Researchers study how to reduce soot produced by agricultural fires

agricultural burning smoke
Smoke plume from the burning of wheat residue on the Nez Perce Reservation. The field was burned using a head fire. The dark color of the smoke plume indicates high soot content. Photo by Emily Lincoln.

The production cycle of cereal crops and grasses in many areas of the United States includes burning fields of post-harvest residue such as wheat stubble. Like smoke from forest fires, smoke produced by agricultural burning can have harmful effects on public health.

The U.S. Forest Service and the Washington State Department of Ecology conducted a study to determine the effects different ignition tactics had on the smoke produced by agricultural burning of wheat residue.

agricultural burning smoke
Smoke plume from the burning of wheat residue north of Walla Walla, Washington. The field was burned using a backing fire. The light color of the smoke plume indicates low soot content. Photo by Emily Lincoln.

They found that smoke plumes produced from burning wheat residue using head fires contained more soot than plumes produced using backing fires.

Soot particles are black aerosols composed primarily of elemental carbon. The World Health Organization reports that soot particles may have significantly greater negative health impacts than other particle types found in smoke and air pollution since these particles can act as a carrier for toxic combustion-derived chemicals.

Senator wants to require more steps before beginning a prescribed fire

Senator John Thune has been critical of federal firefighters previously.

A U.S. Senator has proposed an amendment to introduced legislation that would require additional procedures before federal agencies could conduct a prescribed fire. Senator John Thune from South Dakota wants to require consultation with local and state fire officials before the project begins. One of his reasons is that he contends local and state officials know more than the federal professional prescribed fire managers.

“Local officials are going to know a little bit more about what the conditions are in the area”, Senator Thune said in a newsletter distributed by his office on September 15.

This requirement has been offered as an amendment to a Republican backed bill introduced by Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas June 22, 2016, titled S.3085 – Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act of 2016. Senator Thune contends that the amendment was adopted by unanimous consent during a Senate Agriculture Committee markup, but no official action after the introduction is showing up at bill-tracking websites. After three months the bill has no cosponsors, and GovTrack.us predicts a 2 percent chance of it being enacted.

The primary purpose of the bill is to eliminate some environment restrictions for planned “forest management activities”. The list of these activities is long and vague enough to cover a very wide range of land treatments, including timber harvesting.

Senator Thune advocated his consultation procedure before when he introduced a stand-alone bill in 2015. It had one cosponsor and never advanced beyond being introduced. Apparently the powerful Senator did not work hard to promote his idea, or perhaps he only wanted some publicity. 

Senator Thune has generated publicity before in matters regarding prescribed fire. In 2015 he distributed to the media a strongly-worded very critical letter he sent to the Secretary of the Interior after the Cold Brook prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota escaped, burning an additional 5,420 acres of prairie. It never spread beyond the park boundaries.

Four days after the escape and months before the official report came out, the Senator was apparently very satisfied that he knew exactly the cause, writing to the Secretary, “The Cold Brook Fire could easily have been prevented”, and “the intense smoke will likely damage the lungs of young calves in the vicinity resulting in high risk of pneumonia and death loss.”

Ready. Fire. Aim.

Cold Brook Fire
Highway 385, which can be seen in the distance, was supposed to be the boundary of the Cold Brook prescribed fire. Only the land on the far side of the highway was intended to burn. Photo taken a few days after the fire by Bill Gabbert.
Wind Cave prescribed fire
Photo taken of the area where the Cold Brook prescribed fire crossed US Highway 385, taken 39 days after the fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The escaped fire was in grass and ground fuels beneath scattered trees that had been treated with prescribed fire before, and there was no significant crowning. It was basically over after one afternoon, but that didn’t stop Senator Thune from prognosticating about the lung condition of calves outside the park.

Burned area in Canada far ahead of average

Acres burned to date in U.S. 46% above average.

The number of hectares burned in Canada this year is far ahead of average.

In the United States the acres burned to date are 46 percent above normal. Statistics from May 20, 2016, the last time the National Interagency Fire Center issued a daily Situation Report, show that 1,551,474 acres had burned, compared to the 10-year to-date average of 1,063,835. Almost two-thirds of that was in the Southern Geographical Area — 955,242. The Rocky Mountain Geographical Area also had a surprisingly high figure — 374,846 acres; but that area includes Kansas, where most of the 397,000-acre Anderson Creek Fire occurred in March.

If you disregard that one huge fire, the total in the U.S. is a lot closer to average. But I’m guessing that some politician somewhere is going to take that 46 percent higher than normal figure and run with it.

These numbers do not include prescribed fires. As of May 20 almost 2 million acres in the U.S. have been visited by prescribed fire.

Burned acres in US May 20, 2016
Burned acres in U.S. as of May 20, 2016. NIFC.

Secretary Jewell announces $10 million for projects to increase wildfire resilience

The funding announced today will support the second year of work for these projects.

Secretary Sally Jewell
Secretary Sally Jewell at the announcement Monday. Photo by Tami A. Heilemann.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today announced $10 million in funding to help increase the resiliency of critical landscapes across the country to better mitigate the impacts of wildfire and climate change.

The Wildland Fire Resilient Landscapes Program is a new approach to achieve fire resiliency and help restore public lands nationwide through multi-year investments in designated landscapes. Launched last year, the program incorporates goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy and Secretarial Order 3336, Rangeland Fire Prevention, Management, and Restoration, by ensuring that projects emphasize a high level of collaboration with partners, landscape-scale planning across multiple jurisdictions, lessen the risk from catastrophic wildfire, and enhance the protection of critical natural resources and watersheds.

“These projects will protect the nation’s diverse landscapes making them more resilient to wildfire for future generations; with help from our partners who also recognize that this challenge is too great for any one organization to tackle on its own,” Secretary Jewell said. “The funding restores iconic landscapes and vital watersheds, reduces fuels and controls invasive species to re-establish native vegetation, while reducing the risks to the public and our firefighters who respond to wildland fires.”

“These projects emphasize collaborative landscape-scale planning to reduce the risk from catastrophic wildfire while enhancing the protection of watersheds and critical culture and natural resources,” said Kris Sarri, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary – Policy, Management and Budget. “The work being done provides valuable insights on making landscapes resilient to wildfire. The benefits of the program are already being realized, and the President’s budget requests $30 million to help us expand this program to more states.”

Continue reading “Secretary Jewell announces $10 million for projects to increase wildfire resilience”

Minnesota: Prescribed fire escapes west of Ely

(UPDATED at 7:35 p.m. CDT May 22, 2016)

Foss Lake Fire mapOn Saturday the U.S. Forest Service reported that better mapping showed that the Foss Lake Fire, that escaped from a prescribed fire in northeast Minnesota, had not burned 1,000 acres as previously reported, but only 440 acres. On Sunday morning their update said it was 1,008 acres, and included this information:

There was little growth on the fire yesterday. Accurate mapping data from handheld and aircraft GPS units resulted in the large increase in acreage.

****

(UPDATED at 10:08 CDT May 21, 2016)

Foss Lake Fire map
The Foss Lake Fire ran for two miles with a wind out of the south until it hit Crab Lake.

****

(UPDATED at 11 p.m. CDT May 20, 2016)

The U.S. Forest Service has provided more details about the escaped prescribed fire 15 miles west of Ely, Minnesota. Better mapping shows that it has burned approximately 440 acres rather than 1,000 from the earlier estimate.

From the Superior National Forest at about 10 p.m. CDT on Friday:

The fire is burning north within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

Crews made good progress today, directly attacking the fire on its north, east, and west sides. Aircraft dropped fire retardant along the east side of the fire and water on the west side.

Background: The Foss Lake Fire began on May 19 as a prescribed fire to reduce surface and ladder fuels, to enhance wildlife habitat, and to encourage jack pine regeneration. Shortly after ignition, an unpredicted change in weather conditions brought higher winds, warmer temperatures, and lower relative humidity. A spot fire north of the control line escaped containment and the wind-driven fire spread to the north. Aircraft that were on standby responded quickly and, with the work of ground crews, were able to slow the fire’s eastward spread with water and retardant drops, protecting the west and north sides of Burntside Lake. The fire spread north to Crab Lake in the BWCAW. There was no fire growth to the south.

Message: There is no threat to the towns of Ely, Winton, Tower, or Soudan. No structures are threatened. Good fuel-reduction work completed over the last two years on Burntside Lake increases firefighters’ ability to manage the eastern edge.

Resources: 80 personnel and 8 aircraft. MNICS Type II Team under Incident Commander Brian Pisarek arrived today and will take command of the fire Saturday morning. The Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade and the Morse/Fall Lake Fire Department both have fire boats on Burntside Lake are conducting structure-protection assessments.

****

(UPDATED at 1 p.m. CDT May 20, 2016)

The U.S. Forest Service estimates the Foss Lake Fire 15 miles west of Ely, Minnesota has burned approximately 1,000 acres. Until the Type 2 incident management team that has been ordered arrives, the Type 3 Incident Commander is Timo Rova.

****

(Originally published at 9:56 a.m. CDT May 20, 2016.)

Map Foss Lake Fire
Map showing heat (the brown dots) detected by a satellite on the Foss Lake Fire at 2:43 p.m. CDT May 19, 2016.

A prescribed fire on the Superior National Forest escaped control Thursday 15 miles west of Ely, Minnesota. The intent was to burn 78 acres north of Tamarack and Foss Lakes north of the 404 Road. By late afternoon the fire had been assigned a name, Foss Lake, and was creating a large convection column of smoke topped by a pyrocumulus cloud, an indication of fire intensity.

Thursday night the Forest Service was not able to provide a size estimate due to the smoke restricting visibility.

The fire was fought yesterday by firefighters on the ground assisted by eight aircraft.

Thursday before it escaped there were 10 hand crews prepositioned in Minnesota that were not assigned to fires. Presumably many of those are now working on the Foss Lake Fire.

Yesterday’s afternoon weather conditions near the fire were 74 degrees, 6 mph wind gusting to 19 mph, and 16 percent relative humidity. The forecast for Friday: 74 degrees, south wind at 6 mph, 51 percent cloud cover, and 22 percent relative humidity. There is no rain expected until Monday.

We will update this article as the situation develops.