Wildfire news, September 14, 2016

Highlights of recent news about wildland fire.

California has fewer inmates available for fighting wildfires

With fewer inmates available for fighting fires, the state of California is turning to civilian crews within their Conservation Corps.

From KCRA:

…But the number of available inmates is declining because counties now oversee most lower-level felons under a law aimed at easing prison overcrowding. In addition, there are fewer incentives for inmates to risk their lives since a federal court broadened an early release program for firefighters to include other inmates.

The state is about 600 inmates short of the 4,300 prisoners who could be available for fire lines. So this year, the California Conservation Corps reopened a camp to train three crews of young civilians to do the same backbreaking work as the inmates. Corps Director Bruce Saito expects to create at least four more fire crews with roughly 15 members each by next summer and a half-dozen new crews during each of the next two years.

The corps has more than 1,400 members, but fewer than 200 currently work alongside local, state and federal firefighters battling blazes in rural areas.

The members include both men and women and range in age from 18 to 25. They enlist for one year and earn the state’s minimum wage of $10 an hour. Military veterans can enroll until they turn 30…

Oregon sues 3 people responsible for starting the Ferguson Fire

Oregon hopes to recover $892,082 from three individuals who they say are responsible for starting the Ferguson Fire that burned 200 acres and destroyed two structures in Klamath County in July 2014.

The suit alleges that Joe Askins started a campfire, then took a nap. When he awoke, the campfire had escaped. Askins also said “I’ll take all the blame for the fire,” according to the lawsuit.

More evidence that beetle-killed forests do not increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

An article at News Deeply summarizes several research studies which mostly concluded that beetle-killed forests do not burn more severely than forests that have not been attacked by the insects. This is in spite of statements to the contrary by the Secretary of Agriculture, a spokesperson for CAL FIRE, and media stories about trees that are now part of a “tinder box”.

Air tanker 132 starts contract in Australia

air tanker 132 australia
Air Tanker 132 is reintroduced to the media in New South Wales, Australia. Photo by Sgt. Brett Sherriff, Royal Australian Air Force.

Fire Aviation reports that Coulson’s Air Tanker 132 started its contract with New South Wales on September 6, helping to provide air support for wildland firefighters in Australia. This is the second year in a row that the L-382G, a variant of the C-130 platform, has worked down under during their summer bushfire season.

Cheyenne is concerned about the effects of the Snake Fire on their water system

“The location of the fire is close proximity to our major watershed collection area for the Hog Park Reservoir” said Dena Egenhoff, the Board of Public Utilities’ (BOPU) Water Conservation Manager. “We are unable to know the impact of the Snake Fire at this time, but the location suggests there may be some adverse impacts to the City of Cheyenne’s water collection system.” As of September 11, 2016, the Hog Park Reservoir is 91.8% full

For Cheyenne, BOPU collects water in the Little Snake River drainage from snow melt and streams and transports it under a mountain by a tunnel to the eastside of the Continental Divide. That water is then stored in Hog Park Reservoir. From there, the collected water from Hog Park Reservoir is traded for water in Rob Roy Reservoir which can more easily be transported without pumping to Cheyenne. “In this way, the amount of water can be exchanged between the two different Mountain Ranges with all water rights being satisfied,” said Dena Egenhoff.

The Snake fire is in south-central Wyoming just north of the Colorado border. It is 115 air miles miles west of Cheyenne, and 20 miles west of the 38,000-acre Beaver Creek Fire that has been burning in Colorado and Wyoming since July 19, 2016.

Colorado’s Beaver Creek fire expected to burn into October

Firefighters are anticipating that it will take them until late October to contain the Beaver Creek fire, which is burning in one of the forests hardest hit by mountain pine beetle.

Tactics being used to contain the blaze have already emerged as a case study in how to suppress fire in an environment transfigured by thousands of dead trees.

Beetle-kill trees in the area thwarted firefighters’ attempts at a direct attack — downed trees made building a fireline difficult and gusts from helicopter rotors only caused more trees to fall, according to a lessons learned report published on July 27.

An indirect approach containing the fire became essential when initial attack crews felt radiant heat from flames a half a mile away:

Because of the extreme fire behavior exhibited early on in the Beaver Creek Fire, firefighters knew a direct attack would be both dangerous and ineffective…Firefighters removed fuels, wrapped buildings, laid hoses and sprinklers around the structures, and strategically burned out around buildings in advance of the fire.

The conditions in the Routt National Forest, along the Colorado-Wyoming border, also proved challenging to firefighter safety, according to a post from the incident management team on InciWeb.

The fire is burning in heavy beetle killed timber. The infested trees are subject to blowing over contributing large amounts of down timber and providing fuel for extreme fire behavior when strong winds and terrain features are in alignment, making the timbered areas unsafe for firefighters.

The fire, which started on June 19 in north-central Colorado, spread by several hundred acres during a hot, windy and humid day this week and forced firefighters to pull back to safety zones, The Denver Post reported.

As of July 29, the fire had burned 30,137 acres and is 12 percent contained.

Thanks to some northwesterly winds, Colorado residents can expect to see smoke from the Beaver Creek fire and other western wildfires this weekend, according to an update from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

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

The spread of the Beaver Creek Fire in northern Colorado slows

Above: Varying burn intensities on the Beaver Creek Fire.

The spread of the Beaver Creek Fire in northern Colorado one mile south of the Wyoming border has slowed over the last week. It has been listed at 13,275 acres since June 30 and according to the incident commander is 5 percent conplete after burning for 18 days. The strategy is not to put it out, but to manage it for “multiple objectives”.

The fire is 17 miles northwest of Walden, Colorado and 52 miles southwest of Laramie, Wyoming.

Within the last 48 hours the fire received about 0.2 inches of rain but the fuels should dry out today, aided by a 9 mph southwest wind gusting up to 23 mph.

Beaver Creek Fire beetles intensity
Photo of a portion of the Beaver Creek Fire in an area with heavy beetle kill. One smoke is visible. USFS photo by Andrea Holland.

People who are extremely worried about forests attacked by beetles and assume fire intensity will be greatly enhanced in those areas, should examine the photo above that was taken within the fire area.

Jay Esperance’s Type 2 incident management team will transition to the West Slope Type 3 Team B on Thursday.

The photos were provided by the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland. Except as noted the photographer and dates taken were not given.

More information about the Beaver Creek Fire.

Beaver Creek Fire map
Map of the Beaver Creek Fire July 3, 2016. USFS.
Beaver Creek Fire moose
A moose and her calf investigate evidence of firefighter activity on the Beaver Creek Fire.
Beaver Creek Fire sprinklers
Sprinklers are set up on an ATV bridge near the Beaver Creek Fire.
Beaver Creek Fire Chinook
A Chinook helicopter uses its snorkle to refill its internal water tank while working on the Beaver Creek Fire.
Beaver Creek Fire
AN area of high burn intensity on the Beaver Creek Fire.

Do California’s beetle-killed trees constitute an emergency?

Western Pine BeetleSome of the forests in California are experiencing a natural phenomenon that other areas in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, and British Columbia have been dealing with for years. Pine beetles, in this case Western Pine Beetles (WPB), are attacking and killing millions of trees. These things run in cycles and in this case the extended severe drought in the state has stressed the trees making it more difficult for them to fend off insects.

Politicians, residents, and even some individuals in fire organizations look at the hillsides with numerous dead or dying trees and intuitively think — dead vegetation — increased wildfire hazard.

Here are examples from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE):

From a 2015 news release:

These dead and dying trees create an environment more readily susceptible to dangerous and destructive wildfires.

In a video on YouTube the narrator says when referring to a beetle-attacked stand of trees:

…an increase in extremely flammable vegetation which could lead to larger, more intense and damaging wildfires.

SFGate quoted spokesperson Daniel Berlant:

“No level of rain is going to bring the dead trees back,” Berlant said. “We’re talking trees that are decades old that are now dead. Those larger trees are going to burn a lot hotter and a lot faster. We’re talking huge trees in mass quantity surrounding homes.”

A phone call to Mr. Berlant was not returned.

Those warnings are not 100 percent accurate. In increasing numbers, scientists are determining that generally, insect damage reduces burn severity. In one of the more recent studies, researchers from the University of Vermont and Oregon State University investigated 81 Pacific Northwest fires that burned in areas affected by infestations of two prevalent bark beetle and defoliator species, mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) and western spruce budworm (Choristoneura freemani). The fires spanned the years 1987 to 2011.

Pine trees killed by bark beetles
Pine trees killed by bark beetles. Photo by Ethan Miller.

Few of the 81 fires occurred in forests while the needles were still on the trees in the red highly flammable stage of the outbreak shortly after the trees were killed by mountain pine beetles, so more research is needed about this phase. Aside from the one to two year red stage, the burn severity decreased for more than 20 years following a MPB attack. It makes sense that fewer fine fuels in the canopy would reduce the fire intensity and make it less prone to transition from a ground fire to a crown fire. This data was derived from fire behavior and data on actual fires, not laboratory experiments.

We contacted one of the researchers that conducted the study in the Pacific Northwest, Garrett Meigs, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Vermont, and asked him if their conclusions about reduced fire severity following a Mountain Pine Beetle attack in the Northwest could be compared to California’s situation — a drought combined with a Western Pine Beetle attack:

I am aware of the impressive amount of tree mortality in California but have not seen it with my own eyes. As such, I am hesitant to comment on the current conditions in California forests, which are beyond the scope of our recent studies in Oregon and Washington. My understanding is that most of the dying/dead trees are ponderosa pines, which have been affected by intensive drought and the western bark beetle (whereas in the PNW, we studied lodgepole pines affected by mountain pine beetle and mixed-conifers affected by western spruce budworm).

Another thing that is a bit different in California is that many of these forests are generally closer to large human populations, so there are more human values/resources at risk…and these forests at the wildland-urban interface have elevated fuel/fire hazard with or without dead trees (whether caused by insects or drought).

Regarding your specific questions, I would expect that fire behavior and effects would be similar in forests with similar amounts of dead trees, whether the tree mortality was caused by bark beetles or drought (or some combination).

This does not mean that residents near insect-damaged forests can ignore the dead trees. There is legitimate cause to be concerned about fires during the one or two year red needle stage after a pine beetle attack when fire intensity may be temporarily increased, although more research studying actual fires is needed in this area. And there is danger from falling snags (dead trees) 5 to 20 years after an attack. Snags are dangerous for firefighters and any structures, hikers, traffic on roads, and any improvements that could be damaged by the falling trees.

In a fire prone environment, residents should remove any dead vegetation within 100 feet of structures. If there are numerous trees near homes, thinning them so that the crowns are at least 10 feet apart will not only reduce the intensity of an approaching wildfire, but will make more water and nutrients available to the remaining trees, giving the them a better chance of fighting off an insect attack.

More research confirms insect damage reduces wildfire severity

pine beetle damageAdditional research about the effects of insect outbreaks on fires confirms that generally, insect damage reduces burn severity.

Researchers from the University of Vermont and Oregon State University studied 81 Pacific Northwest fires that burned in areas affected by infestations of two prevalent bark beetle and defoliator species, mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) and western spruce budworm (Choristoneura freemani). The fires spanned the years 1987 to 2011.

Insect fire severity

Few of the 81 fires occurred in forests while the needles were still on the trees in the red highly flammable stage of the outbreak shortly after the trees were killed by mountain pine beetles. The researchers recommend more studies in this area.

Aside from the transient red stage the burn severity decreased for more than 20 years following a MPB attack. Forests affected by western spruce budworm (WSB) exhibited a sharp decrease in fire severity immediately after an attack. This decrease is likely due to the fact that the WSB defoliates the tree, removing fuel from the canopy. The MPB kills the tree from the inside, leaving the dying needles on the tree until they fall off in one to two years. It makes sense that fewer fine fuels in the canopy would reduce the fire intensity and make it less prone to transition from a ground fire to a crown fire. But in the WSB-affected forests, the fire intensity slowly increased after 20 years to a neutral condition, then continued to increase in the 5 to 10 subsequent years. The researchers elaborated on that effect:

The relatively rapid increase of the budworm-fire coefficient with time indicates that the thinning effect on fuel profiles is less persistent for the defoliator (WSB) than for the bark beetle (MPB). In addition to relatively lower per-unit-area tree mortality impacts, WSB affects host forests that are more productive than those affected by MPB in the study region , leading to more rapid accumulation of live overstory and understory vegetation. Thus, as time elapses following WSB outbreaks, fuel density and connectivity likely increase in multiple strata, including dead surface fuels and total live biomass, the latter of which is associated with higher burn severity.

The research was conducted by Garrett W. Meigs, Harold S. J. Zald, John L. Campbell, William S. Keeton, and Robert E. Kennedy. The paper is titled, Do insect outbreaks reduce the severity of subsequent forest fires?


Our analysis

There is legitimate cause to be concerned about fires during the one or two year red needle stage after an insect attack, although I think more research studying actual fires is needed in this area. And there is danger from falling snags 5 to 20 years after an attack. Snags are dangerous for firefighters and any structures, hikers, traffic on roads, and any improvements that could be damaged by the falling trees. But as numerous researchers have found, after the needles are on the ground fire behavior, intensity, and severity decrease.

We first wrote about a post-attack decrease in burn intensity in a 2010 article titled Firefighters should calm down about beetle-killed forests.

Rather than panicking and rushing out to cut every tree affected by insects, preventive measures to keep forests healthy could be more effective, such as prescribed fire and thinning.

Researchers find insect-killed forests pose no additional likelihood of wildfire

flames wildfire
Photo by Bill Gabbert

As mountain pine beetles and other insects chew their way through Western forests, forest fires might not seem far behind. Lands covered by dead trees appear ready to burst into flame.

However, an analysis of wildfire extent in Oregon and Washington over the past 30 years shows very little difference in the likelihood of fires in forests with and without insect damage. Indeed, other factors – drought, storms, and fuel accumulation from years of fire suppression – may be more important than insects in determining if fire is more or less likely from year to year.

Scientists reached this conclusion by mapping the locations of insect outbreaks and wildfires throughout Oregon and Washington beginning in 1970. Researchers discovered that the chances of fire in forests with extensive swaths of dead timber are neither higher nor lower than in forests without damage from mountain pine beetles.

The same comparison done on forests damaged by another insect – western spruce budworm – yields a different result. The chances of wildfire actually appear to be slightly lower where the budworm has defoliated and killed trees in the past. While the mechanics of such an association are unconfirmed, it’s possible that budworm outbreaks could reduce the risk of wildfire by consuming needles in the forest canopy.

“Our analysis suggests that wildfire likelihood does not increase following most insect outbreaks,” said Garrett Meigs, lead author of a paper published this week in the open-access journal Ecosphere. Meigs is a former Ph.D. student in the Oregon State University College of Forestry and now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Vermont.

Across more than 49 million forested acres in both states, insects and fires typically affect less than 2 percent of the land in a given year. More forestland is usually disturbed by insects than by fire.

“Most forests have plenty of fuel already,” Meigs said. “Green trees burn, not always as readily as dead ones, but they burn. The effects of insects are trumped by other factors such as drought, wind and fire management.” For example, the 2002 Biscuit Fire, the region’s largest at nearly 500,000 acres, occurred in an area with little tree damage from insects.

“Even if mountain pine beetle outbreaks do alter fuels in a way that increases flammability, the windows of opportunity are too small – and fire is too rare – for those effects to manifest at landscape and regional scales.”

“In the case of the budworm, our findings suggest that there may be a natural thinning effect of insect-caused defoliation and mortality, and it is possible that insects are doing some ‘fuel reduction’ work that managers may not need to replicate,” said Meigs. That possibility needs more research, he added.

These results are consistent with other studies that have investigated the likelihood of fire across the West. For example, a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by University of Colorado scientists found that despite extensive outbreaks of mountain pine beetles in the Rockies and the Cascades, fires in recent years were no more likely to occur in beetle-killed forests than in forests not affected by the insects.

Public perception may reflect our experience with starting campfires, said John Bailey, Oregon State professor of forestry and co-author of the Ecosphere paper.

“We choose dead and dry wood for kindling, not green branches,” Bailey pointed out. “A dead branch with lots of red needles is ideal. At the scale of a forest, however, the burning process is different. Wildland fire during severe weather conditions burns less discriminately across mountainsides.”

For managers of forestlands, these results suggest that emphasis needs to be put on fuel reduction, forests near communities and on preserving ecosystem services such as biodiversity and water quality. “Forests will continue to burn whether or not there was prior insect activity,” Meigs and his co-authors write, “and known drivers like fuel accumulation and vegetation stress likely will play a more important role in a warmer, potentially drier future.”

The Ecosphere paper is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/ES15-00037.1.

In addition to Bailey, Meigs’ co-authors included John L. Campbell, Harold S. J. Zald, David C. Shaw and Robert E. Kennedy, all of Oregon State. Funding support was provided by the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship Program and the USDA Forest Service.

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged Beetles.