Researchers study how prescribed fires affected Black Saturday fires

Research scientist Lachlan McCaw led a team that studied the effects that previous planned or unplanned fires had on the spread of the disastrous Black Saturday fires a year ago in Australia. Unsurprisingly, he concluded that the intensity was reduced and the areas provided anchor points for firefighters, but larger prescribed fires were more effective than small ones.

DUH. To many of us this is intuitive, but documenting this data can help to rebut the uninformed rants of those in Australia that are opposed to prescribed fires.

Here is an excerpt from a report in The Australian:

Dr McCaw said that across the areas burned on Black Saturday, there was no evidence that small-area fuel reduction had curbed the fires, but strong evidence of an impact where planned or unplanned burns had occurred within four years and over broad areas of more than 600ha.

Where the Kilmore fire, burning with great intensity about 3pm on Black Saturday, met a relatively small area of four-year-old growth, it was quickly outflanked.

About 6.30pm, when the fire met a 1600ha area burnt by wildfire in January 2006, it burned with low intensity.

Dr McCaw said the severity of the Beechworth fire on Black Saturday was reduced by burns that had been conducted one year, two years and four years previously, that had also provided “anchor points” for fire fighting.

Asked about the effectiveness of small “mosaic” burns that left areas of unburnt vegetation for biodiversity conservation, Dr McCaw said if the primary objective of planned burning was community protection, “you would have to be pursuing fairly high levels of fuel reduction”.

Military base uses prescribed fire prior to removing unexploded ordinance

Fort Ord prescribed fire helitorch
Contractors burn vegetation at Fort Ord in the fall of 2009. Photo: Chris Prescott, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Fort Ord, an Army base south of Monterey, California, (map) was closed in 1994. Since then the Army has been restoring portions of the base to a more natural condition. One of their toughest challenges is finding and removing inert and live ordnance in the impact areas which are covered in dense stands of brush, or in this case, “central maritime chaparral”, or CMC.

The ordnance removal teams can’t easily find the unexploded bombs and shells unless the brush is removed. They considered cutting it, but decided that a prescribed fire is the most environmentally friendly method when dealing with one of the last remaining stands of CMC in the state.

Contractors have been doing some of the burning as well as the burn planning. Barry Callenberger, the Principal of Wildland Rx, has been involved in the project. Barry used to work for the U.S. Forest Service on the Cleveland and Eldorado National Forests and in the Regional Office in California, until moving to the private sector in 1997 to work for North Tree Fire before forming his own company.

At least one burn, 500 acres in the fall of 2009, has already been conducted, and the Army plans to continue burning about 800 acres a year on portions of a 6,800-acre area of CMC.

Since 2001, ordnance specialists have removed unexploded ordnance from nearly 2,500 acres, finding over 12,000 unexploded ordnance items and 89,000 pounds of munitions debris.

I wonder if anyone receives hazard pay while working on these prescribed fires?

Via @FireInfoGirl

What are you doing for Prescribed Fire Awareness Week?

Who KNEW that the state of Georgia has designated the first full week of February, February 8-14 this year, as Prescribed Fire Awareness Week? Governor Sonny Perdue recognizes “this valuable tool for improving the health of Georgia’s 24 million acres of forest land”.

A little research uncovered other Prescribed Fire Awareness Weeks:

Florida: since 1997 it has been the second week in March.

North Carolina: had their first one, and possibly their last one, February 7-13, 2010. The Governor’s proclamation only designates a one-time event. Damn. And I missed it.

New York: The Nature Conservancy “celebrates Prescribed Fire Awareness MONTH in June” in the state of New York.

Do other states celebrate prescribed fire?

A rookie firefighter’s view of a season on a Fire Use Module

Joshua Berman has written books about foreign travel and living in Belize and Nicaragua, but when he took a job on the Whiskeytown Fire Use Module in northern California in 2003 it must have seemed to him that he had entered a world as foreign as those central American countries. In an article he wrote for a travel web site, Worldhum, he exaggerates and uses inflammatory language to describe life on a Fire Use Module as seen through the eyes of a rookie. It is a little disturbing to see the job described this way, but judge for yourself. Here is the beginning of the article:

Joshua Berman spent a glorious summer exploring some of America’s most beautiful wilderness areas — with a drip torch in hand.

That summer, my job was to burn, to lay flame across the earth and watch some of America’s most remote and spectacular wildernesses go up in columns of black. It was beautiful.

“Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean,” wrote Ray Bradbury.

But instead of destroying books with flamethrowers, as the futuristic firemen of “Fahrenheit 451” did, our job was to burn forests. Mostly, we used drip torches—heavy, metal cans with crudely soldered handles. These were the tools of choice for manual ignition, clutched in leather gloves, diesel-mix sloshing inside. When the terrain didn’t favor torches—when the fuel (trees, brush, and grass) was patchy, or farther than arm’s length away—we had other methods. We dropped ping-pong balls of napalm from helicopters, set off small bombs in thickets of brush, and shot flaming disks from pistols.

As if none of this was fun enough, we were also mobile, making that fire season one of the most memorable (and lucrative) traveling summers of my life. I worked for the National Park Service, roaming from parkland to parkland, charting our success by numbers of acres burned and number of overtime and hazard-pay hours earned. Not much else mattered. The kicker was, for most wildland firefighters I knew, that money saved in fire season was money spent soon after—usually on travel—when our jobs ended in late fall.

But first, we burned. The idea was, the more land burned, the less fuel there was to go up later. In essence, we were fighting future fires by beating them to the punch. With each new record-setting blaze burning out of control on the nightly news, we learned that treating fire as an invasive, evil force instead of a restorative one, and trying to completely exclude it from our wildlands, was an unnatural, impossible, and ultimately disastrous approach.

On a related note:

–In 2008 the Whiskeytown Fire Use Module’s office was threatened by the Motion Fire when it burned into Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, but previous fuel treatments resulted in lower fire intensities near the structure, making it possible to conduct a safe and controlled burn-out.

–Someone calling himself “duckvariety” is trying to sell a “Whiskeytown Prescribed Fire Module” patch on Ebay. Is that legal? I know, for example, it is illegal to sell uniforms with the National Park Service patch.

Report released for escaped prescribed fire on Kaibab NF

The U. S. Forest Service has released an “Escaped Fire Review” for the Twin prescribed fire which escaped control on the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona on October 2, 2009. Wildfire Today reported on the incident. One of our articles received 15 comments.

Here is an excerpt from the review:

The Review Team found four causal factors contributing to the escape and conversion to wildfire. These four are:

  • Wind Direction Shift – An unforecasted wind direction change resulted in a decision to change ignition operations to prevent established fire from reaching the east control line without a black buffer to protect it. Spot fires that ultimately led to the escape occurred on the east side of the burn unit and presented greater difficulty for holding due to complex terrain and changing fuel types outside the unit.
  • Exceeding Relative Humidity Parameter in Prescription in Combination with Changing Wind Direction – Prescribed burning continued when actual relative humidity levels dropped below prescribed ranges, contributing to spot fire propagation and growth. It is not known if this situation alone would have caused escape of the prescribed fire – it did not in the other burn unit.
  • Fuel Type Differences Outside the Burn Unit – Fuel loading northeast of the burn unit changes significantly to a heavier fuel type increasing resistance to control.
  • Contingency Resource Identification in the Burn Plan – Contingency resources for this burn plan were calculated for fuel models and terrain inside the burn unit which differed significantly from terrain and fuels outside the burn unit. The resource capabilities were not adequate for the differing fuels and terrain.
  • Ensure compliance with policy and direction regarding prescribed burn planning and implementation.

Recommendations from the Review Team include:

  • Ensure compliance with policy and direction regarding prescribed burn planning and implementation.
  • Improve specificity and clarity of burn plans.
  • Complete detailed reconnaissance of burn units and surrounding area.
  • Verify weather forecasts and compare with prescription parameters.
  • Ensure position qualifications, task book requirements, and documentations are complete and meet requirements.
  • Increase integration and communication between resource areas to prevent conflicting management objectives.
Thanks Dick

Researchers: smoke promotes the germination of some seeds

We used to say “Wood smoke is good smoke”, when downplaying the negative aspects of putting smoke into the air during a prescribed fire. But apparently to some species that is literally the truth. Researchers have found that plant-derived smoke is a potent seed germination promoter for many species.

From an article in Science Daily:

Forest fire smoke. Photo by Bill Gabbert
Photo: Bill Gabbert

The innermost secrets of fire’s role in the rebirth and renewal of forests and grasslands are being revealed in research that has identified plant growth promoters and inhibitors in smoke. In the latest discovery about smoke’s secret life, an international team of scientists are reporting discovery of a plant growth inhibitor in smoke.

The study appears in ACS’s Journal of Natural Products.
“Smoke plays an intriguing role in promoting the germination of seeds of many species following a fire,” Johannes Van Staden and colleagues point out in the report. They previously discovered a chemical compound in smoke from burning plants that promotes seed germination. Such seeds, which remain in the undercover on forest and meadow floors after fires have been extinguished, are responsible for the surprisingly rapid regrowth of fire-devastated landscapes.

In their new research, the scientists report discovery of an inhibitor compound that may block the action of the stimulator, preventing germination of seeds. They suspect that the compounds may be part of a carefully crafted natural regulatory system for repopulating fire-ravaged landscapes. Interaction of these and other compounds may ensure that seeds remain dormant until environmental conditions are best for germination. The inhibitor thus may delay germination of seeds until moisture and temperature are right, and then take a back seat to the germination promoter in smoke.

The research was conducted at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the University of Stellenbosch, the University of Copenhagen,  and the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

Thanks Stephen