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 but that 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.

Group creates fire effects on soil network

FESPinThe group that has put on five conferences about the effects fire on soil has created a network to facilitate the sharing of information. You can find out more about the Fire Effects on Soil Properties International Network at their website and Facebook page.

Their next conference will be in Kruger National Park (South Africa) August 14-18, 2017. The previous conferences were in Spain, Turkey, Portugal, Lithuania, and Ireland.

Communication during wildfire incidents

Frequent and effective communication between response organizations and individuals is critical to ensuring the most effective response during wildfire incidents.

Above: Incident Command Post at the Eiler Fire, August 8, 2014 at Anderson, California. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Most of the detailed reports I have seen about critical incidents identified communication as an area that needed improvement.

In a recent study, researchers analyzed the influence of pre-incident familiarity, stakeholder affiliation, and primary wildfire response/functional role on communication frequency and efficacy during three western U.S. wildfires ignited on U.S. Forest Service land. All fires occurred in wildland/urban interface areas, and involved a range of parties including Type 1 Incident Management Team response teams, local forest leaders, and responding agencies. 

Below is an excerpt from the research.

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“…Since wildfires are one of the most common disasters faced by communities in the U.S., understanding factors contributing to effective disaster response is key to improving response efforts. Effectiveness of disaster response is strongly impacted by the effectiveness of communication between individual responders during the incident. This research shows that mechanisms that establish relationships between disaster responders prior to wildfire incidents may increase communication between responders during wildfire incidents, and thus, reduce problematic communication and increase the effectiveness of disaster response.

Pre-incident relationship building may serve to strengthen understanding and increase mutual trust between responders. This suggests that community efforts to increase social contact between responders prior to incident can lead to benefits during disaster events by increasing the frequency and effectiveness of communication between individual responders.

This research also suggests that it can be problematic to assume that individuals with shared institutional roles will have more effective communication.

The least effective communication reported in this study was between individuals with similar institutional roles but no pre-incident familiarity.

A potential explanation for this trend is that individuals that share similar roles and/or stakeholder groups may be more likely to make assumptions about the other person’s approach to, or understanding of, a given situation, leading to false expectations and misunderstandings.

This suggests that to reduce problematic communication, responders who lack familiarity with each other must emphasize clear communication and refrain from making assumptions about the other person’s knowledge or strategy, regardless of how similar their institutional roles are…”

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The information above is based on the following article: Nowell, B., & Steelman, T. 2015. Communication under Fire: The Role of Embeddedness in the Emergence and Efficacy of Disaster Response Communication Networks. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 25 (3): 929-952. doi: 10.1093/jopart/muu021.

NASA will set prescribed fires in space

Scientists hope to learn how fires on a spacecraft burn without gravity or convection.

SAFFIRE
NASA Scientists work on the Spacecraft Fire Experiment, or SAFFIRE, which will study fire behavior in microgravity. NASA photo.

Like a fire onboard a ship, a fire on a spacecraft is a nightmare scenario with possibly disastrous consequences. NASA is doing what it can to prevent fires in space. The agency has conducted small-scale studies on the International Space Station (ISS) to determine how fires spread in microgravity without convection. This also helps them figure out the best way to suppress a fire after it starts.

One way to study the problem is to conduct prescribed fires, which is exactly what they will do. The project is called Spacecraft Fire Experiment, or Saffire. Over the next year or so they will set fires on three Cygnus spacecraft used for ferrying supplies to the ISS.  

After the unmanned Cygnus offloads its cargo it will detach from the ISS and eventually burn up as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. But before being destroyed by fire over the Pacific Ocean scientists will use the vehicle as an experiment bed.

The launch of the first Cygnus spacecraft with the Saffire I experiment is scheduled for March 22.

The video below elaborates on this experiment.

An excerpt from a NASA article:

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…“A spacecraft fire is one of the greatest crew safety concerns for NASA and the international space exploration community,” says Gary Ruff, Saffire project manager.

Saffire will involve far larger flames than previous experiments and will investigate the way fire spreads on a variety of combustible materials. Because the experiments will be conducted away from the space station, there is no risk to the astronauts aboard.

Each Saffire experiment will be remotely operated inside a 3 x 5 foot module, split into two compartments. One side of the module is an avionics bay that contains sensors, high definition video cameras and signal processing equipment. The other side contains the hardware required to ignite a large flame and burn the fabrics and materials inside.

When the experiments begin, Saffire I and III will burn one large 16 by 37-inch piece of SIBAL cloth, which is a blend of fiberglass and cotton. This material has been studied in previous microgravity combustion experiments, although at a much smaller size. The SIBAL cloth will be burned from the bottom to see how the flame spreads. If the flame extinguishes itself, scientists will light it at the top and see what happens as the flame moves opposite to the airflow.

Saffire II, scheduled to launch in June from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, will ignite a mix of nine different samples of materials used routinely on the space station including flame retardant fabrics used for astronaut clothing, station Plexiglas window samples with edge variations and structures used for storage containers and silicone composites. Each sample is two by 11 inches, the size sample NASA uses to screen materials on Earth before they are used on a spacecraft.

“Saffire seeks to answer two questions,” says David Urban, principle investigator. “Will an upward spreading flame continue to grow or will microgravity limit the size? Secondly, what fabrics and materials will catch fire and how will they burn?”…

Oldest know charred pine fossil found

The fossil of a pine tree was preserved as charcoal within rocks in Nova Scotia

From the BBC:

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“The charred pine twigs date back 140 million years to a time when fires raged across large tracts of land. Pine trees now dominate the forests of the Northern Hemisphere.

fossilized pine twig
False color image of the fossilized pine twig that is a few milimeters long. Photo by H. Falcon-Lang.

The research suggests the tree’s evolution was shaped in the fiery landscape of the Cretaceous, where oxygen levels were much higher than today, fuelling intense and frequent wildfires.

“Pines are well adapted to fire today,” said Dr Howard Falcon-Lang of Royal Holloway, University of London, who discovered the fossils in Nova Scotia, Canada.

“The fossils show that wildfires raged through the earliest pine forests and probably shaped the evolution of this important tree.”

Serendipitous find
The specimens, which are described in Geology journal, were preserved as charcoal within rocks from a quarry.

“It was only when I digested [the samples] in acid that these beautiful fossils fell out,” Dr Falcon-Lang told BBC News.

“They were sitting in my cupboard for five years before I actually worked out what was there.”

Plant oddities
The fossils are just a few mm long but probably came from trees resembling the Scots Pine that now cover large areas of Scotland.

“One of the oddities about pine trees today is that they are one of the most fire adapted species on our planet,” explained Dr Falcon-Lang.

“These oldest pine fossils are preserved as charcoal, the product of fire, suggesting that the co-occurrence of fire and pines is something that’s very ancient, that goes back to the very origin of these first pine trees.”

Dr Falcon-Lang plans to return to the quarry this summer to recover more specimens.”

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

Colorado lays out plans for development of wildfire decision support system

The decision support system that Colorado is developing is expected to provide frequently updated fine-scale predictions of weather that affects wildfires, and the behavior of going fires. It will use heat detected by satellites and hourly weather forecast updates from the National Weather Service to produce maps showing fire managers where multiple fires are expected to spread in the next 12 to 18 hours.

Much of the work is being done under contract for the state by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a federally funded program headquartered in Boulder, in cooperation with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. The organizations have distributed a detailed briefing document on the development schedule and a time line for deliverables, which you can read HERE (1.9 MB).

Below are a few images from the document.

Colorado Decision Support System

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Colorado Decision Support System

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Colorado Decision Support System

We have criticized the state of Colorado for not having their crap together for organizing and planning for the management of wildfires or for on-the-ground fire suppression, but they are developing some significant resources for gathering intelligence with their new fixed wing aircraft and now with this decision support system that will provide frequently updated predictions of fire spread using state of the art technology.

Their next logical step is to develop a management system and the firefighting resources to make use of this wealth of information. While there are some firefighting organizations that could use this data to their advantage and convert it to actions on the fire ground, at this stage it’s like *putting lipstick on a pig, at least within the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

*In 1992 Ann Richards, the former Governor of Texas, said at a South Dakota barbecue, “You can put lipstick on a hog and call it Monique, but it is still a pig”.

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