Diversity of structure in a forest can make it more resilient to fire

Above: A slab of wood from the Stanislaus-Tuolumne Experimental Forest showing a history of very frequent fires, some of them as little as four years apart. Screen grab from the USFS video.

The U.S. Forest Service found some old research plots in the Sierras that have been measured over time dating back to the days of old growth. The evidence suggests that a diversity of species, density, and structure can make a forest more resilient to fire and attacks by insects.

More research indicates some forests are not growing back after wildfires

Rim Fire, August 21, 2013.
Rim Fire, August 21, 2013. Photo by Robert Martinez.

Recent research in the Rocky Mountains has found what others also determined in a 2013 study in Oregon — significant decreases in post-fire tree regeneration. In a paper titled “Evidence for declining forest resilience to wildfires under climate change”, eight researchers noted reductions in tree regeneration in the 21st century.

Below are some excerpts:

Annual moisture deficits were significantly greater from 2000 to 2015 as compared to 1985–1999, suggesting increasingly unfavourable post-fire growing conditions, corresponding to significantly lower seedling densities and increased regeneration failure. Dry forests that already occur at the edge of their climatic tolerance are most prone to conversion to non-forests after wildfires. Major climate-induced reduction in forest density and extent has important consequences for a myriad of ecosystem services now and in the future.

Climate change is already affecting multiple ecosystem properties, leading to shifts in species composition and state changes (Walther et al. 2002; Donato et al. 2016). In the US Rocky Mountains, we documented a significant trend of reduced post-fire tree regeneration, even over the relatively short period of 23 years covered in this analysis. Our findings are consistent with the expectation of reduced resilience of forest ecosystems to the combined impacts of climate warming and wildfire activity. Our results suggest that predicted shifts from forest to non-forested vegetation (e.g. Bell et al. 2014) may be underway, expedited by fire disturbances (Kemp 2015; Donato et al. 2016; Harvey et al. 2016; Johnstone et al. 2016; Rother & Veblen 2016).

Regeneration failures, as measured by both seedling presence/absence and regeneration thresholds, occurred across all forest types (Figs 3 and 4d). Low-elevation forests, dominated by tree species near the warm, dry edge of their climatic tolerance may be particularly vulnerable to shifts to non-forest vegetation, because of the absence of any tree species that could reestablish under warmer, drier conditions (Harvey et al. 2016). Meanwhile, moist forest types may experience a shift in species dominance and a decrease in tree density. And while only 15% of the moist forest sites we studied lacked seedling after 21st-century fires, 35% of these sites did not meet the recruitment threshold. This represents a substantial increase (300%) relative to the 1985–1999 period, highlighting the impacts of warming in moist forests as well.

Wildfire problem to increase in coming decades

Research projects substantial increases in area burned across western North America, with implications for land managers and policy makers.

Above: Projected change in annual area burned for the period 2010–2039, with red colors indicating areas with the greatest increase in area burned annually in wildfires, and dark blue the least.

By Susan McGinley, University of Arizona

The massive wildfires that burned in California, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, British Columbia and other parts of North America in 2017 in many cases exhibited a disturbing trend: a marked increase in the amount of area burned.

The Thomas Fire, which consumed 281,893 acres in California’s Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in December, was the largest in the state’s history. The Nazko Complex Fire in British Columbia burned more than 1 million acres, the largest ever recorded for the province.

Thomas Fire
Thomas Fire, Ventura, CA, Los Padres National Forest, 2017. USFS photo.

That trend will continue in coming decades across the western U.S. and northwestern Canada, though not uniformly, according to a recent study. UA professor Don Falk and Thomas Kitzberger from the Universidad Nacional del Comahue in Argentina, who started working on the research as a visiting scholar at the UA, were co-investigators on the study that also included Thomas Swetnam from the UA and Leroy Westerling of the University of California, Merced.

While it may have been an exceptional year in some respects, Falk’s and Kitzberger’s predictions suggest that years like 2017 are likely to become more common over time. States in the interior Western U.S., in particular, may be faced with large increases in total wildfire area burned, potentially beyond anything that has been experienced in the past.

Their research paper, “Direct and indirect climate controls predict heterogeneous early-mid 21st century wildfire burned area across western and boreal North America,” was published in the journal PLOS ONE in December as the 2017 fire season was ending. The results project where the greatest increases in area burned are likely to occur across the Western U.S. and Canada in coming decades. It suggests that large fires years such as the recent ones in southern and northern California may become more common.

A Model to Measure and Project Fire Activity

“We used 34 years of climate data to calibrate area burned in 1,500 grid cells across western North America, so we could capture the different ways that seasonal climate regulates fire in different regions,” said Falk, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The key measurement, annual area burned, is a combination of fire size, frequency and variability from year to year. Area burned does not necessarily indicate fire severity, the ecological effects in a burned area.

Taking into account geographic variation, the study data focused on fire occurrence, seasonal temperatures and snowpack. The seasonal climate variables that turned out to be driving the amount of area burned were summer temperatures during fire season, spring temperatures and rainfall, and winter temperatures. Winter and spring conditions regulate snowpack, which can delay the onset of the fire season.

The team built a statistical model for wildfire area burned in each of the grid cells studied, and then tested it with data for actual area burned since 2010 to validate their predictions. It did not project the extent of area burned beyond the mid-21st century, as climate and vegetation changes become more uncertain later in the century.

Findings for western and northern North America show that about half the states and provinces are projected to have a large increase — five or more times the current levels — in total wildfire area burned. Others may see smaller increases, indicating there is no “one-size-fits-all” model. Increases in area burned are unevenly distributed across the study area, with the strongest increases projected in the interior western region.

Heads-Up for Land Management

“Ultimately, this means that the large fire seasons of recent years, such as the one just ending, are likely to occur more frequently, affecting ecosystems, communities and public safety,” Falk said. “These will be billion-dollar fire years. We’re just not ready for fire impacts of this kind, including post-fire effects from flooding after fire.”

The total cost of the 2017 fires in California alone is projected to exceed $180 billion. This includes not only the immediate costs of firefighting, but also the much larger costs, including:

  • Landscape rehabilitation;
  • Medical and hospital costs;
  • Insurance losses and the costs of replacing thousands of homes and other buildings;
  • Lost economic productivity from the destruction of businesses;
  • Repair and replacement of key infrastructure such as roads, power lines and dams; and
  • Weeks of lost income by employees.

Across the U.S., public land managing agencies are being stretched to their limits by the current scale of wildfire. The U.S. Forest Service spends more than half of its entire budget on wildfire response, leaving little for other key elements of its mission such as recreation, ecosystem restoration, research and public education.

Knowing about future regional variation in the projected annual area burned can help land managers and policy makers prepare for the possibility of extremely large fire years. Falk pointed out that seasonal climate changes also are having the effect of making the fire season longer, so there is additional time for more acreage to burn. In years when seasonal climate drives lengthy fire seasons, fire management resources may be stretched to the limit.

“Wildfires act as a multiplier of other forces such as climate change, exposing more and more areas not only to the immediate effects of fire, but also to the resulting cascade of ecological, hydrological, economic and social consequences,” Falk said. “We hope that this research will be a wake-up call to public agencies and legislatures at all levels of government that the fire problem is not going to get any smaller in coming decades.

“If anything, we need a serious, fact-based national dialogue about how to sustain our forests and woodlands through smart management and policy.”

Study shows firefighters’ exposure to smoke increases disease risk

Depending on the type of work performed and the number of years of exposure, the increased risk can be 22 to 39 percent.

Above: Smoky conditions on the Legion Lake Fire in Custer State Park in South Dakota, December 12, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Originally published at 6:02 p.m. MT, February 6, 2018.

After collecting data from wildland firefighters in the field, a group of researchers concluded that firefighters’ exposure to smoke can increase the risk of mortality from lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, and cardiovascular disease. In this first section we cover what is in vegetation fire smoke, and after that we have details about the additional mortality risk faced by firefighters who can’t help but breathe the toxic substances.

What is in the air that firefighters breathe?

There have been many studies about smoke dating back to the 1988 NIOSH project at the fires in Yellowstone National Park. Most of them confirmed that yes, wildland firefighters ARE exposed to smoke and in most cases they quantified the amount.

In 2004 Timothy E. Reinhardt and Roger D. Ottmar  found a witches’ brew of methyl ethyl bad stuff that firefighters are breathing. All of these are hazardous to your health:

  • Aldehydes (volatile organic compounds); can cause immediate irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, and inhalation can cause inflammation of the lungs. Short-term effects include cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain. The most abundant aldehyde in smoke is formaldehyde. When formaldehyde enters the body, it is converted to formic acid, which also is toxic.
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO²); causes severe irritation of the eyes, skin, upper respiratory tract, and mucous membranes, and also can cause bronchoconstriction. It forms sulfuric acid in the presence of water vapor and has been shown to damage the airways of humans.
  • Carbon monoxide (CO); As CO is inhaled it displaces O2 as it attaches to red blood cells and forms COHb. COHb reduces the ability of the blood to carry oxygen and causes hypoxia (a condition in which the body does not receive sufficient oxygen). Due to their strenuous work, wildland firefighters often have increased respiratory rates, which will increase the amount of CO being inhaled when smoke is present. COHb has a half-life (the time it takes half of the COHb to dissipate from the body) of about 5 hours. Symptoms of CO exposure include headaches, dizziness, nausea, loss of mental acuity, and fatigue. Prolonged, high exposure can cause confusion and loss of consciousness
  • Particulate matter; Respirable particulates are a major concern as they can be inhaled into the deeper recesses of the lungs, the alveolar region. These particles carry absorbed and condensed toxicants into the lungs
  • Acrolein; may increase the possibility of respiratory infections. It can cause irritation of the nose, throat, and lungs. Long-term effects can include chronic respiratory irritation and permanent loss of lung function if exposure occurs over many years.
  • Benzene; can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and respiratory tract irritation. Although the human body can often recover and repair damage caused by irritants, prolonged exposure from extended work shifts and poorly ventilated fire camps can overwhelm the ability to repair damage to genes and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).
  • Crystalline silica; can cause silicosis, a noncancerous lung disease that affects lung function. But OSHA classifies it as a carcinogen.
  • Intermediate chemicals; have been shown to cause a variety of health problems including bronchopulmonary carcinogenesis, fibrogenesis, pulmonary injury, respiratory distress, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and inflammation.

One of the more recent research efforts, from 2009 to 2012, was led by George Broyles of the U.S. Forest Service, National Technology and Development Program, in Boise, Idaho. They collected data in 11 fuel models in 17 states on initial attack, prescribed burns, and large project fires. The group measured carbon monoxide (CO) with electronic datalogging dosimeters and particulate matter using air pumps and filters.

carbon monoxide exposure firefighters
Data from the 2009-2012 wildland firefighter study led by George Broyles. “TWA” stands for Time Weighted Average. CO is carbon monoxide. OEL is Occupational Exposure Limits.

Monitoring carbon monoxide (CO) can be important, and is also fairly easy to do and not terribly expensive. Researchers have found that it can be a surrogate for the primary irritants of concern in wildland smoke near the combustion source. If CO is present, it’s almost certain that the smorgasbord of nasty stuff is in the air.

wildfire smoke monitoring firefighters
Jon Richert displays the various devices the National Technology Development Center research crews use to measure the amount of smoke firefighters deal with during wildfire suppression. This equipment was used in 2016 in a different but similar study than the one described in this article.
Diffusion tube
Diffusion tube.

Electronic CO monitors are available for $100 to $300. Another option is the little disposable CO monitors called diffusion tubes. With the holder they are about the size of a dry erase marker. Many are made by Drager, and for eight hours can record the cumulative CO. You can’t get an instantaneous reading, but the total hourly exposure can be monitored. They cost about $13 each. If one or two people on the crew carry them it can provide a heads up if the air quality is really bad.

What are the health effects of smoke exposure on a wildland fire?

Employers in most if not all workplaces are required to minimize hazards and provide a safe working environment. But of course it is impossible to totally eliminate all risks to firefighters. A cynic might assume that leadership in the wildland fire community may be hesitant to ask the question if they don’t want to hear the answer.

In spite of numerous studies confirming that yes, there is smoke where wildland firefighters work, there has been little in the literature that quantifies the effects on a person’s health. A new study published in August, 2017 contains a preliminary analysis addressing that question.

It is titled Wildland Fire Smoke Health Effects on Wildland Firefighters and the Public – Final Report to the Joint Fire Science Program. The authors are Joe Domitrovich, George Broyles, Roger D. Ottmar, Timothy E. Reinhardt, Luke P. Naeher, Michael T. Kleinman, Kathleen M. Navarro, Christopher E. Mackay, and Olorunfemi Adetona.

They used the field data collected in the 2009 to 2012 George Broyles study to extrapolate the physical and health effects on humans. The authors actually came up with numbers that indicate firefighters’ relative mortality risk for lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, and cardiovascular disease.
Continue reading “Study shows firefighters’ exposure to smoke increases disease risk”

Fire Narratives: Are Any Accurate?

We may not know as much as we think we know about wildfires in the Wildland-Urban Interface

This article by Sarah McCaffrey, a Research Forester with the U.S. Forest Service, first appeared at Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network.


How you tell a story influences what conclusions people draw from it (think Aesop’s Fables). Over the past decade, the overarching American wildfire narrative has become fairly focused on three dynamics: fuels buildup due to suppression, climate change, and the expanding wildland-urban interface (WUI). But what are these narratives based on?

There is a fair bit of research and debate as to when and where fuel overloading and climate change will have the most influence, in fact too much to be easily citable here. However, according to research for a paper that I’m developing with Matt Thompson of the Rocky Mountain Research Station and Courtney Schultz of Colorado State University, few data support the WUI story. Specifically, only limited data support the arguments for why and how the WUI is contributing to the wildfire problem.

For instance, a commonly cited concern is that 50–95 percent of wildfire suppression costs can be attributed to the protection of private property in the WUI. However, when our team followed the citations for this statement, we found that they all led back to data from a single 2006 Office of Inspector General (OIG) report (PDF, 1.57 MB). Further, the report reached that particular conclusion using data that most social scientists would find problematic at best. Stay tuned for my team’s paper to learn more about that report’s limitations.* We have found a few studies that examine the breakdown of suppression costs in a more rigorous manner, using meaningful metrics (e.g., the number of homes near the fire perimeter and the percent of private land). But, while they do find a positive association between homes being located in the WUI and suppression costs, none demonstrate causality or conclude that the costs of protecting private property come close to the low end of OIG’s estimates. Nor can we find any study that tracks changes in the WUI with changes in suppression costs over time, even though a key perceived “problem” with the WUI is that its expansion will automatically increase wildfire suppression costs.

Similarly, although it is often stated that wildfire-related housing loss is increasing, it is hard to find any data that support or deny this claim, as wildfire-related housing loss hasn’t been tracked consistently until fairly recently. Further, even the existing data are problematic. For instance, the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) claims that 2,638 homes were lost nationally in 2015 (see page 9 of this NICC report, PDF, 830 KB); while CAL FIRE reports that 3,217 homes were destroyed in California alone that same year (see page 10 of this CAL FIRE report, PDF, 1.28 MB). Further, while it is too short of a time span to draw any solid conclusions, it is worth noting that both datasets suggest that higher losses are periodic and due to specific wildfire events. For example, the graph below, which I developed using NICC annual summary reports, illustrates that when excluding the state that lost the most residences in a given year — say Tennessee in 2016, the year of the Gatlinburg fires — home loss (shown in green) is relatively flat.

wildfire structure loss

Inaccurate Stories Are Unlikely to Lead to Effective Solutions
Accepting WUI narratives that lack sufficient supporting data can lead to developing solutions that are less likely to have the desired impact, because they may be targeting the wrong problem. Further, these proposed solutions may have unintended consequences because they don’t take existing data, or lack thereof, or the larger context into account. For instance, a common recommendation based on the WUI narrative is to limit development in fire-prone areas. However, while we do have fairly robust science concerning factors that make an individual home more fire resistant, we don’t have much information on what type of larger scale development is associated with improved wildfire outcomes. There are only a few relevant studies, and they offer conflicting “solutions.” For example, some studies suggest clustered housing would help with decreasing suppression costs, but others suggest clustered housing would lead to more losses.

Another common recommendation based on the WUI narrative is to form a national fire-insurance program similar to the National Flood Insurance Program, which appears to be seen as a means of ensuring that WUI residents bear the cost of living there. This recommendation ignores the significant evidence concluding that the National Flood Insurance Program has done little to shift the cost burden from federal taxpayers (and in fact has probably increased it) or to limit housing development in flood-prone areas. This argument also seems to assume that if individuals can’t obtain or afford insurance, then they will choose to not live in the WUI. However, there is no evidence that this is the case. It’s just as likely that individuals will continue to live there for a variety of reasons (e.g., amenities, affordability in other regards) and just take their chances, essentially making those with fewer resources even more vulnerable.

Further, insurance levers can raise an equity consideration: if insurance did have the desired effect, it is likely that only the wealthy would be able to live in the WUI since only they could afford to pay higher insurance premiums or to self-insure. It is worth asking whether that is an acceptable tradeoff.

Shifting Our Language
Through this process, I have begun to question whether the WUI is still a useful construct. While it may have been useful at one point to draw attention to the increasing intermingling of housing and natural vegetation, it now seems to create an artificial distinction that may be misleading. I doubt many of those who lost their homes in the recent California wildfires, particularly in Santa Rosa, thought of themselves as living in the WUI. Further, a preliminary analysis by the University of Wisconsin shows that regarding the Tubbs Fire, many of the losses were not technically in the WUI. Instead, the largest portions of homes lost were in areas considered either too dense or not dense enough to be classified as the WUI. Forest Schafer’s recent blog post about how Lake Tahoe partners are rethinking their WUI is another example of the limitations of drawing artificial lines when assessing wildfire risk.

And then there is the question of how limiting development in the WUI would work. Beyond equity issues and the fact that we don’t have strong evidence regarding what “better” land-use planning for wildfire looks like, I always wonder, “So, where are people supposed to live then?” As one recent newspaper headline stated: “All Californians Live in Fire Country Now.” Perhaps just thinking about how we can best live in fire-prone landscapes may be a more useful way to frame the discussion, rather than creating artificial distinctions based on housing density and natural vegetation.

*This blog describes initial findings from a paper that Courtney, Matt and I are working on. The articles referenced in this blog post will be identified in that paper, which will be available on Treesearch once it is published.

Sarah McCaffrey
Photo credit: Sarah McCaffrey

Sarah McCaffrey, Ph.D., is a research forester for the USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. Her research focuses on the social aspects of fire management. This work has included projects examining wildfire risk perception, social acceptability of prescribed fire and thinning, characteristics of effective communication programs, and incentives for the creation and maintenance of defensible space. She has also initiated work examining social issues that occur during and after wildfires, including evacuation-decision making, agency-community interactions during fires, public perception of wildfire management overall, views on the Cohesive Strategy, and perceptions about what it means to be a fire adapted community. She received her Ph.D. in Wildland Resource Science in 2002 from the University of California at Berkeley.

Study concludes wildfire smoke causes lower infant birth weight

An economics researcher found that infants’ proximity to smoke pollution while in utero affects birth weight.

Above: Whitetail Fire in South Dakota

(Originally published at 6:17 p.m. MST January 22, 2018)

When researchers seek to determine a single or primary cause for a human health problem, they know they’re battling uphill. Our environments are complex, multifaceted, and permeated by a seemingly infinite number of factors that could shape us. Rare is the circumstance that is so ideal, at least from a researcher’s perspective, that one can sift through the noise and emerge with a definitive root of an issue.

That is, of course, unless nature is on your side — as was the case for UNLV economics professor Shawn McCoy and his University of Pittsburgh economics colleague Xiaoxi Zhao.

It’s hard to imagine anything positive coming out of wildfires. They’ve become six times more likely to occur and four times as large since the 1980s, McCoy said, due to climate and population changes. And yet for his research, which demonstrates that proximity to smoke pollution causes lower infant birthweight, wildfires proved to be a sort of equalizer.

“Wildfires are a meaningful topic to research in and of themselves, but they also help solve this causality problem that is difficult in our studies of pollution,” McCoy said. “Two features make fire pollution different from that of, say, an industrial plant: the random timing of fires and their random location, in that wind patterns on any given day drive the direction and concentration of smoke. This sets up a quasi-experimental research design wherein a fire happens randomly and by chance and randomly and naturally assigns treatment and control groups, because only a certain segment of the population will be exposed to the smoke.”

Several studies have established correlations between pollution sources and negative public health outcomes, McCoy said. However, prior research has faced difficulties demonstrating a direct causal relationship. One reason for this, according to McCoy, is the number of factors that could be involved in past research scenarios.

“Suppose we build an industrial plant,” McCoy said. “Once that plant is built, we need to think about the economics of that problem, which is that people don’t like to live next to plants. Holding everything else constant, home prices will drop in the surrounding area because of that, which could induce geographical sorting, wherein households with lower income might migrate into the areas surrounding the plant and households with higher incomes may leave. When that happens, it becomes harder to determine if changes in health outcomes occurred because of plant pollution, geographical sorting dynamics, or even something else.”

The random timing and location of wildfires mitigate these dynamics, making it ideal for McCoy and Zhao’s research. Wildfire smoke is similar to other sources of ambient air pollution; its particulate matter can be so small that it passes through the heart and lungs, disrupts fetal nutrition, and slows fetal growth. Within this framework, birthweight becomes a useful metric to track because of its link to short-term outcomes, such as one-year mortality rates, as well as long-term outcomes such as educational attainment and earnings, McCoy said.

McCoy and Zhao leveraged geographic information systems (mapping software) to identify ignition sources and smoke paths and plotted the home addresses of infants born during a time that would place them in the smoke’s path while in utero. They then compared the birthweight of those infants to a control group outside of the smoke’s path.

The researchers’ results indicate that wildfire smoke leads to a 4 to 6 percent reduction in birthweight, and these effects are most pronounced among mothers exposed to smoke during the second or the third trimesters of pregnancy. They also found that these effects attenuate (or diminish) with respect to distance to a wildfire, becoming ineffectual three miles and further from the burn source. In contrast, the researchers found that even if infants had been close to a wildfire while in utero, there was no statistically significant effect on their birthweight if they were outside the smoke’s path.

“One really neat thing about this research is that I can do more than tell you what the effect of being exposed to the smoke is or not,” McCoy said. “I can tell you how that effect varies based on where an infant is relative to the source of pollution. Beyond that, we now have the evidence that reinforces earlier findings on the effects of ambient pollution at large and can say that these effects are very likely real, not just loosely correlated or tied up with other economic issues like household migration dynamics.”

McCoy’s hope is that this research will help inform policymakers of the potential economic and health consequences of wildfires, the magnitude of this type of disaster, and the mechanism behind wildfires — all of which enable people to better target the problem.

“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that homeowners don’t fully acknowledge the risks associated with natural disasters — in particular, the risks associated with wildfire,” McCoy said. “One way to address this problem is to inform the public of risks through information-based regulation, such as posting billboards of people standing on cars during floods to discourage them from attempting to drive through inundated areas in the future. The idea is, if you give people this information, it can affect how they evaluate disaster risks, and it will likely have a spillover effect in terms of how they manage those risks.” That being said, McCoy noted that a one-time exposure to this type of information likely won’t be enough to have a lasting impact, so regulators should share this type of messaging often.

McCoy and Zhao’s research findings have been detailed in their article “Wildfire and Infant Health: A Geo-Spatial Approach to Estimating the Health Impacts of Ambient Air Pollution and In-Utero Stress,” currently under review by a top industry journal.


Source: provided by University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Original written by Sara Gorgon. University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). “Exposure to wildfire smoke in utero lowers birthweight.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 December 2017.