University of Washington
Ponderosa pine forests, like the one pictured here, are among the six forest types highlighted in this study. Ponderosa is widespread in semi-arid landscapes in western North America.

It’s hard to find a place in the U.S. that isn’t impacted by wildfires and smoke.

Dry landscapes, warmer temperatures and more development near forested areas all contribute to massive wildfires across North America each year. Smoke and haze from these fires can travel hundreds of miles from their source, affecting the health and wellbeing of communities across the U.S.

Given these impacts, scientists rely on models that try to predict the severity of wildfires and smoke. The amount of living and dead vegetation on a landscape, known as fuels, is a key part of the equation when modeling wildfire and smoke behavior. But in many areas, fuel estimates are imprecise, leading to unreliable smoke and fire forecasts — potentially endangering communities.

Researchers from the University of Washington and Michigan Technological University have created the North American Wildland Fuel Database, the first comprehensive database of all the wildfire fuels that have been measured across North America. The tool incorporates the best available measurements of vegetation in specific locations and allows fire managers to see where information about fuels is missing altogether.

“Where there are fuels and fire, there’s smoke,” said lead author Susan Prichard, a research scientist at the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. “This database is informing more realistic predictions of smoke that allow for the fact that we might not have dialed in the fuels perfectly.”

The new database is described in a paper published Dec. 4 in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Biogeosciences.

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