Focusing on Upcoming Consequential Fires — Part 2, Counties

Athena Intelligence
7 min readMay 12, 2024

Wildfire risk assessment across a broad area and a comprehensive understanding of the landscape.

Athena’s community-centric iteration of the Voice of the Acre® provides prefire wildfire risk assessments grounded in a comprehensive analysis of all factors influencing wildfires. These assessments, both geospatially accurate and mathematically validated, offer maps that are more user-friendly, thoroughly back tested, highly reliable, and transparent compared to the Wildfire Hazard Potential (WHP) provided by the US Fire Service.

These conditional, geospatial risk profiling maps are readily accessible for Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs) at the county level. While the WHP serves as the traditional risk assessment tool for many counties, its national scope often results in a loss of significant nuance. Depending on the state, between 25% and 40% of all wildfires occur in areas ranked as low risk by the WHP. For individuals concerned about liability associated with disaster planning and wildfire risk, reliance on the WHP can carry career implications.

The prior article discussed wildfire GIS data from the viewpoint of a city. In contrast, this article shifts its focus to wildfire risk assessment across larger expanses, encompassing areas beyond incorporated cities, such as wildlife reserves, timberlands, national parks, and campgrounds.

Athena has two offerings for counties — one based on firesheds. The US Forestry keeps a registry, starting with 7,688 firesheds throughout the country. Firesheds are gaining importance in fire management and ecological studies. They help in understanding and managing fire behavior, risk, and resilience across landscapes and are ecological characteristics (vegetation types, topography, weather patterns, and fire history.)

Using San Bernadino County, a county in California, east of Los Angeles.

Athena also has a more detailed product, which encompasses the county, with multiple cities and other areas of interest. Using San Diego County as a case study: areas of interest.

For counties, a pie chart depicting wildfire risk, similar to the one for the entire state, encompasses the entire area.

In both cases, Athena’s model starts with public data and rigorous scientific research. Approximately 100 derivatives and indexes are employed to evaluate the myriad factors driving wildfire behavior and their correlations. This approach ensures the transparency to the data used in Athena’s risk assessment, as ratings can be traced back to the sources of the original data. Simultaneously, it allows for the recognition of nuanced correlations across different bioregions.

Each county has a single bioregion, with wildfire probabilities represented by colors. This visual presentation helps people grasp the nuanced levels of risk in a quantifiable manner.

By year’s end, regardless of the frequency or location of wildfires, 50% or more will have transpired in the dark red/Highest Risk areas. Additionally, 65% or more of all fire damage will be concentrated in the High or Highest risk areas.

The conditional profiles, indicative of the fuel necessary for a wildfire, are mapped utilizing a GIS platform. Within the Voice of the Acre®, these profiles are juxtaposed with historical wildfire burn experiences. The cohort’s members situated in or near wildfires are utilized to evaluate probabilities for all members within the county. Subsequently, these probabilities are mapped accordingly.

This approach ensures that as land conditions evolve, the associated probabilities of wildfire occurrence at specific locations also adapt, regardless of the historical wildfire activity in those locations. This nuanced methodology enables a comprehensive assessment of wildfire risk, accounting for both historical data and current environmental conditions.

For cities, the maps depict city boundaries and a 5-mile buffer zone. Conversely, for counties, the map encompasses the entire landscape. This can serve as a coordinating master plan, facilitating collaboration across multiple jurisdictions and perspectives. The map can be viewed from both a zip code and a census block perspective. Additionally, wildfire risk can be filtered by housing values and poverty rates, while cities within the county can be depicted with relative risk levels.

For cities, the maps show city boundaries and a 5-mile buffer. For counties, the map shows the entire landscape. This can be used as a coordinating master plan, across multiple jurisdictions and perspectives. The map can be viewed from both a zip code and a census block perspective. Additionally, wildfire risk can be filtered by housing values, poverty rates and cities within the county can be shown with relative risk.

Protecting Property Values

Government officials prioritize community resilience and the optimal allocation of funds for mitigation efforts. It’s crucial to recognize that poorer neighborhoods often have fewer resources to rebuild and are thus less resilient. Here, we present the wildfire risk for the areas of San Diego county with the highest poverty rates.

For the State of California, the combined conditional profiles and probabilities, for the entire state is shown here:

Please see the prior article on cities for full discussion

When we exclude the deserts and other rugged uninhabited land, the areas which are most likely to burn in a wildfire and have people (the primary inhabited areas) in California, here is the data:

A matrix, unique to the county will be made available. For readers with small screens, the box on the lower right gives the following information:

No Veg/Low Population Density 0.5% Risk of Wildfire

Veg/Low Population Density 52.1% Risk of Wildfire

Intermix/High Population Density 0.2% Risk of Wildfire

Intermix/Medium Population Density 11.2% Risk of Wildfire (vs 3.6% in Colorado)

Intermix/Low Population Density 28.1% Risk of Wildfire

Interface/High Population Density 1.4%% Risk of Wildfire

Interface/Medium Population Density 5.9% Risk of Wildfire

Interface/Low Population Density 0.7% Risk of Wildfire

The advantage of adopting a larger, countywide vision lies in fostering a consistent perspective and understanding of wildfire risk. This approach enhances communication between cities, federal and state entities, and other environmental stakeholders. By highlighting municipalities as well as watersheds, wildlife preserves, state and federal lands, census designated areas, municipal utilities and other relevant areas of interest, county supervisors can grasp the risk across the entire landscape without sacrificing resolution or accuracy.

Prior to the availability of Athena’s community-centric version of the Voice of the Acre®, achieving this level of granular insight was economically unfeasible and technologically unviable. The time required for researchers to complete such an analysis often rendered the data outdated due to changing ground conditions.

While we use the word map, there is significant amount of data which is of particular interest to firefighters. The primary examples are the Conditional Flame Length and the Wildfire Hazard Potential.

While we often refer to the data as “maps,” there is a significant amount of information that is particularly valuable to firefighters embedded in the image. Two primary examples are the Conditional Flame Length (CFL) and the Wildfire Hazard Potential (WHP).

Conditional Flame Length (CFL) refers to the height of wildfire flames. It estimates how far the flames will extend based on factors such as vegetation type, fuel moisture, topography, and prevailing winds. In Athena’s data, displaying both the maximum value and the mean (average) allows firefighters to assess the potential size of the fire. When the mean value closely aligns with the maximum value, it indicates consistent fuel conditions and a faster spread of the fire, all other factors being equal.

Similarly, the Wildfire Hazard Potential (WHP) is valuable on its own, but its significance lies in context. One might assume that areas with the highest WHP scores pose the greatest risk, but this isn’t always the case. The smaller the difference between the maximum and mean values, the more consistent the environment, making it easier for a wildfire to expand.

Thinking about wildfire behavior and probabilities can make your head swim. Human brains don’t often grapple with 11 dimensional models, this is where artificial intelligence excels. We broke the ideas embedded in our community centric version of the Voice of the Acre® into two essays, and presume the reader will read the discussion of Athena’s data for CWPPs for cities.

Key Takeaways: If your community has complexity and multiple areas of interest, such as a county, obtaining a countywide risk assessment is advisable. Athena’s report is meticulously researched, rigorously back tested, and traceable to the original data sources. It offers a bankable solution in light of liability concerns and is both geospatially and mathematically validated. Importantly, it provides the same wildfire risk data available to property insurers and municipal bond rating agencies.

Athena Intelligence is a data vendor with a geospatial, conditional, profiling tool that pulls together vast amounts of disaggregated wildfire and environmental data to generate spatial intelligence, resulting in a digital fingerprint of wildfire risk. (athenaintel.io)

Clients include communities, power companies, insurance and financial services — with Athena’s geospatial intelligence incorporated into CWPPs, wildfire mitigation plans (WMP) and public safety power shutoffs. Data is available to catastrophe modelers for property underwriting and portfolio risk optimization.

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Athena Intelligence

Athena Intelligence weaves vast amounts of disaggregated environmental data. Drop us a line (Info@Project-Athena.com), or visit www.athenaintel.io