WATCH REPLAY: Forest fires and floods are not the same

Of course forest fires and floods are not the same, yet in some risk modeling methods they are treated similarly. That is, for each section in a geographical area, one can calculate the probability of a fire of a given intensity or a flood of a given depth, and then estimate the economic consequences of each. The problem with this approach is that floods and fires have different spatial correlations. Floods are perfectly spatially correlated; in other words, if there is a 3-foot flood at my house, there is a 3-foot flood at my neighbor’s house. But forest fires have a much more complicated spatial correlation structure, dependent on fuel load, wind direction, canyons, etc., meaning that my house might burn down but my neighbor’s might survive.

Today, massive computer simulations of fire progression can, in theory, deliver stochastic libraries of potential fire progression, which can be used to develop mitigation strategies superior to the one-size-fits-all approach delivered by other risk models.


Dr. Sam L. Savage is the author of The Flaw of Averages and Executive Director of, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit devoted to making uncertainty actionable. The organization has received funding from Chevron, Lockheed Martin, General Electric, PG&E, Wells Fargo, Kaiser Permanente and others.


Joe Scott is the Principal Wildfire Analyst with Pyrologix, a wildfire threat assessment research firm based in Missoula, Montana. Pyrologix conducts wildfire hazard and risk assessments to support land management planning, incident management, and utility-wildfire risk management for state and federal agencies and private companies.

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