Short film, “Unacceptable Risk: Firefighters on the Front Lines of Climate Change”

In February we showed you a trailer for a short film made by The Story Group that premiered later that month, titled Unacceptable Risk: Firefighters on the Front Lines of Climate Change. Now the entire 12-minute film is available — above.

Here is the description of the film on Vimeo:

…The Story Group [based in Boulder, Colorado] recorded the experiences of firefighters who are repeatedly responding to record-breaking wildfires. Human-caused climate changes are transforming Colorado’s fire environment, bringing higher temperatures, drier fuels, and diseases to forests. These climate impacts mix with other human pressures to create a volatile situation for firefighters and communities. If current trends continue, we can expect more frequent, larger, and more devastating wildfires in Colorado and across the country.

It is really an excellent film. A great deal of information is packed into 12 minutes. What makes it special are the interviews with experienced firefighters who all testify to seeing fire behavior in the last decade or so that to their knowledge is unprecedented, at least in the front range of Colorado. The firefighters interviewed are all very well spoken and have something worthwhile to say.

They include Don Whittemore, an Incident Commander and a firefighter for 22 years; Chris O’Brien, Deputy Chief of the Lefthand Fire Protection District; Rod Moraga, Fire Behavior Analyst, firefighter for 28 years; and James Schanel, Battalion Chief, Colorado Springs Fire Department, firefighter for 30 years.

At the end they make a pitch about climate change, emphasizing how important it is to mitigate it NOW. And they are absolutely right. But there is a strong message for firefighters who are being forced to deal with a new normal. Mr. Whittemore said:

On a day to day basis we’re being surprised. And in this business, surprise is what kills people.

The visuals of wildfire are impressive — the videos, photographs, and time-lapse images.

The film can also be seen on Rocky Mountain PBS television. We can’t embed it here, but that version also includes interviews (beginning at 13:00) with Mr. Moraga and filmmaker Daniel Glick.

We received the following from Ted Wood of The Story Group, an Executive Producer and Camera Operator on the film:

The Story Group is funded entirely through grants and donations, and we’re trying to recoup some of our distribution costs by pointing people to our pay-per-download Vimeo site, where people who want to use the film for fire presentations, workshops, etc can pay $9.95 and download it. We’ve had a real interest from Colorado fire managers to use the film in training, and we’d like to offer it to a larger national audience.

Share

Vegetation fires affect snow melt

Wildfire, climate change and declining snowpacks are intricately connected. As temperatures rise, moisture-stressed forests can lead to bigger, hotter, longer and more frequent wildfires. In turn, wildfires can impact the amount and timing of snowmelt runoff according to a study by Anne Nolin and her Ph.D. student Kelly Gleason. The two researchers have presented new evidence showing that particles and burned woody debris from charred forests increase snowmelt and impact the hydrologic cycle — illustrated in this animation.

Share

A film: “The Fire Next Time”

The producer describes this film:

****

“In this 13-minute film, filmmakers Stephen Most and Kevin White examine how problematic policies, fuel build-up, and climate change have endangered America’s forests. When the Rim Fire burned 256,000 acres of the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park in 2013, it exposed the impacts that high intensity wildfires are having on watersheds, wildlife, and carbon storage. It also forged a coalition of environmentalists, loggers, scientists, officials, and land managers who are responding to this megafire and recognize the need to forestall the next one. “The Fire Next Time” is a precursor to Filmmakers Collaborative’s feaure-length work-in-progress, “MEGAFIRE at the Rim of the World.” For more information, visit megafirefilm.org.”

Share

More science indicates pine beetle outbreaks do not lead to catastrophic fire

mountain pine beetle

Mountain pine beetle

Scientists continue to develop evidence showing that pine beetle outbreaks do not lead to catastrophic wildfires. This should not be a shocking development to those who have been keeping abreast of the studies on the subject, including one that Wildfire Today first covered in 2010 (Firefighters should calm down about beetle-killed forests).

In a soon to be published paper, University of Colorado Boulder researcher Sarah Hart determined, “The bottom line is that forests infested by the mountain pine beetle are not more likely to burn at a regional scale. We found that alterations in the forest infested by the mountain pine beetle are not as important in fires as overriding drivers like climate and topography.”

The CU-Boulder study authors looked at the three peak years of Western wildfires since 2002, using maps produced by federal land management agencies. The researchers superimposed maps of areas burned in the West in 2006, 2007 and 2012 on maps of areas identified as infested by mountain pine beetles.

Western U.S. forests killed by the mountain pine beetle epidemic are no more at risk to burn than healthy Western forests, she found. Results that fly in the face of both public perception and policy.

The area of forests burned during those three years combined were responsible for 46 percent of the total area burned in the West from 2002 to 2013.

Co-authors on the new study include CU-Boulder Research Scientist Tania Schoennagel of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, CU-Boulder geography Professor Thomas Veblen and CU-Boulder doctoral student Teresa Chapman.

Sarah Hart CU Boulder

Sarah Hart

The impetus for the study was in part the severe and extensive native bark beetle outbreaks in response to warming temperatures and drought over the past 15 years that have caused dramatic tree mortality from Alaska to the American Southwest, said Hart. Mountain pine beetles killed more than 24,700 square miles of forest across the Western U.S. in that time period, an area nearly as large as Lake Superior.

“The question was still out there about whether bark beetle outbreaks really have affected subsequent fires,” Hart said. “We wanted to take a broad-scale, top-down approach and look at all of the fires across the Western U.S. and see the emergent effects of bark beetle kill on fires.”

Previous studies examining the effect of bark beetles on wildfire activity have been much smaller in scale, assessing the impact of the insects on one or only a few fires, said Hart. This is the first study to look at trends from multiple years across the entire Western U.S. While several of the small studies indicated bark beetle activity was not a significant factor, some computer modeling studies conclude the opposite.

The CU-Boulder team used ground, airplane and satellite data from the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Geological Survey to produce maps of both beetle infestation and the extent of wildfire burns across the West.

The two factors that appear to play the most important roles in larger Western forest fires include climate change — temperatures in the West have risen by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970 as a result of increasing greenhouse gases — and a prolonged Western drought, which has been ongoing since 2002.

“What we are seeing in this study is that at broad scales, fire does not necessarily follow mountain pine beetles,” said Schoennagel. “It’s well known, however, that fire does follow drought.”

The 2014 Farm Bill allocated $200 million to reduce the risk of insect outbreak, disease and subsequent wildfire across roughly 70,000 square miles of National Forest land in the West, said Hart. “We believe the government needs to be smart about how these funds are spent based on what the science is telling us,” she said. “If the money is spent on increasing the safety of firefighters, for example, or protecting homes at risk of burning from forest fires, we think that makes sense.”

Firefighting in forests that have been killed by mountain pine beetles will continue to be a big challenge, said Schoennagel. But thinning such forests in an attempt to mitigate the chance of burning is probably not an effective strategy.

“I think what is really powerful about our study is its broad scale,” said Hart. “It is pretty conclusive that we are not seeing an increase in areas burned even as we see an increase in the mountain pine beetle outbreaks,” she said.

“These results refute the assumption that increased bark beetle activity has increased area burned,” wrote the researchers in PNAS. “Therefore, policy discussions should focus on societal adaptation to the effect of the underlying drivers: warmer temperatures and increased drought.”

The entire paper can be downloaded (1MB).
Reports about other pine beetle studies, and general articles on the insects, are tagged beetles.

Share

Another early start to the fire season?

Round Fire

The Round Fire north of Bishop, California, February 10, 2015. Photo by Jerry Dodrill, used with permission.

The High Country News has an interesting article about the lengthening of the wildfire seasons. Below is an excerpt:

…For local residents, [the 7,000-acre Round Fire north of Bishop, CA on February 10, 2015] drove home a message Westerners may finally have to get used to: Fire season isn’t just confined to the months of July and August anymore, or even May through September. Over the last four decades, the season across the West has gotten two and a half months longer. Last year, rare January fires swept across southern California. And just last week, the Round Fire wasn’t the only abnormally early burn to hit the West. A spate of wildfires broke out in northern Utah Feb. 8 and 9, burning a few hundred acres.

These early season fires owe much to the ongoing drought. The area burned by the Round Fire is usually covered in snow at this time of year, but [local photographer Jim] Stimson said the ground is bare. California’s paltry snowpack, dry soils and unseasonably warm temperatures make it easier for a spark, whether caused by humans or lightning, to catch and travel faster and farther than usual. While it’s nearly impossible to pin any particular fire event to climate change, we do know that the changing climate exacerbates the drought, which leads to more fires. Scientists say that Westerners can almost certainly expect more early-season fires like the Round, as climate change continues…

wildfire season length climate change

The orange bars show estimates of new fire season length by region. Graphic from the 2009 report from the Quadrennial Fire Review published in 2008, titled “The Future of Wildland Fire Management” by the Brookings Institution.

Article about the Round Fire on Wildfire Today.
Photos of the Round Fire on Wildfire Today.

Share