Firefighters and aircraft are being kept busy in New South Wales

(This article was first published on Fire Aviation)

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Instagram user “charltondurie” grabbed this photo and video of Air Tanker 912, a DC-10, dropping retardant on a fire about 70 miles (110 km) southwest of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia that has burned 1,880 ha (4,645 acres) northeast of Taralga between Bannaby and Wombeyan Caves.

Click on the image below to start the video. Then, to see a second video, click on the arrow on the right side of the image.

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A huge fire in the Pilliga Forest between Coonabarabran and Narrabri has blackened over 57,880 hectares (143,000 acres).

Lightning ignited multiple fires across the Blue Mountains and Yengo National Parks in NSW Monday evening. There are two fires burning in remote areas to the north of the Great Western Highway in the Grose Valley, Blue Mountains National Park and an additional six fires south of the Great Western Highway and north of Warragamba Dam in the Blue Labyrinth, Blue Mountains National Park. The aircraft is named “Nancy Bird” after an Australian aviatrix.

There is also one fire in the Yengo National Park, east of the Putty Road in the Hawkesbury.

These lightning fires are burning in remote areas. NSW  Rural Fire Service and  National Parks and Wildlife Remote Area Firefighters have worked to establish and consolidate containment lines with the support of air tankers.

Study concludes wildfire smoke causes lower infant birth weight

An economics researcher found that infants’ proximity to smoke pollution while in utero affects birth weight.

Above: Whitetail Fire in South Dakota

(Originally published at 6:17 p.m. MST January 22, 2018)

When researchers seek to determine a single or primary cause for a human health problem, they know they’re battling uphill. Our environments are complex, multifaceted, and permeated by a seemingly infinite number of factors that could shape us. Rare is the circumstance that is so ideal, at least from a researcher’s perspective, that one can sift through the noise and emerge with a definitive root of an issue.

That is, of course, unless nature is on your side — as was the case for UNLV economics professor Shawn McCoy and his University of Pittsburgh economics colleague Xiaoxi Zhao.

It’s hard to imagine anything positive coming out of wildfires. They’ve become six times more likely to occur and four times as large since the 1980s, McCoy said, due to climate and population changes. And yet for his research, which demonstrates that proximity to smoke pollution causes lower infant birthweight, wildfires proved to be a sort of equalizer.

“Wildfires are a meaningful topic to research in and of themselves, but they also help solve this causality problem that is difficult in our studies of pollution,” McCoy said. “Two features make fire pollution different from that of, say, an industrial plant: the random timing of fires and their random location, in that wind patterns on any given day drive the direction and concentration of smoke. This sets up a quasi-experimental research design wherein a fire happens randomly and by chance and randomly and naturally assigns treatment and control groups, because only a certain segment of the population will be exposed to the smoke.”

Several studies have established correlations between pollution sources and negative public health outcomes, McCoy said. However, prior research has faced difficulties demonstrating a direct causal relationship. One reason for this, according to McCoy, is the number of factors that could be involved in past research scenarios.

“Suppose we build an industrial plant,” McCoy said. “Once that plant is built, we need to think about the economics of that problem, which is that people don’t like to live next to plants. Holding everything else constant, home prices will drop in the surrounding area because of that, which could induce geographical sorting, wherein households with lower income might migrate into the areas surrounding the plant and households with higher incomes may leave. When that happens, it becomes harder to determine if changes in health outcomes occurred because of plant pollution, geographical sorting dynamics, or even something else.”

The random timing and location of wildfires mitigate these dynamics, making it ideal for McCoy and Zhao’s research. Wildfire smoke is similar to other sources of ambient air pollution; its particulate matter can be so small that it passes through the heart and lungs, disrupts fetal nutrition, and slows fetal growth. Within this framework, birthweight becomes a useful metric to track because of its link to short-term outcomes, such as one-year mortality rates, as well as long-term outcomes such as educational attainment and earnings, McCoy said.

McCoy and Zhao leveraged geographic information systems (mapping software) to identify ignition sources and smoke paths and plotted the home addresses of infants born during a time that would place them in the smoke’s path while in utero. They then compared the birthweight of those infants to a control group outside of the smoke’s path.

The researchers’ results indicate that wildfire smoke leads to a 4 to 6 percent reduction in birthweight, and these effects are most pronounced among mothers exposed to smoke during the second or the third trimesters of pregnancy. They also found that these effects attenuate (or diminish) with respect to distance to a wildfire, becoming ineffectual three miles and further from the burn source. In contrast, the researchers found that even if infants had been close to a wildfire while in utero, there was no statistically significant effect on their birthweight if they were outside the smoke’s path.

“One really neat thing about this research is that I can do more than tell you what the effect of being exposed to the smoke is or not,” McCoy said. “I can tell you how that effect varies based on where an infant is relative to the source of pollution. Beyond that, we now have the evidence that reinforces earlier findings on the effects of ambient pollution at large and can say that these effects are very likely real, not just loosely correlated or tied up with other economic issues like household migration dynamics.”

McCoy’s hope is that this research will help inform policymakers of the potential economic and health consequences of wildfires, the magnitude of this type of disaster, and the mechanism behind wildfires — all of which enable people to better target the problem.

“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that homeowners don’t fully acknowledge the risks associated with natural disasters — in particular, the risks associated with wildfire,” McCoy said. “One way to address this problem is to inform the public of risks through information-based regulation, such as posting billboards of people standing on cars during floods to discourage them from attempting to drive through inundated areas in the future. The idea is, if you give people this information, it can affect how they evaluate disaster risks, and it will likely have a spillover effect in terms of how they manage those risks.” That being said, McCoy noted that a one-time exposure to this type of information likely won’t be enough to have a lasting impact, so regulators should share this type of messaging often.

McCoy and Zhao’s research findings have been detailed in their article “Wildfire and Infant Health: A Geo-Spatial Approach to Estimating the Health Impacts of Ambient Air Pollution and In-Utero Stress,” currently under review by a top industry journal.


Source: provided by University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Original written by Sara Gorgon. University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). “Exposure to wildfire smoke in utero lowers birthweight.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 December 2017.

CAL FIRE Riverside County Chief removed from position

Above: Chief John Hawkins speaking at the 9th IAWF Wildland Fire Safety Summit in Pasadena, April, 2006. IAWF photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 12:05 p.m. MST January 20, 2018)

John R. Hawkins, the longtime chief of the CAL FIRE Riverside Unit and Riverside County Fire Department was suddenly removed from his position Friday. Chief Hawkins’ firefighting career has spanned 54 years and he had been in his County Chief position for 12 years.

Replacing him temporarily is Deputy Chief Dan Talbot.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Idyllwild Town Crier:

“All I have right now is Chief Hawkins is no longer the fire chief and the department has put an intern chief in as of now. Chief Hawkins is still an employee and that’s all I have as is now,” said CAL FIRE Chief Mike Mohler of the Southern Region Communications for CAL FIRE’s South Ops.

Chief Hawkins was the CAL FIRE Incident Commander for the 2003 Cedar Fire that burned 273,000 acres in San Diego County. He is beloved by many and is a very dynamic speaker sought after for conferences and training.

CAL FIRE Chief John Hawkins
Chief John Hawkins speaking at the Wildland Fire Safety Summit in Pasadena, April, 2006. IAWF photo by Bill Gabbert.

How does tree mortality caused by drought and insects affect forests accustomed to frequent fire?

Research results were published January 17, 2018

This week a group of nine scientists and researchers published the results of their work considering how unusually high tree mortality affects wildfires in California’s Sierra Nevada forests that over thousands of years have adapted to frequent fire. They point out that fire suppression-caused forest densification has increased competition among trees for water and other resources, destabilizing many frequent fire forests by making them prone to mortality from other agents such as bark beetles.

Authors

Scott L. Stephens, Brandon M. Collins, Christopher J. Fettig, Mark A. Finney, Chad M. Hoffman, Eric E. Knapp, Malcolm P. North, Hugh Safford, Rebecca B. Wayman

The abstract and conclusions are below. The entire paper can be accessed at BioScience. The illustrations are from the document.


Abstract

Massive tree mortality has occurred rapidly in frequent-fire-adapted forests of the Sierra Nevada, California. This mortality is a product of acute drought compounded by the long-established removal of a key ecosystem process: frequent, low- to moderate-intensity fire. The recent tree mortality has many implications for the future of these forests and the ecological goods and services they provide to society. Future wildfire hazard following this mortality can be generally characterized by decreased crown fire potential and increased surface fire intensity in the short to intermediate term. The scale of present tree mortality is so large that greater potential for “mass fire” exists in the coming decades, driven by the amount and continuity of dry, combustible, large woody material that could produce large, severe fires. For long-term adaptation to climate change, we highlight the importance of moving beyond triage of dead and dying trees to making “green” (live) forests more resilient.

Fire Responses Post Drought Beetle
A conceptual diagram showing fuel load and expected fire behavior in a mixed-conifer forest prior to and following a major bark-beetle-caused tree-mortality episode, with either (a) no follow-up-fuels treatment or (b) periodic prescribed fire to consume fuels. Surface-fire intensity is expected to roughly follow surface fuel load, whereas crown-fire potential is regulated by the amount of surface fuel (necessary to heat and dry live fuels to the point of combustion), as well as crown bulk density.

 

Forest Responses Severe Drought
Forest responses following a severe drought (1999–2002) in the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir (SSPM), Baja California, Mexico (a, drought and bark-beetle-caused tree mortality followed by wildfire; b, drought- and bark-beetle-caused tree mortality only) and in the southern California mountains (SCM), California, United States (c, drought- and bark-beetle-caused tree mortality at larger scales; d, drought and bark-beetle-caused tree mortality at stand scale. Note no wildfire in either SCM area). The SSPM and SCM photos were taken in 2004 and 2003, respectively. The SSPM site experienced a wildfire immediately following the multiyear drought (picture from 2003), with the photos capturing effects of both drought- and wildfire-related tree mortality. Pictures (a), (b), and (d) from SLS, (c) from G. Barley.

[…]

Conclusions

Unprecedented Sierra Nevada tree mortality has rapidly occurred after a severe drought with effects compounded by forest densification from decades of fire suppression. In the central and southern Sierra Nevada some areas have experienced more than 90% tree mortality, producing extensive landscapes of standing dead trees. This differs from mortality resulting from stand-replacing wildfire because bark beetles do not reduce surface fuels or jumpstart succession of shade-intolerant, fire-resistant pines. Forest managers have been struggling to determine whether these new postmortality conditions will increase wildfire intensity and/or severity, what the near- and long-term effects on forest communities will be, and what the appropriate intervention measures are.

In the first decade, wildfire severity in bark beetle killed frequent fire (FF) forests may be little affected over current conditions. Other than a brief increase during the “red phase” when most dead needles are still on recently killed trees, the reduction in canopy fuels is counterbalanced by an increase in surface fuels (figure 2). However, these are no grounds for complacency because current conditions in the majority of mixed-conifer and yellow pine forests in California already consist of unnaturally high surface fuel loads and corresponding elevated fire hazards (figure 2; Lydersen et al. 2014, Stephens et al. 2015).

The more troubling projection is how extensive loading of large-sized woody fuels in future decades may contribute to dangerous mass fires beyond the predictive capacity of current fire models. These fires can generate their own wind and weather conditions and create extensive spotting, making fire behavior and its impact on structures and public safety difficult to manage and predict. In addition, such intense fires could prevent forests from becoming re-established. Lacking the legacy of live trees that historic FF would have left (Stephens et al. 2008), large unburned areas of dead trees may also produce unusual forest succession patterns. These patterns will likely favor shade-tolerant and hardwood tree regeneration, limited shrub growth, and accumulating large woody fuels that would likely kill regenerating forests when wildfire inevitably occurs. The scale of contiguous tree mortality entrenches the homogeneity produced by fire suppression, reducing the fine-scale heterogeneity of forest conditions that contributes to resilience and biodiversity. Management could enhance adaptation to climate-change-induced stress if it focused more of its resources on creating spatially and temporally variable patterns in green FF forests that are better aligned with local moisture availability and fire patterns (North et al. 2009).

Many of our FF forests have failed to receive the very management that could increase resilience to disturbances exacerbated by climate change, such as the application of prescribed fire and mechanical restoration treatments (Stephens et al. 2016). Recent tree mortality raises serious questions about our willingness to address the underlying causes. If our society doesn’t like the outcomes from recent fires and extensive drought-induced tree mortality in FF forests, then we collectively need to move beyond the status quo. Working to increase the pace and scale of beneficial fire and mechanical treatments rather than focusing on continued fire suppression would be an important step forward.

White House: if the government shuts down, firefighters will work but not get paid

At noon EST Friday, January 19, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget said in a briefing at the White House that if Congress can’t agree on a federal budget or continuing resolution by Friday night, “firefighters will work but not get paid”. Parks will stay open, Director Mick Mulvaney said, but some services in the parks would be suspended.

The video below includes Mr. Mulvaney’s statement about firefighters and parks.

There have been a number of government shutdowns over the last few decades when the Senators and Congressmen have failed to do their jobs and pass budgets. As far as I know, in all cases when “essential” personnel like firefighters continued to work, they eventually were paid for the time served during the shutdown. Up to 80 percent of federal employees have worked through shutdowns in at least one example.

PIlliga Fire closes Newell Highway in New South Wales

Above: The Pilliga Fire 60 km southwest of Narrabri, New South Wales, Australia. Modified Copernicus Sentinel satellite data  processed by Pierre Markuse.

(Originally published at 8:46 MST January 19, 2018)

The Pilliga Fire in Australia between #Coonabarabran and #Narrabri has burned approximately 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) in New South Wales, requiring the closure of the Newell Highway. The fire is burning near Dipper Road, Dandry, in the Pilliga Forest west of the highway.

Pilliga Fire New South Wales
Pilliga Fire 60 km southwest of Narrabri, New South Wales, Australia.

The Rural Fire Service reports that smoke is likely to drift across the Wee Waa, Gwabegar, and Baradine areas. There is, however, no current threat to homes.

Pilliga Fire New South Wales
Pilliga Fire 60 km southwest of Narrabri, New South Wales, Australia.

map Pilliga Fire New South Wales