Our natural world is changing. The warming climate continues to fuel large natural disasters, establishing a new normal for citizens and governments around the world. Preparedness for this new normal is imperative for saving lives, and that means risk assessment and management of natural disasters takes precedence for those trying to mitigate these disasters.

In the Land of Enchantment, our disaster risk assessments mainly focus on forest wildfires—how likely they are to happen, how intense they will be when they do happen, and how susceptible our communities are to these disasters. Wildfire risk analysis includes field research from scientists who study the Earth, such as ecologists, biologists, and geologists, as well as remote data from satellites such as Landsat. But analyses must also include an examination of financial and economic impacts on our communities. That’s where Dr. Richard Bernknopf, a research professor in The University of New Mexico's Department of Economics comes in.

Richard Bernknopf
Dr. Richard Bernknopf, Department of Economics

Bernknopf’s project, “Forest Wildfire Risk and Value of Information Analysis with LANDFIRE and supporting Earth Science,” explores whether satellites and other remotely-sensed scientific data can help reduce wildfire risks to humans and ecosystems, while also assessing the value of this information as it relates to risk management. The project is a cooperative agreement conducted in partnership with the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

“We are developing a pre-fire vulnerability map and a post-fire severity map indicator to demonstrate how the indicator helps prioritize values at risk, such as human life and safety of visitors, critical trout habitat and native vegetative communities, for natural resource planning and fire suppression decisions,” he says. “It shows how natural science and economics can be coupled together to solve a potentially very risky circumstance.”

The goal of the project is to reduce uncertainty when it comes to wildfires—uncertainty regarding the behavior of the fire itself, as well as uncertainty in our human reactions. In a natural disaster such as a forest fire, responses plagued with uncertainty can result in more lives lost and further costs in damage. Reducing uncertainty also helps to improve preparation by policymakers and first responders, allowing for proactive rather than reactive solutions.

“Combining natural science data with Earth observations, it is possible to capture the geographic unevenness of a wildfire’s impact,” explains Bernknopf. “With this knowledge, it is possible to prioritize protective measures in specific places of greatest value that can increase the resilience of the forest and its future provision of ecosystem services.”

In addition to wildfire risk mitigation, Bernknopf hopes this project will add further value to the already numerous benefits of Earth observation satellites, providing justification to policymakers for their continued funding. Humanity’s future in the mountainous regions of the Western United States depends on these satellites and cross-discipline research like Bernknopf’s project and others at The University of New Mexico.