How does a national wildlife refuge manage wildland fire—to, among other things, increase feeding areas for migratory birds, rejuvenate habitat for endangered plants and wildlife, reduce invasive vegetation and protect native species along river corridors?

You might expect staff members to pull a dusty fire management plan (FMP) off a shelf and wade through 300 pages to find out.

Fast forward to the Spatial Fire Management Plan (SFMP), a pilot project recently completed at six refuges and two fish hatcheries in New Mexico. The SFMP transforms that old FMP into a series of digitized maps containing data collected by refuge staff. Text and graphics surround the maps. The SFMP is half the length.

A picture really is worth a thousand words. The old FMP tries to explain in words information that is inherently spatial; the SFMP depicts the same information spatially, visually. The SFMP enhances communication among staff, rural fire departments and the public.

Humans “are a visual species,” says Cameron Tongier, geographic information system (GIS) coordinator for the Refuge System Branch of Fire Management, which is spearheading the move to SFMPs. “Our goal is to produce simpler plans that are easy to use, not long documents that go largely unread.”

The New Mexico SFMP, modeled on Australian fire plans, is the first of its kind in the United States. The National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Land Management are following suit with similar plans.

What Is an SFMP?

An SFMP is primarily a series of mapsheets—layers of information identifying some habitat designated for full suppression of wildfire and other habitat that could benefit from prescribed fire. Map layers may note previously burned areas and wilderness boundaries beyond which fire plays a natural role. Facilities, roads, water sources and other data critical for fire operations are included.

Text boxes display combinations to locked gates and contact information for cooperating fire departments. Attachments include environmental assessments and other documentation.

SFMPs can show historic fires and help neighbors determine risk to their property. Map references help fire managers explain proposed actions to refuge managers, biologists, volunteer firefighters and residents.

“It’s easier to communicate and get buy–in, because they can see it all on a map,” says Jake Nuttall, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire management officer in New Mexico, who helped develop the first SFMP.

Future Benefits

Geospatial maps can incorporate data from various agencies and eventually will be integrated with existing decision–making tools. Data collected for SFMPs also will augment other planning tools, such as habitat management plans.

“Right now, only a handful of staff on refuges can conduct analysis, because it requires some knowledge of GIS,” says Tongier. “Our goal is to create the capability for anyone who can use GoogleEarth to be able to go in and run queries and planning scenarios.”

Shane Del Grosso, a regional fire management specialist, is working with staff in South Dakota to pilot a second SFMP. He sees potential use for spatial management plans in non–fire incidents. During the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Del Grosso was operations section chief overseeing some migratory bird recovery.

“We had boat teams, ground teams and aviation teams covering 689 miles of coastline,” he says. “Aviation would spot a wounded bird; we’d coordinate a boat to go get it … We needed to know the location of boat docks, rookeries, cell phone coverage and hazards like power lines we didn’t want to fly into … If there had been a spatial management plan in place, that would have saved us a lot of time, and made it easier to communicate as we formulated strategies and tactics.”

Karen Miranda Gleason is a public affairs specialist in the Refuge System Branch of Fire Management at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID.