Summer is a time for picnics, camping, swimming, fishing and, unfortunately, wildfires.

Normally, late July or early August brings media reports of fires raging within Idaho and throughout the west. The news is often full of vivid views of towering flames, charred landscapes, and other images that bring to mind a scene from Dante’s Inferno. We also see images of grimy, soot-covered, exhausted firefighters and aircraft tankers dropping fire retardant.

Another action operates behind the scenes but gets little notice and virtually no media coverage. It’s called Landscape Fire and Resources Management Planning Tools Program or LANDFIRE for short. This is a vegetation, fire, and fuel characteristics mapping program managed jointly by the USDA Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Interior. LANDFIRE is the only complete, nationally consistent collection of spatial resource datasets with an ecological foundation. It can be used across multiple disciplines including resource management and fire suppression.

LANDFIRE produces information designed to be used over large chunks of the landscape to aid national and regional strategic planning and reporting of wildland fire and other natural resource management activities. LANDFIRE products include over 25 vegetation, fire, fuel, and topography datasets that describe existing vegetation composition and structure, historical vegetation, and surface and canopy fuel characteristics for the entire nation.

LANDFIRE has many uses. Examples include an assessment of fire frequency in California to generate a current, comprehensive summary of pre-settlement fire frequency estimates for ecosystems dominated by woody plants and development of a reliable estimate of grizzly bear population size and variation in the density of bears in Northwestern Montana.

I interviewed two scientists associated with the LANDFIRE program to get an inside look at this valuable tool.

Megan Dettenmaier is the LANDFIRE communications lead and Kori Blankenship is a fire ecologist. Both are employed by The Nature Conservancy, a major partner with the LANDFIRE program. Megan has been with the program for several months but Kori is a veteran, having worked with the LANDFIRE program for over 15 years. She enjoys helping users review and locally calibrate LANDFIRE data to meet their specific project needs.

Both Megan and Kori explained that LANDFIRE is an innovative program that creates comprehensive vegetation, fire, and fuel characteristics data by facilitating inter-agency/inter-organizational collaboration and cooperation. This data is often presented as maps that provide natural resource specialists with a quick and accurate picture of their project area. In doing this, LANDFIRE provides data for landscape assessment, analysis, and management on a large scale. LANDFIRE helps federal and state agencies and other public and private organizations work together to address fire and other natural resource management issues.

Given the extent of public lands in the West, Kori noted that LANDFIRE’s impact has been significant. Before LANDFIRE, resource managers typically worked with maps and data for their jurisdiction. Given the nature of today’s challenges, managers need to be able to work at broader scales and across land ownerships. That’s where LANDFIRE data become so useful. This data is free and regularly updated so assessments and plans can be adjusted with every new data release.

Megan and Kori noted that LANDFIRE has been used extensively to assess habitat and develop effective conservation measures for greater sage-grouse, a species in serious trouble throughout much of its range. Scientists have used LANDFIRE to assess sage-grouse habitat and habitat restoration and determined how new cropland can affect the breeding of sage-grouse and how conservation easements can positively affect the long-term welfare of sage-grouse.

So, if you hear the term “LANDFIRE” you now know what it means. When you next see reports of wildland fire fighting or other large resource projects you have some inkling of the behind-the-scenes work.

Jack Connelly has lived in Bingham County for the last 42 years. He is an avid outdoorsman and has hiked, camped, hunted, and fished over much of the U.S. as well as parts of Europe and Asia. Connelly worked as a biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for over 30 years. He now enjoys retirement with his wife Cheryl raising chickens and bird dogs at their home in Blackfoot.