Articles | Volume 16, issue 5
Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 16, 1217–1237, 2016
Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 16, 1217–1237, 2016

Research article 30 May 2016

Research article | 30 May 2016

Calibration and evaluation of the Canadian Forest Fire Weather Index (FWI) System for improved wildland fire danger rating in the United Kingdom

Mark C. de Jong1, Martin J. Wooster1,2, Karl Kitchen3, Cathy Manley4, Rob Gazzard5, and Frank F. McCall4 Mark C. de Jong et al.
  • 1King's College London, Department of Geography, UK
  • 2National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO), UK
  • 3Met Office, Exeter, UK
  • 4Forestry Commission England, 620 Bristol Business Park, Coldharbour Lane, Frenchay, Bristol, BS16 1EJ, UK
  • 5Forestry Commission England, Bucks Horn Oak, Farnham, Surrey, GU10 4LS, UK

Abstract. Wildfires in the United Kingdom (UK) pose a threat to people, infrastructure and the natural environment. During periods of particularly fire-prone weather, wildfires can occur simultaneously across large areas, placing considerable stress upon the resources of fire and rescue services. Fire danger rating systems (FDRSs) attempt to anticipate periods of heightened fire risk, primarily for early-warning and preparedness purposes. The UK FDRS, termed the Met Office Fire Severity Index (MOFSI), is based on the Fire Weather Index (FWI) component of the Canadian Forest FWI System. The MOFSI currently provides daily operational mapping of landscape fire danger across England and Wales using a simple thresholding of the final FWI component of the Canadian FWI System. However, it is known that the system has scope for improvement. Here we explore a climatology of the six FWI System components across the UK (i.e. extending to Scotland and Northern Ireland), calculated from daily 2km × 2km gridded numerical weather prediction data and supplemented by long-term meteorological station observations. We used this climatology to develop a percentile-based calibration of the FWI System, optimised for UK conditions. We find this approach to be well justified, as the values of the "raw" uncalibrated FWI components corresponding to a very "extreme" (99th percentile) fire danger situation vary by more than an order of magnitude across the country. Therefore, a simple thresholding of the uncalibrated component values (as is currently applied in the MOFSI) may incur large errors of omission and commission with respect to the identification of periods of significantly elevated fire danger. We evaluate our approach to enhancing UK fire danger rating using records of wildfire occurrence and find that the Fine Fuel Moisture Code (FFMC), Initial Spread Index (ISI) and FWI components of the FWI System generally have the greatest predictive skill for landscape fire activity across Great Britain, with performance varying seasonally and by land cover type. At the height of the most recent severe wildfire period in the UK (2 May 2011), 50 % of all wildfires occurred in areas where the FWI component exceeded the 99th percentile. When all wildfire events during the 2010–2012 period are considered, the 75th, 90th and 99th percentiles of at least one FWI component were exceeded during 85, 61 and 18 % of all wildfires respectively. Overall, we demonstrate the significant advantages of using a percentile-based calibration approach for classifying UK fire danger, and believe that our findings provide useful insights for future development of the current operational MOFSI UK FDRS.

Short summary
We present a percentile-based calibration of the Canadian Forest Fire Weather Index (FWI) System for the United Kingdom (UK), developed from numerical weather prediction data, and evaluate it using historic wildfire records. The Fine Fuel Moisture Code, Initial Spread Index and final FWI component of the FWI system show the greatest predictive skill for UK wildfires. Our findings provide useful insights for any future redevelopment of the current operational UK fire danger rating system.
Final-revised paper