Despite major advances in numerical weather prediction, few resources exist to forecast wildland fire danger conditions to support operational fire management decisions and community early-warning systems. Here we present the development and evaluation of a spatial fire danger index that can be used to assess historical events, forecast extreme fire danger, and communicate those conditions to both firefighters and the public. It uses two United States National Fire Danger Rating System indices that are related to fire intensity and spread potential. These indices are normalized, combined, and categorized based on a 39-yr climatology (1979–2017) to produce a single, categorical metric called the Severe Fire Danger Index (SFDI) that has five classes; Low, Moderate, High, Very High, and Severe. We evaluate the SFDI against the number of newly reported wildfires and total area burned from agency fire reports (1992–2017) as well as daily remotely sensed numbers of active fire pixels and total daily fire radiative power for large fires (2003–2016) from the Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) across the conterminous United States. We show that the SFDI adequately captures geographic and seasonal variations of fire activity and intensity, where 58% of the eventual area burned reported by agency fire records, 75.2% of all MODIS active large fire pixels, and 81.2% of all fire radiative power occurred when the SFDI was either Very High or Severe (above the 90th percentile). We further show that SFDI is a strong predictor of firefighter fatalities, where 97 of 129 (75.2%) burnover deaths from 1979 to 2017 occurred when SFDI was either Very High or Severe. Finally, we present an operational system that uses short-term, numerical weather predictions to produce daily SFDI forecasts and show that 76.2% of all satellite active fire detections during the first 48 h following the ignition of nine high-profile case study fires in 2017 and 2018 occurred under Very High or Severe SFDI conditions. The case studies indicate that the extreme weather events that caused tremendous damage and loss of life could be mapped ahead of time, which would allow both wildland fire managers and vulnerable communities additional time to prepare for potentially dangerous conditions. Ultimately, this simple metric can provide critical decision support information to wildland firefighters and fire-prone communities and could form the basis of an early-warning system that can improve situational awareness and potentially save lives.
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