National Characterization

The preceding discussion of regional conditions highlights the considerable variation that exists throughout the Nation, as well as many of the shared issues. Indeed, every state, county, management unit, or community can claim its own unique fire regime, history, and special circumstances. Such differences are important when planning at the local level, but may overwhelm a national analysis designed to inform a national strategy that addresses all lands. On the other hand, generalities are useful only to a certain extent; at some point, a location’s specifics must be fully considered. One of the challenges of a national analysis is finding an adequate balance between generalization and specification that highlights important differences while also recognizing commonalities.

Data spanning a broad spectrum of environmental, socioeconomic, and fire-related statistics were assembled to support development of the Cohesive Strategy. These data were summarized and consolidated to the county level to provide a comparable unit of analysis across data sets. Where appropriate, they also have been normalized to allow equitable comparisons across counties of different sizes. That is, some variables are expressed on a unit area (e.g., fires per square mile) or per capita basis. This allows data from multiple sources and of various forms to be used to discern relationships among driving factors and influential variables. It also allows creation of national maps that highlight many of the intra- and inter-regional or state similarities and differences.

Because the Cohesive Strategy planning effort relies on existing data sources, limitations inherent in those data naturally constrain the scope and extent of the national analysis. One of the more important limitations is that several of the more influential data sets are restricted to the 48 conterminous states and exclude Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and other territories. Thus, the national characterization and subsequent analyses that depend on it are similarly restricted. Options for extending the analysis to the excluded states and territories are being explored.

Even county-level metrics pose challenges to completing a national analysis. There are 3,109 counties in the conterminous United States and each has its own unique story. This analysis is not directed at telling those unique stories, but rather highlights the pattern of similarities and differences found among the counties and uses those common attributes to develop a manageable set of narratives that can be linked to nationwide management options. To that end, grouping counties along two principal themes of landscape character and risk to communities provides a serviceable classification system. Counties are grouped together based upon their similarities with respect to key variables that are relevant to the principal themes. Two different techniques were used to better match the nature of the themes and patterns within the data.