More research minimizes the effect beetles have on fire behavior

More researchers have recently come to the same conclusions others have about the effect that bark beetles have on wildland fire behavior. Some people see beetle-killed trees and intuitively think that fire behavior will be greatly increased in those areas. There is not complete agreement on this, but at least two recent studies have concluded that beetle killed trees do not substantially increase the risk of active crown fire, at least in lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and spruce (Picea engelmannii)-fir (Abies spp.). We said the same thing as early as two years ago.

The latest research paper is titled “Do Bark Beetle Outbreaks Increase Wildfire Risks in the Central U.S. Rocky Mountains? Implications from Recent Research”. The authors were Scott H. Black, Dominik Kulakowski, Barry R. Noon, and Dominick A. DellaSala, from the Xerces Society, Clark University, Colorado State University, and Geos Institute, respectively.

Their taxpayer-funded research is available to taxpayers if we pay an additional fee to the Natural Areas Journal. (UPDATE January 24, 2013. We contacted one of the authors, Dr. Barry R. Noon, and he graciously sent us a copy of the paper.)

But their abstract can be read on the internet for free. Here is an excerpt:

…We review the literature on the efficacy of silvicutural practices to control outbreaks and on fire risk following bark beetle outbreaks in several forest types. While research is ongoing and important questions remain unresolved, to date most available evidence indicates that bark beetle outbreaks do not substantially increase the risk of active crown fire in lodgepole pine and spruce-fir forests under most conditions. Instead, active crown fires in these forest types are primarily contingent on dry conditions rather than variations in stand structure, such as those brought about by outbreaks.

Their conclusions are similar to those in another paper titled Effects of bark beetle-caused tree mortality on wildfire, and was written by Jeffrey A. Hicke, Morris C. Johnson, Jane L. Hayes, and Haiganoush K. Preisler. We wrote about it in June of 2012. They said that the potential for active crown fire would increase somewhat between one and four years after mortality, then it would decrease substantially.

Here, in part, is what we wrote last June about that study:


…The author’s confidence in the conclusions reached about torching potential and active crown fire potential for the first ten years was low, but it is probable that active crown potential would increase for the first four years after mortality and then decrease dramatically. Torching potential would probably increase.

Surface fire properties, defined as reaction intensity, rate of spread, and flame length, would likely increase, but the confidence in the prediction for the first four years was low.

The authors pointed out that changes in fire behavior following a pine beetle outbreak…

…may only occur under some environmental conditions. For example, effects may be manifested during intermediate wind speeds (Simard et al., 2011) or in moister conditions, such as earlier in the fire season (Steele and Copple, 2009). Past controversy on this topic can be partly recon­ciled by this consideration of more specificity about study ques­tion, time since outbreak, and fuels or fire characteristic when describing results.

Our view of the research

It would be helpful if all of these parameters and studies could distill the conclusions into one index helpful to land managers and firefighters, which I will call Resistance To Control (RTC). Simultaneous increases in surface fire, torching, and crowning would result in more RTC. But it becomes more complicated to characterize when, for instance, crown fire potential decreases to near zero, while surface fire intensity and torching increase. Long distance spotting is a firefighter’s biggest headache and makes fires almost impossible to control, at least at the head. Crown fires are the major culprit for long distance spotting, but surface fires and individual or multiple tree torching can also create spot fires. And all of this varies, of course, with the weather. Strong winds can make ANY fire very resistant to control as long as the fuels are continuous.

If a person leaps to the possibly incorrect conclusion that all of the fire behavior parameters shown in the chart above are accurate, including the sections with low confidence, then RTC would increase somewhat one to four years after a beetle outbreak, and then would probably decrease since the crown fire potential would dramatically decline. Surface fires, including those with some torching, can be more easily controlled using tactics, sometimes with aerial support, such as direct hand line construction, hose lays, indirect line construction with burnouts, and backfiring from out ahead of the fire. When crowning is the primary method of fire spread, you usually have to wait for either the weather or the fuels to change. Air tankers and helicopters dropping fire retardant or water can be more effective when the fire is confined to the surface, as long as firefighters are on the ground to take advantage of the temporary slowing of the rate of spread, and if the wind is not too strong.

With apologies to the authors of this very good research paper, I took the liberty of adding a Resistance To Control variable to their chart:Bark Beetles effect on fire behavior, multiple studies with resistance to control

And of course the authors of the paper included the familiar phrase, “more research is needed”, which is a mandatory section in every research paper.

The authors, who are employed by taxpayers, arranged to have the government pay a fee to have their paper published by the for-profit Elsevier corporation which is headquartered in the Netherlands. But thankfully, this time the USFS also published it on their U.S. Government web site where taxpayers can access it at no additional charge.

If you believe taxpayer-funded research should always be available to taxpayers freely over the internet, go to the White House web site and sign the petition. (Update Jan. 23, 2013: you can still read the petition at the site, but it is closed to new signers. About 60,000 people signed it.)

Better video of the Australian fire tornado

Loyal readers of Wildfire Today will remember back to September 18 when we posted a video of a fire tornado shot by Chris Tangey of Alice Springs Film and Television while he was scouting locations near Curtin Springs station in Australia. Mr. Tangey contacted us to let us know that the Channel 7 video was removed from YouTube due to copyright issues, but a better version of the video, provided by Mr. Tangey, is now available at Vimeo.

We are embedding it below. If you want the very impressive video to fill your screen, hover your mouse pointer over the video then click on the arrows at the bottom-right between “HD” and “vimeo”.

Outback fire tornadoes-Australia from chris tangey on Vimeo.

Below is a description of the video:


“THERE’S something mean and magical about Australia’s Outback. An Alice Springs filmmaker captured both when a whirlwind of fire erupted before his eyes.

Chris Tangey of Alice Springs Film and Television was scouting locations near Curtin Springs station, about 80km from Ularu, last week when confronted by a fiery phenomenon. He had just finished his tour of the station when workers encountered difficulties with a grader. So he went to help them.

A small fire was burning in nearby bushland, so Mr Tangey decided to start filming. He caught the sight of his life. A twister touched down on the spot fire, fanning it into a furious tower of flame.

“It sounded like a jet fighter going by, yet there wasn’t a breath of wind where we were,” he told the Northern Territory News.

“You would have paid $1000 a head if you knew it was about to happen.”

The column of fire danced about the landscape for about 40 minutes, he said, as he and the station workers stood transfixed. There was talk of making a quick getaway, Mr Tangey said. But everyone was too hypnotised to feel scared – and he continued furiously filming.

“The bizarre thing was that it rarely moved,” he said.

“These things just stood there because there was no wind to move them … but it was flickering incredibly fast.”

Darwin weather forecaster David Matthews said small twisters were common in isolated areas. But the fiery vortex was highly unusual.

“The flames would have assisted by trying to suck in air and that could have helped generate those circular winds,” Mr Matthews said.”

Fuels and firefighting discussion for the northern plains

During fire season the Fire Meteorologist for the state of South Dakota, Darren Clabo, distributes on a regular basis a paper describing the predicted weather and the current condition of the fuels. In the edition published on Tuesday a section about fuels written by Jim Strain, the Chief of Operations for the South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division, caught my eye. He references the 28-mile-long Wellnitz fire that burned 77,159 acres in Nebraska and South Dakota.

…Do not underestimate the spread potentials of Fuel Model 1 and Fuel Model 2 fuels during the evening and night hours. When wind, slope and fuels are in alignment, with no natural barriers, these fires will burn just like in the middle of the day. The Rosebud complex in eastern MT last month went from 7000 acres to 100,000 acres in one night! When the Wellnitz fire crossed the state line on late Friday afternoon, the forward progress of the fire was finally stopped in the south portion of the road ditch on US Highway 18, at 2230 hours that evening.

The head of the Wellnitz fire spread quickly through green crop fields such as standing sunflowers. The head of the Wellnitz fire was finally corralled by tactic used by Pine Ridge BIA. Pine Ridge BIA units scraped a line with a grader on the south side of the Hwy 18 Right of way, and as the fire moved through the shorter grass (FM1) to the scraped line, it meet a pretty significant barrier of 10 feet of bare mineral soil, and 33 feet of pavement. This allowed fire units to patrol larger sections of line and hold the fire. Pine Ridge BIA and the Tribe did an outstanding job of pulling the trigger real fast for evacuation once the fire crossed the state line, and good thing they did. Fire was up to many housing units just as fire trucks arrived that evening.

So for any fire in our zone, if you think evacuation needs to take place, just do it, because it probably needs to happen!

Teach your children well …

In the midst of drifting smoke haze from wildfires, forced evacuations, and wildfire news all over the media, back-to-school kids in northern California are getting lessons on fire preparedness.

Ridge-area sixth graders, just east of Chico, California, have been learning the do’s and don’ts of keeping their families safe in the event of a wildfire. The Paradise Post reported on a new curriculum designed by the Butte County Fire Safe Council, which received a grant from PG&E that supplied educational materials to local sixth-grade classes.

Local Pine Ridge teacher Mike Gulbranson told his class on Thursday, “We’re going to focus specifically on wildfire in the foothills because this is where you live.”

He ran his students through instructional material ranging from identifying hazardous vegetation to the geographical makeup of the local area and why it’s especially susceptible to wildfire.

“Fires love elevation,” Gulbranson told the kids. He explained how a fire on the lower part of the ridge is more likely to move up the ridge rather than down. Taylor Cook, 11, was asked about how trees might catch fire from the underbrush below. She correctly identified the hazard as “ladder fuels” and said she’d learned about ladder fuels on a field trip. The schools program is supported by community donations and grant funding from Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Heads-up on crowning in beetle-killed lodgepole

The Northern Rockies Regional Fuel Planner, Stu Hoyt, has issued a Safety Advisory for areas affected by mountain pine beetle infestations. There have been several instances where crews have not been expecting the rapid transition from surface fire to crown fire in lodgepole pine in the green attacked and red needle stages. This advisory is posted on the predictive services website under Fuels and Fire Behavior Advisories and can be found on the Northern Rockies Coordination Center website under Outlooks.
Beetle Kill AdvisoryConcerns to Firefighters and the Public:

  • Anticipate rapid transition of surface fire behavior to passive and active crown fire behavior when temperatures are above 75˚, relative humidity is below 20% and foliage is in sunlight.
  • Wind is not needed to influence this fire behavior transition.
  • Anticipate rapid fire growth in all directions as this is a fuels dominated condition.
  • Anticipate long-distance spotting in any direction.
  • Anticipate independent crown fire movement perpetuated by embers landing in the foliage of beetle-attacked or killed trees.

Mitigation Measures:

  • Closely monitor fire weather conditions to maintain situational awareness.
  • Track the probability of ignition.
  • Utilize the table developed by the Missoula Fire Lab for Mountain Pine Beetle-attacked trees.
  • Probability of ignition above 70% should be an early trigger point in decision making.
  • At POI greater than 80% firefighters should be prepared for rapid transitions from surface to crown fire behavior.
  • When initial attacking new fires in these conditions, if possible delay engagement to after peak burning period or early morning when fire behavior is low.
  • Escape routes and safety zones must be identified before engagement.
  • Using the green as a safety zone should not be considered.
  • Identify at least two different Escape Routes and Safety Zones in case your original ones are compromised.
  • Monitor and understand the effect that weather changes and topography have on fire behavior.
  • Post lookouts who can see the flaming front.

For further information, contact Stu Hoyt at (406)329-3266 or (406)370-5757

Fire simulations advance to the next level

Visually simulating the spread of vegetation fires has advanced far beyond the four overhead projector system we used to use at Descanso Station in southern California. The system described in the video below from uses a projector connected to a computer to place an image on a sand table, resulting in an amazing three dimensional background on which to simulate the spread of fires. Check out this video.

More information, including a better video explaining how it works, is at