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NAU foresters pioneer nationwide wildfire treatment map

Observatory Mesa Burn
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
Fire personnel conduct a prescribed burn on Observatory Mesa in Flagstaff Nov. 2, 2021 as part of the Flagstaff Prescribed Fire Training Exchange.

Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute is taking the lead on an effort to map forest treatments across the country. The first-of-its-kind undertaking is designed to make the work more effective and lessen the threat of wildfire in the West.

The project called ReSHAPE will compile information across forest types from higher-elevation ponderosa pine to grasslands and chaparral. It’ll also assemble treatment data that spans federal, state, municipal and tribal land.

"Fire doesn’t care about an arbitrary land management boundary. It doesn’t care if it’s moving from state to federal and federal to state," says Andrew Sanchez-Meador, executive director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at NAU. "My hope is that we create something that’s useful, it integrates well with existing efforts, and that we can get some insights in terms of what types of treatments are effective.

Sanchez-Meador says the project arose from a lack of broad information about fuels treatments and their effectiveness, and mapping on this large a scale has never been attempted.

It brings together NAU’s restoration institute as well as those in New Mexico and Colorado, and last year received more than $16 million in federal infrastructure funding. Managers hope it’ll assist agencies as they thin western forests that are increasingly vulnerable to wildfire because of extreme drought and climate change.

The project is currently in the planning phase and is set to be rolled out next year.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom as executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.