University of New Mexico professor of Economics Richard Bernknopf is embarking on research in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Forest Service that aims to use remote imaging and satellite photography in risk-assessment and response to wildfires.

This project is focusing on the Sierra and Stanislaus National Forests of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, but if proven useful it is expected to expand to other states. Researchers are currently looking into working with Yosemite National Forest to prevent forest fires that ravage the west. 

According to a May 2019 press release by the California Department of Insurance, there was over $13 billion worth of insurance losses in California in 2018 alone. These numbers continue to climb, as people comb through the destruction these fires wrought on the state. This is the area that served as the study focus for Bernknopf and other UNM researchers. 



The technology behind this program is referred to as Landscape Fire and Resource Management Planning Tools (LANDFIRE). According to the LANDFIRE Website, the technology “produces consistent, comprehensive, geospatial data and databases that describe vegetation, wildland fuel, and fire regimes across the United States.”

LANDFIRE takes satellite data and uses it to create a pre-fire map that shows vulnerability and other indicators, and a post-fire map that shows the severity of the wildfire in different areas. 

Economists come in to the picture when considering how to respond to the data gathered, Bernknopf said, providing the Bureau of Land Management, state government or private landowners with information.

One of Bernknopf’s tasks on the project is assigning economic values to the various resources of a particular area. He divides these into two kinds of assets. 

“There’s the human environment of buildings, roads, those types of things — where human communities are and where the built infrastructure is,” Bernknopf said. 

According to Bernknopf, these costs are easier to identify because they are things that can be purchased for a specific value. 

The second type of assets is “non-market resources”, the natural “ecosystems that benefit people,'' such as a particular habitat or natural landmark. These are things that each person would value differently, and it gets further complicated when considering the cultural significance of some non-market resources, according to Bernknopf. 

For Bernknopf to assign economic values to non-market resources, he uses the term “stated preference models” to describe the process by which they arrive at those values. 

Through anonymous surveys, participants state what they would be willing to pay for certain resources, such as a park, or a lake. Through averaging and weighing these responses, Bernknopf hopes to get a clearer picture of a non-market resource’s economic significance, he said.  

“It’s at least something to represent what people would put that value as,” he said. “There is no way to put a dollar amount on certain things, no one would ever want to try to, (as there are) different kinds of levels of preference, (with) goods that vary among whichever group that you’re asking the question to.” 

Since these wildfire maps and their economic values could determine how resources are prioritized in a fire, there is a possibility of some people feeling that they’ve been dealt an unfair hand, he said. If one group believes that their habitat is worthy of fire-fighting resources, yet the data says otherwise, they may abandon any trust in the model whatsoever. 

Bernknopf said he aims to “reduce uncertainty with wildfires” and our response to them. 

Yet he can only “reduce the issue by a certain amount if (action is taken) based on the information that is produced,” Bernknopf said. “We don’t know if it’s actually going to be reduced because we don’t know if they are even going to believe the model.”

Alex Heitt is a freelance news reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted through news@dailylobo.com