owned by the USFS Missoula Fire Science Lab.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

11 thoughts on “USGS introduces new strategy for their 100 scientists engaged in studying wildland fire”

  1. I agree with Dick Mangan. Why is the Geological Service studing wildfire? What are their quals in fire science? I thought geology was about earthquakes and rocks. Seems that money would be better spent at the Missoula fire lab and associated endeavors in the Fire Science field.

  2. You can poo-poo it if you want, but research is what provided us with basic tools like the burning index, ERC’s, etc. that help to inform decision making and keep firefighters working smart and assessing risk.

    How many instructors have repeated the words, “when you think there’s nothing left to learn it’s time to retire” to rookies? Food for thought.

    Good points though, Dick. Hope that further research in the field is being well guided.

  3. I really hope that someone like NWGC is providing oversight to all the folks doing wildfire-related research like the USFS Missoula Fire Lab, various Universities that get Fed funding, the USFS T&D Centers, etc so we don’t waste $$and get a duplication of efforts. The Canadians and Aussies should be in the loop too.

  4. Still waiting to see the airtanker effectiveness study results….
    What say you Bill Gabbert…any intel on that scene ?

    imo….these studies tend to go round and round, and at best come up with pretty milk toast conclusions….often after a long and protacted period

  5. Research, research and more grant money research. If the Feds want to study something, how about Fed fire fighter pay and health? What will the “100” find, reduce the number of copter and airtankers? Logging is bad. Dams destroy rivers. The list goes on. Didn’t take long for the USGS to get their hands in Joe’s (taxpayers) pockets. Ridiculous. who is next in line for grant study money? Keep “tuned” to this channel.

  6. Really / Do they really need 100+ people “Studying” these issues .
    Maybe 50 or less might be acceptable . Waste of Taxpayer money ! The $$ should be spent on Firefighters, and equipment {planes].

    1. I know it’s stating the obvious but fire behaves very differently in Florida than it does in Montana, the fire ecology of ponderosa pine is different from lodgepole pine, strategies for fuel management are different on south slopes than they are north slopes.

      Wildland fire is not a single uniform thing that can be generalized across ecosystems. We need to understand the details to figure out the right way to prepare for it, to manage it, and to figure out where to let it burn and where to attack it aggressively.

      It’s a huge area of research with thousands of questions that need to be answered. So 100 scientists in the USGS isn’t too many. I’d argue it’s about 10 times too few for getting a really good handle on understanding the problem and what the potential solutions are. Heck, you could have 50 people working on smoke from wildland fires alone to try and undertand just that aspect.

      We’ve got to get away from the simplistic approach that all we need to do is throw more people, money, and equipment at suppression to fix everything. We tried that already and it ended up causing a lot more problems in the long run.

    2. Thats an interesting point Chuck. Consider this though…. One days worth of VLAT drops might be equivalent to several researchers yearly salary. Where would our military be today without research and innovation ? In my opinion science and research may be one of the only ways we may see a positive future. Current systems are less than perfect and the task at hand is not simple….


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