Researchers: insects and drought more of a threat to forests than wildfires

custer engine highland fire

Custer FD’s Engine 6 at the Highland Fire west of Custer, SD, July 1, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

New research shows that the most significant current threat to western dry forests is from insect outbreaks and droughts, not wildfires; and historically abundant small trees offer the greatest hope for forest survival and recovery after these events. Dry forests are low-elevation western forests with tall pines. The study used government records of insect and wildfire damage to compare current threats to dry forests and used records from land surveys conducted in the late-1800s to understand how dry forests persisted for thousands of years in spite of insect outbreaks, droughts, and fires. These forests persisted, this study suggests, by having both young and old trees that together provided bet-hedging.

Data on recent threats to dry forests used government maps of insect outbreaks and wildfires from 1999-2012 across 64 million acres of western dry forests or 80% of the total dry-forest area. “When comparing the rates of insect outbreaks and wildfire over the past fourteen years, we were surprised to discover insect outbreaks impacted 5 to 7 times the area that wildfire did.” said Dr. Mark Williams, a co-author of the study and recent PhD graduate of the University of Wyoming’s Program in Ecology. “In contrast, restoration efforts to increase resilience of dry forests to changing climate focus primarily on threats from wildfire. Our work suggests that impacts from insect pests should be considered with greater weight when formulating restoration prescriptions.”

To understand how forests were resilient to multiple disturbances in the past, the researchers utilized historical data which included 45,171 tree sizes measured along 13,900 section-lines traversed by land surveyors in about 4.2 million acres of dry forests in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Oregon in the late-1800s.

“The late-1800s land surveys provide us with a spatially extensive and detailed view of how these dry forests persisted through unpredictable episodes of insect outbreaks, droughts, and wildfires” said Dr. William Baker, a co-author of the study and Professor Emeritus in the Program in Ecology and Department of Geography at the University of Wyoming. “What we see from the surveys is that dry forests historically had many large trees, that often survived wildfires, but even more small trees that were less prone to be killed during insect outbreaks and droughts. The combination of abundant youth and older trees provided bet-hedging insurance that allowed these forests to survive and recover regardless of whether an insect outbreak, drought, or wildfire occurred. These unpredictable events may increase with global warming.”

The study’s findings suggest current programs that remove most small trees to lower the intensity of wildfires in dry forests and restore large trees lost to logging, may reduce forest resilience to the larger threats from insect outbreaks and droughts. “Using historical forests as a guide, our study suggests we may want to modify our restoration and management programs so they do not put all our eggs in one basket, but instead hedge our bets by keeping both large trees and abundant small ones” said Dr. Baker.

Key findings:

  • Over the last fourteen years, insect outbreaks have impacted 5 to 7 times more dry forests than have wildfires.
  • Historically, dry forests had large trees, but were numerically dominated by small trees, 52-92% of total trees.
  • The variable structure of past forests provided bet-hedging insurance against multiple disturbances and continued persistence. Removing most small trees for modern restoration treatments may reduce the resilience of these forests.

The study was published Open Access online in the international scientific journal, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution and is freely available to download on their website.


Report on Upper Lyons Prescribed Fire Entrapment and Fire Shelter Deployment

Fire shelter deployment site

Fire shelter deployment site. Photo from the FLA.

The Wildland fire Lessons Learned Center has published a facilitated learning analysis for an entrapment and fire shelter deployment that occurred on the Upper Lyons prescribed fire last October in Redwood National Park in northern California.

Below is the one-page summary of  the 27-page document, which can be read in full HERE (1.3MB).


“Number and type of injuries

One individual with second degree burns to the left hand and first degree burns to the right hand and face.

Narrative Summary

On October 13, 2014, firefighters were conducting a prescribed fire in the Bald Hills Area of Redwood National Park.

Crews were burning off of a handline when a combination of factors aligned to cause several spot fires in heavy fuels outside the unit. These spot fires burned together to form multiple slopovers.

A decision was made to suspend ignition until an assessment of the slopovers could be completed. At approximately that same time, a firefighter who was hiking up the fireline became entrapped due to intense heat and dense smoke. As a result, this firefighter deployed their fire shelter on the handline.

The firefighter was quickly located and escorted a short distance out of the smoke and heat. The firefighter, immediately assessed by an onsite paramedic, was able to walk—with some assistance by others—to an area where a vehicle was waiting to transport them to a landing zone.

The firefighter, accompanied by a flight nurse, was airlifted to Shasta Regional Hospital for treatment. The firefighter was released a short time later and referred to the University of California Davis Burn Center for follow-up the next day.

The diagnosis from the specialist at the burn center was second degree burns to the left hand and first degree burns to the right hand and face. Over the next several weeks, the firefighter received follow-up treatment at the burn center.

Significant Note

During the Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) process, the firefighter continued to emphasize the profound role that previous fire shelter training played in the successful deployment of the firefighter’s shelter during this event.”


Nominations wanted for the 2014 Wildland Fire Teddy Awards

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again … who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.
Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt, our 26th president, was the first president to ride in a car, a submarine, an airplane, a subway train, and a camel. He won the Nobel Peace prize and swam naked in the Potomac River. He worked tirelessly to conserve land and his legacy lives on in every national park he helped create.

President Roosevelt understood that those who actually DO things, innovate, think, act, and occasionally step beyond the crowd, are often criticized by others who prefer to follow a customary script, lurk in the shadows, or prefer to take the obvious, well-trodden path along with most everyone else.

Joe Kline, a writer for Time Magazine, annually lists politicians who he believes qualify for his “Teddy Award” by showing outstanding courage. They make hard, sane decisions, knowing that they will be criticized.

Shamelessly borrowing from Mr. Kline’s idea, I want to solicit from our readers the names of wildland fire managers who exhibit the same traits. In a comment below, nominate someone, and tell us why this person is deserving of a 2014 Wildland Fire Teddy Award. They can be from any agency, company, or country, as long as they have a significant contribution to wildland fire.

I’ll get it started with a group nomination for managers in Yosemite and Everglades National Parks who arranged for very high-quality videos to be produced that educate the public about wildland fires and prescribed fires. These videos are near-broadcast-quality and could be proudly shown in many different settings. There must have been a significant cost involved, something many people and agencies would shy away from, but the products are outstanding and well worth the investment. We have seen other videos produced by agencies, probably at little or no cost, that were very badly done.

These nominated videos were produced by the National Park Service. There is another example of a quality video commissioned by an incident management team, or perhaps the U.S. Forest Service. We wrote about it on Wildfire Today, but I can’t find the article that described it. It was about an ongoing fire, I believe in northern California, likey in the summer of 2014. It was produced by a filmmaker based in Colorado who also takes fire assignments as an Information Officer. Let us know if you have information about it, the name of the fire, or the web address where it was described.


Wildfire briefing, January 14, 2015

Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano lava ignites brush fire

A lava flow from the Kīlauea volcano in Hawaii ignited a brush fire on Tuesday that burned 270 acres. It was surrounded by fire breaks, but at 5:30 p.m. local time a dozer was working to clean up the existing break and construct a new line closer to the head of the fire. According to a Hawaii County Civil Defense update, the brush fire was west of Highway 130, about 1.5 miles from the Aina­loa subdivision. The agency said Tuesday afternoon that neither the brush fire nor the stalled lava flow pose an immediate threat to communities.

Granite Mountain Hotshots’ families treated to European boat trip

From the Daily Courier:

The families of Prescott’s fallen [Granite Mountain] Hotshots participated in a unique trip over the holidays. They were given an opportunity to see and visit the historic sites along Europe’s Danube River while finding solace amongst others who also have experienced the tragic loss of loved ones in recent U.S. tragedies.

Family members of the Hotshots were joined by family members of the victims of the 9/11 tragedy and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died battling the Yarnell Hill wildfire on June 30, 2013 in the worst wildland firefighting tragedy in more than 80 years…

The paper said 19 family members participated in the trip.

News from Australia: