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Estimating Wildfire Fuel with LiDAR Drone Technology

Estimating Wildfire Fuel with LiDAR Drone Technology


In 2023, British Columbia experienced substantial financial impacts due to wildfires, with expenditures reaching approximately $817 million. These fires not only have a direct financial impact but also affect our health and overall well-being.  

The usage of LiDAR technology is changing forest management, particularly in estimating forest fire fuels. The study by Andersen, McGaughey, and Reutebuch in 2005 laid the foundation for this advancement. Their research in Capitol State Forest, Washington, demonstrated the potential of LiDAR in accurately mapping forest canopy structures, crucial for fire behavior modeling. 

The Role of LiDAR in Fuel Estimation 

LiDAR technology, mounted on drones, provides high-resolution, three-dimensional images of forest canopies. This data is instrumental in calculating various canopy metrics such as canopy bulk density, height, fuel weight, and base height. These metrics are essential for understanding the potential intensity and spread of forest fires. 

Methodology of the Study 

The study conducted by Andersen and his colleagues involved collecting LiDAR data over a Pacific Northwest conifer forest. They used regression analysis to correlate LiDAR-derived metrics with field-based fuel estimates. The results showed a strong relationship between the two, indicating LiDAR's reliability in fuel estimation. 

Calculating Fuel Using LiDAR Data 

The process of calculating fuel involves several steps. First, LiDAR data is used to create a detailed image of the forest canopy. Then, specific algorithms are applied to this data to estimate the canopy fuel parameters. These include the total dry weight of live and dead material in the tree crowns, broken down into foliage and different sizes of branchwood. The study utilized the Fire and Fuels Extension to the Forest Vegetation Simulator (FFE-FVS) methodology for this purpose. 

Units of Measurement for Fuels 

In the study, the fuel parameters were measured in various units. Canopy fuel weight was estimated in kilograms per hectare (kg/ha), while canopy bulk density was measured in kilograms per cubic meter (kg/m³). Canopy height and base height were measured in meters. These units provide a standardized way to quantify and compare fuel loads across different forest areas. 

Key Measurements: The study focused on four main forest canopy parameters: 

  1. Canopy Bulk Density: The density of burnable material in the tree canopy. 
  2. Canopy Height: The overall height of the forest canopy. 
  3. Canopy Fuel Weight: The total weight of potential burnable material in the canopy. 
  4. Canopy Base Height: The height at which the burnable parts of the canopy begin above the ground. 

          Advantages of Using Drones and LiDAR 

          The combination of drones and LiDAR offers several advantages over traditional methods. It allows for rapid data collection over large areas, which is less labor-intensive and time-consuming. Moreover, the high-resolution data obtained is more accurate, providing a detailed understanding of the forest structure. 

          Applications in Fire Management 

          The accurate estimation of forest fuels is critical for effective fire management. It aids in the development of fire behavior models, which are essential for predicting the spread and intensity of forest fires. This information is crucial for fire prevention strategies, planning controlled burns, and managing fire suppression efforts. 

          Future Directions 

          The 2004 study utilized a LiDAR system mounted on a helicopter which comes at a heavy cost. Todays UAV and LiDAR sensors are much more affordable and accessible. 


          Advancements in LiDAR technology like the Zenmuse L2 provide more penetration into dense forest canopies, capable of up to 5 returns. 

          Furthermore, advanced LiDAR data processing software like LiDAR360 can automatically extract advanced tree metrics and do biomass estimations. 

          The study by Andersen et al. is a testament to the potential of drones and LiDAR technology in forest fire management. As this technology continues to evolve, it will undoubtedly play a crucial role in enhancing our ability to manage and mitigate the risks associated with forest fires. 

          Reach out to our team for your remote sensing solutions. We offer training and consulting to achieve your objectives. 


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