Researchers: Expect more fires

From the Billings Gazette:

JACKSON, WYOMING – Now might be a good time to get into the firefighting business.

If science and history are a guide, the world and particularly the Rocky Mountain West are poised on the cusp of a dangerous increase in the size and frequency of large fires, caused by a warming climate.

“By the end of this century we’re expecting the area in Canada that burns to double,” said Mike Flannigan, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service. “Others say it will be a change of three to five times. It looks pretty gloomy.”

An increasing risk of large fires may not be news to landowners and homeowners who have been scorched by recent blazes. But speakers at a conference here Wednesday put a finer point on the idea, backing it up with reams of charts and boat loads of scientific research outlined in PowerPoint presentations.

El Cariso Hot Shots catch their breath after being chased out of a fire on the San Bernardino National Forest, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Flannigan is one of many researchers who spoke Wednesday at a weeklong conference titled “The ’88 Fires, Yellowstone and Beyond,” co-sponsored by the National Park Service and the International Association of Wildland Fire. Many of Wednesday’s talks focused on climate change and its effects on wildfires.

[…]

Based on data already compiled, the West is on the front of a rising curve for more large fires. Research by Anthony Westerling, of the University of California-Merced, showed that fires more than 500 acres in size have increased by 300 percent since 1985 on National Park Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs lands.

Westerling examined how rising temperatures have affected earlier spring runoffs and in many cases led to warmer, drier summers. His studies showed that between 1970 and 2008, there has been a 78-day increase in the fire season. The average burn time for fires has risen from one week to five weeks.

Projecting his data into the future, Westerling sees the average fire year between 2072 and 2099 looking similar in moisture deficit to Yellowstone National Park in 1988, when 794,000 acres burned.

“This is assuming we keep producing as much CO2,” he said. “I can’t get a sense of how you would manage yourself out of this change.”

Fire managers note that they’re already seeing unusual fire behavior.

Steve Frye, of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said, “We are experiencing extreme, aggressive fire behavior in places where we haven’t in the past,” including fires at elevations and in fuel types where fires didn’t used to burn.

Fighting such fires has become more complicated, he said, thanks in large part to the construction of houses near forests, which he called “the single largest challenge and change for fire managers in the last 20 years.”

Meanwhile, firefighting agencies have had to deal with a decline in the number of firefighters and equipment used to battle blazes. Agencies would need twice the resources they now have to keep fires at current levels, something that’s not going to happen. So fire managers have had to adapt.

“We are making better decisions in how we assign our resources,” Frye said. “But we’re also assigning units to protection that could be used elsewhere.”

Flannigan, the Canadian researcher, said the situation north of the border could well apply to the Western United States.

“It’s almost a given that we’ll see more fire activity, more ignitions,” he said. “This is a global problem, and it’s going to require global solutions.”

Wildfire news, September 25, 2008

“Pyro diversity”?

We have worked with ‘ologists of all types while managing fire programs and writing Environmental Assessments, Fire Management Plans, and Prescribed fire plans. And we have been in discussions about plant diversity, uneven-aged stands, and burn mosaics. But the term “pyro diversity” is new to us.

From necn.com, in an article about some prescribed fires being planned by The Nature Conservancy in Maine:

Fire scientists have a saying: Pyro diversity is bio-diversity, which means they want different levels of fire to create different habitats for plants and animals. 

The concept is familiar, but apparently “fire scientists” have coined a new term to be added to the lengthly list of wildland fire jargon.

Tenth Wildland Fire Safety Summit

The International Association of Wildland Fire is planning another in its series of Wildland Fire Safety Summits. The last one was in Pasadena in 2006 and this next one will be in Phoenix April 28-30, 2009. A major emphasis of the conference will be “10 Years after the TriData Study: What is Different?” Other topics include:

  • Aviation safety on wildfire operations
  • Issues in wildfire safety around the world
  • Safety in the Wildland-Urban Interface
  • Advances in wildland firefighter safety research, practices, training, and equipment
  • Case studies and lessons learned
  • Firefighter liability
  • Human factors in the fire organization
  • Firefighter health and fitness
  • New approaches to investigation and learning from close calls
  • Policy, practices, and procedures

More information, including a call for papers, can be found on the IAWF web site.

History of the Wildland Fire Safety Summit

2006 9th Wildland Fire Safety Summit™
Pasadena, California, USA
2005 8th Wildland Fire Safety Summit™
Missoula, Montana, USA
2003 7th Wildland Fire Safety Summit™
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
2002 6th Wildland Fire Safety Summit™
Luso, Portugal
2001 5th Wildland Fire Safety Summit™
Missoula, Montana, USA
2000 4th Wildland Fire Safety Summit™
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
1999 3rd Wildland Fire Safety Summit™
Sydney, Australia
1998 2nd Wildland Fire Safety Summit™
Winthrop, Washington, USA
1997 1st Wildland Fire Safety Summit™
Rossland, British Columbia, Canada

More details about fire funding

The $910 million in federal fire funding approved by the House of Representatives that we reported on Wednesday would replenish the budgets of the U.S. Department of Interior agencies and the Forest Service for this fire season. It still must be approved by the Senate and signed by the President, but it would include:

  • $610 million for wildfire suppression;
  • $125 million for State and private lands fuels reduction;
  • $100 million for rehabilitation;
  • $50 million for Federal lands fuels reduction; and
  • $25 million for firefighter recruitment and retention in high-risk areas.

Some of the federal agencies exhausted their fire funds this summer and had to shut down non-fire projects, such as construction, fuels reduction, and recreation related activities.

On a related topic….

Senator Diane Feinstein of California issued a press release saying that she has called for:

  • The U.S. Forest Service to bring its California firefighting corps to full staffing. Before the fires began, the Forest Service had 380 vacancies out of a total force that should be 4,432 – a vacancy rate of 8.5 percent. Senator Feinstein is urging that all firefighter vacancies be filled, and that Forest Service firefighter pay and retention issues be resolved.
  • The permanent stationing of two military C-130H tankers at Point Mugu. Earlier this year, Senator Feinstein asked the President and Secretary of Defense to station these tankers at the California air base so they can attack new fires early.

Photos of Truckee Marsh fire

It was stopped at only 1.5 acres, but the fire in the Lake Tahoe area looks larger than that in the excellent photos captured by Dan Thrift of the Tahoe Daily Tribune. Here is one, but check out the slide show at the bottom of the article.

Wildfire news, September 24, 2008

House approves $900 million for firefighting

The Associated Press
Article Launched: 09/24/2008 03:01:46 PM PDT

WASHINGTON—The House of Representatives has approved over $900 million for firefighting measures nationwide as part of a massive year-end budget bill.

Included is $610 million for fighting fires, $175 million to get rid of dry brush and other fire fuels, $100 million for rehabilitation and $25 million for firefighter recruitment and retention.

The money was sought by Senator Dianne Feinstein in the wake of lightning-sparked fires in Northern California this summer that charred thousands of acres across the region.

The money is part a $630 billion-plus spending bill. It still must pass the Senate.

Yellowstone Conference

The IAWF/NPS conference, “The ’88 Fires: Yellowstone and Beyond”, started Tuesday in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Hampered at the last minute by a ban on travel by the U.S. Forest Service, they expect to have 400-500 people there to talk about those fires 20 years ago, and where we go from here.

Rocky Barker, a reporter with the Idaho Statesman and author of “Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America”, is one of the speakers and has an article in the Wednesday edition of his paper. You should read the whole article, but here is an excerpt:

….Today, when a new fire is reported, a ranger decides either to put it out as fast as possible or, if it was started by lightning, he could declare it a “fire-use fire,” such as the South Barker fire near Featherville. There, firefighters act like peacekeepers, monitoring the fire so that it reduces fuels, improves habitat but doesn’t destroy homes, historic cabins or key wildlife features. 

But managers want a clear system that allows them to use many different strategies on fires, even if they were started by people. Explaining this new policy and building public support is the key, said Tom Nichols, the National Park Service director of fire and aviation at the National Interagency Fire Center.

So is planning, so managers know before a fire strikes what they want to accomplish across the landscape.

“If we are going to put firefighters in harm’s way, we are going to optimize what we put them there to do,” Nichols said.

Yellowstone officials did not expect the low humidity, the hot weather and most of all the repeated windy days that made the 1988 fires so fierce. They only stopped Sept. 10 when rain and snow finally came.

Politicians and local officials called for the firing of both Daniels and Barbee in 1988. But they both survived and thrived as the public began to recognize the fires were renewing the lodgepole pine forests that burned.

[…]

One after another, fire bosses from the 1988 fires told of how their own views were changed by the size, scale and scope of the 1988 fires. Most of all they spoke with humility.

“Eighty-eight was the first time I saw the world’s best firefighters get their butts kicked,” said Rex Mann, who was an area commander over dozens of fire crews during the Yellowstone fires.

He and others spoke of how they first saw the extreme fire behavior we now take for granted. But eight of the last 10 years have been worse fire years than that seminal year – despite firefighting agencies spending billions of dollars a year and extinguishing 98 percent of all fires.

California: Serial arsonist in Murrieta

An arsonist set six vegetation fires in Murrieta within a 24-hour period, according to spokespersons from the police and fire departments. The largest was 10 acres.

Fire management at Lake Tahoe

Wildland fire at Lake Tahoe, on the California/Nevada border, has been a hot topic for the last few years. They have had their share of fires, smoke is always an issue, and many of the residents are hesitant to create a fire safe barrier around their house or vacation retreat by cutting down a tree or two.

Terri Marceron, the forest supervisor of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U. S. Forest Service, wrote a very clear and lucid article for the Tahoe Daily Tribune that explains the current fire management issues and practices.

More agency administrators should do this.

Wildfire statistics through 2007

We have been tracking the fire occurrence stats provided by the National Interagency Fire Center for several years. It is clear that the average size of fires has been increasing since 1970 while the average number of fires is decreasing.


We are having fewer, but larger fires. While the population in the country continues to grow, a person might think that the number of fires would increase. But some of the other factors that come into play are fire prevention programs and better technology for preventing fires.

There will be debate about why fires are larger. Climate change will be first on many people’s minds, but we must also consider the build-up of fuels as a result of fire suppression over the last 100 years. The chickens are coming home to roost.

This increase in fire size comes in spite of better management and technology in reporting fires, communications, water handling, incident management, and dispatching.

But better technology and management have their limits when it comes to putting out a massive fire. Large wind or fuel driven fires can only be followed by firefighters. We can chip away at the flanks or suppress the heel, but we can’t stop the forward progress of a raging fire until something changes…. the weather or the fuel. Or, as proven by Bill Molumby’s incident management team on the Indians fire east of Big Sur this summer, you have the luxury of time, distance, and very little private land, and you can backfire or burnout miles ahead of the fire.

The glamorous toys that politicians and extremist talk radio hosts clamor for (I’m talking to YOU, Roger Hedgecock and San Diego) such as water-scooping air tankers and night flying helicopters have their use, but they are totally ineffective in strong winds, when we are most likely to be losing homes and citizens. It can be too dangerous for pilots to fly under those conditions, and the retardant and water that is dropped is completely dispersed before it hits the ground.

Wildfire news, September 23, 2008

Montana county initiates new emergency information website

On September 10 we wrote on Wildfire Today, in part:

Making real time information about the fire’s location available, interpreting that data to decide what areas should evacuate and which areas are safe, then providing this data to the public in near-real-time is not a small task. But it could be argued that this should be the most important objective of fire managers, above and beyond the boiler-plate written into every Incident Action Plan of “provide for the safety of the public and firefighters”.

In that post we further explained how this could be done, using the Internet and various sources of information.

We don’t know if the Madison County Commissioners were aware of that post, but they recently….

….gave speedy and unanimous approval to develop a county sponsored “emergency information” web-site. The site (madison.homestead.com) was up and running the next day.

The new web-site will be maintained by the County Communications Department. The site is intended to allow county residents extremely fast (nearly instant) access to information related to significant county emergencies and urgent county related information.

The County Commissioners all agreed that since Madison County has no local television or radio stations, there is no reliable way to allow residents immediate access to developing or changing information. Particularly, information related to significant, long duration county emergencies – as evidenced during the Labor Day Hebgen Dam incident.

Even though early in the incident, designated Public Information Officers tried desperately to alert the media in Bozeman about the situation at Hebgen, the television coverage of the incident was weak at best.

During the Hebgen event, local residents were generally aware that there was an emergency of some sort, but had difficulty accessing timely and rapidly changing facts of the incident. Consequently, due to an information vacuum, the rumor mill took over – and many residents understandably reacted to inaccurate information.

From The Latest.

And they had the web site “up and running the next day”! Congratulations to the forward-thinking County Commissioners of Madison County, Montana!

Climate and fires

Fire in Wyoming, Sept. 4, 2007 by Bill Gabbert

From the LA Times:

The biggest overall influence on global wildfire activity in the last 2,000 years has been climate, according to a new study that also shows humans have played a significant role in fire levels in recent centuries.

Researchers looked at charcoal levels in hundreds of corings of ancient lake sediments and peat from around the world.

What they found is that until about 1750, there was a long-term decline in burning, reflecting a global cooling trend. Then, as global settlement expanded and the Industrial Revolution took hold, wildfires increased, peaking around 1870. Farmers used fire to clear the land. Increased fossil-fuel use contributed to rising levels of carbon dioxide that sped plant growth and created more to burn. More people meant more fires started by humans.

But starting in the late 19th century, settlement had the opposite effect, particularly in western North America, the tropics and Asia.

Livestock ate the native grasses that had helped fuel frequent, low-intensity fires in the West. Wildlands were replaced by farms. During the 20th century, fire suppression became the norm in many parts of the world.

The result was an abrupt drop in fires, despite a warming climate.

The paper, “Climate and Human Influences on Global Biomass Burning over the Past Two Millennia,” was published online Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience and was written by a nine-member team from the U.S., Europe and Great Britain.

It did not take into account recent decades, when wildfires in the U.S. have been on the rise.

Patrick Bartlein, a University of Oregon geography professor and one of the study authors, said climate is regaining the upper hand as the dominant force.

“All signs point to the idea that with continued global climate change … we’ll see more and bigger” fires.

How Dan Packer was found

Dan Packer

When Dan Packer was entrapped on the Panther fire on the Klamath National Forest in northern California on July 26 it was not known exactly what happened to him. The incident management team knew approximately where he had gone while scouting the fire, but he was listed as “missing” for about 24 hours.

Stockton, California Fire Department Battalion Chief Kim Olson was working on another fire nearby but went to his supervisor, Mike Dietrich, and volunteered to search for Packer. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Record:

=============

Olson and Safety Officer Jim Walker took three engines and a team of timber fellers into the Klamath. They drove 2-1/2 hours from base camp to a place called Drop Point 16. The fire roared all around them but couldn’t be seen through the smoke.

So Olson and Walker decided to go on alone, on foot. After about an hour’s hike, they found pieces of Packer’s gear, which he had shed as he fled the fire, and then his body, inside the remnants of his shelter. The fire around them began to surge again.

“You could hear it and feel it,” Olson said.

From the sky above, an air attack supervisor warned Olson that he and Walker were nearly surrounded by flames. Concerned that the fire’s movement would close off his escape route, Olson called in a helicopter to make targeted water drops but eventually was told it couldn’t hold off the fire’s advance.

“OK, see you tomorrow,” Olson replied, settling in for an overnight stay inside a 250-acre wildfire.

But a reprieve came in the late afternoon, when the fire broke long enough for Olson and Walker to be retrieved, along with Packer’s body. Olson said he was just doing what he had to do.

“We don’t leave firefighters,” he said. “We don’t leave anybody behind.”