Did humans learn how to use fire as a management tool from birds?

It is thought that birds in northern Australia help spread wildfire by carrying burning twigs.

On 16 occasions in the past we have jokingly used the term “animal arson” when a critter played a part in starting a fire. Examples include a mouse chewing through a power cord (and for a while was thought guilty of manslaughter), a dog chewing on strike-anywhere matches, a pigeon and a sparrow carrying lit cigarettes to their nests, a bird dropping a fish onto a power line, and a bird’s wings contacting two power lines.

Black kite in Bangalore, India. Photo by Yathin S. Krishnappa.

There may be more to this than we originally thought. Researchers have documented multiple instances of anecdotal evidence leading to the belief that birds have helped spread wildfires in Australia’s Northern Territory. There are two primary suspects, the black kite, Milvus migrans and brown falcon, Falco berigora, but other persons birds of interest are the grasshopper buzzard, Butastur rufipennis in central Africa, and the crested caracara, Caracara cheriway in the southern United States.

Black Kites are found on four continents, but not in North or South America. They feed on small live prey, fish, lizards, carrion, large insects, and have been known to take birds, bats, and rodents. They are attracted to vegetation fires and will fly in from miles away to dine on small animals escaping the flames.

Black Kites fire prey

They like it so much that it is believed they keep the fire going by picking up burning twigs in their claws and carrying it some distance to a patch of unburned vegetation. They will wait with their feathered friends until the fire gets going and their table is set, and then grab the scurrying critters. If the fire slows down too much in that area, the story goes, they will find another burning twig to propagate the fire again.

There is also an account of a black kite dropping bread in a river. When fish congregated around the bait, the kite dived in for a meal. It is not a huge stretch from using bread as bait to carrying fire in order to herd small animals.

The evidence to support this behavior is all anecdotal, but it has aroused the interest of scientists Bob Gosford and Mark Bonta who presented some of their preliminary research on this issue at the Raptor Research Foundation meeting at Sacramento, California November 8, 2015. Their presentation included this theory:

It is also possible that humanity’s acquisition and manipulation of fire may be a result of the observation of intentional avian pyrophilic behaviour rather than solely from some relationship with lightning-caused fire.

Very strong winds predicted for Black Hills

Wind gusts up to 60 in the forecast

Weather forecast-Black Hills
Weather forecast for the Pactola Lake area of the Black Hills in South Dakota. Click to enlarge.

The National Weather Forecast has issued a High Wind Warning for the Black Hills in Wyoming and South Dakota for this weekend. From 11 p.m. CST Saturday until 8 p.m. CST on Sunday forecasters expect northwest winds of 25 to 35 mph with gusts up to 60.

In the Central Black Hills area near Pactola Lake, elevation 4,797, the temperature on Sunday will max out at about 33 degrees with a minimum humidity of 39 percent. The winds there on Sunday will be northwest from 28 to 38 mph with gusts from 40 to 53 mph.

At Rapid City, 3,600 feet, it will be warmer on Sunday — 37 degrees — with an RH of 37 percent and wind gusts up to 64 mph.

We can’t find a fire weather forecast, but have heard nothing about a Red Flag Warning.

Wildfire Briefing, February 5, 2016

The above image is from Headwaters Economics

Land use planning to reduce wildfire risk

Headquarters Economics released a report about how five cities have used innovative land use planning techniques as a way to adapt to the growing threat from wildfires. The authors met with city planners, elected officials, and firefighters in Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; Flagstaff, Arizona; San Diego, California; and Santa Fe, New Mexico—all communities with a recent history of wildfire and a reputation for being problem solvers.

wildfire planning map
Headwaters Economics

Prescribed fire escapes in Florida

In St. Johns County, Florida on Tuesday a prescribed fire intended to treat 140 acres off County Road 208 escaped control when an unexpected 20-25 mph wind gust scattered burning embers. About 270 acres later the Florida Forest Service was able to contain the blaze.

Spokesperson Julie Maddux said statewide in 2015 the Florida Forest Service burned more than 236,000 acres during prescribed fires and none of them got out of control.

U.S. Forest Service releases findings on the effects of drought for forests and rangelands

The U.S. Forest Service this week released a new report, Effects of Drought on Forests and Rangelands in the United States: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis, that provides a national assessment of peer-reviewed scientific research on the impacts of drought on U.S. forests and rangelands. This report will help the Forest Service better manage forests and grasslands impacted by climate change.

“Our forests and rangelands are national treasures, and because they are threatened, we are threatened,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “This report confirms what we are seeing, that every region of the country is impacted by the direct and indirect effects of drought conditions and volatile weather patterns. Sixty million Americans rely on drinking water that originates on our 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands. They support 200,000 jobs and contribute over $13 billion to local economies every year.”

Utah seeks jail time for drone operators that interfere with wildfire operations

Last year there were numerous instances across the West of drones flying into the airspace above active fires and interfering with the operations of firefighting aircraft.

From the AP:

..A new proposal in the Utah Legislature aims to address the growing problem by creating a possible penalty of jail time for people who fly drones within 3 miles of a wildfire.

A House committee was scheduled to discuss the proposal Tuesday afternoon but the hearing was postponed.

Republican Rep. Kraig Powell of Heber City, the proposal’s sponsor, said he asked to postpone the meeting so he could get more input from interested parties. He said he may add exemptions for certain entities, such as public utility companies that need to use drones to see if the fire will impact gas lines.

Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry said he hopes lawmakers back the bill…

“I really hope it doesn’t take a major mishap and somebody to lose their life for the public to take it seriously,” Curry said.

Washington state treats less land with prescribed fire than their neighbors

Washington prescribed fire acres

From the Seattle Times:

Washington lags far behind neighboring states in using controlled burns to thin out dangerously overgrown woodlands.

After back-to-back years of catastrophic forest fires, some state lawmakers want that to change.

“I’ve had it. I think it is time to delve into the policy,” said state Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, who represents a large swath of North Central Washington scorched in last year’s record-setting fires that burned more than 1 million acres.

Parlette is sponsoring a pair of “fight fire with fire” bills that would require more controlled burns on state lands and loosen smoke regulations to make it easier for federal and private land managers to conduct burns.

Experts say expanding the use of controlled burns is vital to restoring forests to health, leaving them less vulnerable to massive blazes when the summer fire season hits.

But some U.S. Forest Service officials and other critics say the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), led by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, has discouraged controlled burns in recent years because of fears over smoke drifting into communities.

Legislation introduced to acquire system to track location of state firefighters in Washington

Photo above: 19 white hearses brought the Granite Mountain Hotshots back to Prescott, Arizona, July 7, 2013. They were killed after being overrun by the Yarnell Hill Fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A bill introduced in the Washington state legislature would provide for state employed firefighters a system that would track their location. Knowing where firefighters are while working on a rapidly spreading fire is crucial to ensuring their safety, and is half of what we have called Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety. The other half is knowing the real time location of the fire relative to the personnel. If a Division Supervisor, Operations Section Chief, or Safety Officer is monitoring this information they could potentially warn firefighters that their present position is in danger when the fire begins to spread in their direction. A system like this might have saved 24 lives on the 2013 Yarnell Hill and 2006 Esperanza Fires. In both cases the firefighters and their supervisors did not have a clear understanding of where the fire and the firefighters were.

In a January 18 article about how to reduce the number of fatalities on wildland fires, we wrote:

When you think about it, it’s crazy that we sometimes send firefighters into a dangerous environment without knowing these two very basic things.

Below is a section from House Bill 2924 as introduced in the Washington State Legislature on January 27, 2016, sponsored by six lawmakers:

…Require all fire suppression equipment and personnel in its employ or direction to be outfitted with an electronic monitoring device that utilizes global positioning system technology to protect the safety of wildland firefighters…

The Seattle Times wrote about the proposed legislation. Here is an excerpt:

…DNR has done some early research on GPS, according to Bob Johnson, the agency’s wildfire-division manager. Setting up a system could cost $1.5 million, Johnson told lawmakers.

“Improving safety for our firefighters is paramount and we’d view this technology … as a viable supplement to existing safety measures,” wrote Mary Verner, DNR’s deputy supervisor for resource protection. “Though, it, like many technologies, does have its limitations.”

Challenges, benefits

GPS locaters are used by various departments and agencies around the country, according to Triplett.

But there aren’t yet national standards for GPS systems, so when firefighters come from different agencies or another state to fight large blazes, they may not have equipment that works together, according to Triplett.

Steve Pollock, chief regional fire coordinator for the Texas A&M Fire Service, said it took about three years to develop that agency’s GPS system. When it goes live in July, it will be able to track more than 200 bulldozers, fire engines and coordinating vehicles, he said…

There needs to be leadership, nationally, to develop standards for firefighter tracking systems so that the devices used by different agencies are compatible and interoperable. This should be the duty of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, National Association of State Foresters, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

If individual state and local organizations spend millions on stand-alone systems that can’t be used outside their jurisdictions it will be FUBAR. Leadership is needed. Today.

Report concludes that USFS should revise fire protection agreement with CAL FIRE

An audit conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General concluded that the U.S. Forest Service has assumed a disproportionate share of the fire suppression burden specified in interagency agreements with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).

The USFS enters into fire protection agreements with other land management agencies when, after evaluating geography and the location of fire suppression resources, it appears to make economic sense that Agency A protect portions of Agency B’s lands in some areas, and vice versa. But there are inherent differences, on a broad scale, between the National Forests in California and lands CAL FIRE is charged to protect. The private property has more people and structures on or close it, therefore more wildland-urban interface (WUI). When fires approach or burn private property and homes in a WUI, it historically has generated a much more aggressive and expensive response than fires in a typical USFS forested area. While the acres exchanged in these agreements may on the surface appear to be more or less equal, the responsibility to protect them from wildfires can be very different — and more costly.

State lands in California near National Forests generally have more grass, brush, and WUI areas than Forest land in the same general area. The table below, from the IG report, shows the difference in costs for putting out fires in the three different types of fuel.

Fire Suppression costs per acre

The Inspector General found that in California, the USFS has assumed responsibility for protecting almost 2.8 million acres of private land, exchanging the protection of land that is inexpensive for land that is more difficult, and therefore more expensive, for example WUI areas near forests. State officials, according to the report, took responsibility for
land that was comparatively inexpensive to protect, such as grassland.

The Inspector General recommends that the USFS reassess its fire protection responsibilities with CAL FIRE.

In addition to the inequalities regarding areas that are protected, the Inspector General uncovered other issues:

OIG also found that local cooperators used indirect cost rates for firefighting activities that may have been excessive and unreasonable. FS did not safeguard its assets by establishing policies and procedures to review indirect cost rates charged by local cooperators. As a result, we questioned over $4.5 million in administrative costs paid to nine cooperators in California. In addition, FS overpaid $6.5 million to Colorado State University for unallowable administrative costs during a 4-year period. Although FS identified this issue and ceased future overpayments, it has not recovered the overpayments.

On a side note, the illustrations on the cover of the USDA Inspector General’s report, emphasizing radishes, chickens, and carrots, shows how land management and the suppression of wildfires seems to be an afterthought within the Department even when issuing a report about firefighting. IG report coverThis is in spite of the fact that the USFS spends about $1.2 billion annually on fire suppression, which consumed 52 percent of its budget in fiscal year 2015. The five major federal land management agencies in the USDA and Department of the Interior employ over 13,000 wildland firefighters, a group of employees that should be difficult to overlook, but often is.

This prompts us once again to think about how things might be different if all of the federal land management agencies, or perhaps only their fire departments, were in a stand-alone agency, emphasizing at number one, fire protection, rather than radishes.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.

Throwback Thursday: remember this prescribed fire at Malheur?

Revisiting an article from February 27, 2014

Rx fire at Malheur Nat'l wildlife Refuge. USFS photo by Shane Theall.
Prescribed fire at Malheur Nat’l wildlife Refuge. USFS photo by Shane Theall.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. their….

Malheur Fire Program and the Burns Interagency Fire Zone conducted a 2,250-acre prescribed fire on the Deer Park Unit of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this week [late February, 2014]. Located in southeastern Oregon’s high desert, at the northern end of the Great Basin, the 187,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge is famous for its spectacular concentrations of wildlife. With its abundant water resources in an otherwise arid landscape, the Refuge hosts more than 320 bird species and 58 mammal species.

Rx fire at Malheur Nat'l Wildlife Refuge. USFWS photo by Carla Burnside.
Prescribed fire at Malheur Nat’l Wildlife Refuge. USFWS photo by Carla Burnside.