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Keith Parker, Vytenis Babrauskas
Year Published:

Cataloging Information

Fire Communication & Education

NRFSN number: 26233
Record updated:

One of the primary tools used for determining the origin of a wildfire is analyzing burn patterns formed during the fire progression. These patterns, called fire pattern indicators, are interpreted and used to document the direction of fire movement at specific points, creating a directional map back to the specific area of origin. This concept was first set forth in 1978 by a U.S. governmental organization, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG). Their recommendations are currently (2016) in the third edition, and in our study, we examine these indicators. Specifically, the objective was to perform a validation exercise where controlled burns were conducted of natural vegetation plots but augmented with 32 identical sets of staged artifacts which would provide additional opportunities for fire movement to create observable directional fire pattern indicators. Three adjacent plots were burned, each using a single point ignition, all located on level, scrubland terrain. The burns were conducted in the fall season, under low to moderate burning conditions. The research was structured as a preliminary study, since only mild terrain and weather conditions were encompassed. The actual fire movements were documented by drone videos, additional ground-based videos, and still photography. Within the three burn plots, a total of 12 data sites out of 32 data sites were selected: each one containing 7 to 12 individual artifacts. Each artifact was photographically documented post-fire, and the actual fire movement direction at that location was established. Assessment entailed the use of four experienced wildland fire investigators, with each one independently assessing the direction and type of fire spread at each artifact using the photographic site evidence. An analysis was then conducted to make a statistical comparison between the actual fire movement direction and the direction estimates provided by the experts analyzing the photographic evidence and the limited information on conditions provided. The results indicate an average error of 103°. These results indicate that additional efforts are needed to study the scientific basis of the indicators and to evolve improvements in both the indicators and in the accompanying guidance to investigators.


Parker K and Babrauskas V. 2024. Validation of NWCG Wildfire Directional Indicators in Test Burns in Coastal California. Fire 7(1). 5;

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