Colorado to use new system to predict wildland fire behavior

Janice Coen Gov. John Hickenlooper sign bill

Gov. John Hickenlooper traveled to an Arvada fire station to sign the bill that will implement a wildfire prediction system. Dr. Janice Coen, one of the developers of the system, is on the left. Photo provided by COHOUSEDEMS.

The Governor of Colorado signed a bill Wednesday that authorizes the state to spend $1.2 million over the next two years on a “revolutionary” wildfire prediction system that uses weather data, groundbreaking computer modeling, and high resolution satellite imagery to predict the spread of fires up to 18 hours in advance.

Below is an excerpt from an article at the (Colorado Springs) Gazette:

…”This bill will predict the intensity and the direction of fires 12 to 18 hours ahead of time. That is really important so we know where to direct our planes, the aircraft we had a bill for last year, and our firefighters,” said Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, who introduced the bill. “This is really revolutionary.”

Under the new law, the Division of Fire Prevention and Control will contract with a nonprofit Colorado-based research organization with expertise in atmospheric science to predict wildfire behavior. The National Center for Atmospheric Research, a federally funded program headquartered in Boulder, is the only state agency that meets that criteria. NCAR has used modeling to accurately recreate the behavior of historic fires, including the Yarnell Hill fire that killed 19 Arizona firefighters in 2013.

She said the new technology could be in place by next spring and will work with the state’s new aerial fire fleet, a multimillion-dollar investment into wildfire detecting and fighting aircraft lawmakers made in 2013…

Janice Coen at the National Center for Atmospheric Research is one of the scientists working on this program. We have written about her work previously:

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

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Ron Wakimoto — three decades of fire science

Ron Wakimoto

Ron Wakimoto. University of Montana photo.

The Missoulian has an interesting article about a fire scientist that influenced wildland fire practices and policy over the last few decades.

Below is an excerpt:

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Ron Wakimoto rearranged how we think about fire

Some fire scientists burn down hillsides. Some burn up whole fire policies.

Ron Wakimoto has done both, developing research that helps save the lives of firefighters and helps return fire to the woods after a half-century of fighting to keep it out. Last week, he wound up more than three decades of teaching fire science at the University of Montana’s School of Forestry.

“Ron has been a leader in terms of teaching, and we wanted the students to be able to hear from an elder,” said Colin Hardy, director of the U.S. Forest Service Fire Sciences Laboratory, just before Wakimoto spoke to the annual Mike and Maybelle Hardy Lecture audience last Thursday. “He taught us we need to think about fire management, not just fire suppression. On the political and management side, it’s about air tankers and people on the ground and big iron – it’s a big show. But among fire managers today, Ron’s speaking to the choir.”

“I’m the one who doesn’t wear the green underwear,” Wakimoto joked about his presence as the academic in rooms full of U.S. Forest Service officials. “Policy and science rarely go together.”

Wakimoto got his initial introduction to fire studies from Harold Biswell at the University of California, Berkley. Biswell was a controversial figure then, picking up nicknames like “Dr. Burnwell” and “Harry the Torch” for his avocation of fire as a natural part of the landscape…”

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Researchers fly into convection columns to study wildfire smoke

Below are excerpts from an article at Scienceline.org:

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“It’s a hot day in central Washington as a twin turboprop plane cruises southward. Through the cabin window, the jagged peaks of the Cascades rise in the west; to the east, a lush carpet of green vineyards and yellow wheat fields. But an hour into this flight, the blue skies give way to a white haze that rapidly turns to an alarming burnt orange.

The cabin begins to reek of smoke. The plane’s vibrations increase until the entire vessel is rocking and rolling. For a few seconds, the plane is literally free falling. All the while, outside the window, the sky grows darker and darker.

It’s another day at work for Arthur Sedlacek, an atmospheric chemist who is trying to solve one of the biggest mysteries in global climate change: the role that wildfires play when they spew millions of tons of soot skyward each year.

For five months in 2013, Sedlacek was part of a thrill-seeking team that flew into wildfire plumes in the Pacific Northwest and then Tennessee to measure exactly what’s in the soot. “Biomass burns are just this incredibly rich soup of raw material,” said Sedlacek, who is based at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.

[…]

It’s a tricky scientific problem because fires exert both warming and cooling effects on the climate.

Black smoke billowing up from a fire’s center has a warming effect because dark aerosols absorb light, keeping that energy trapped in our atmosphere. But as winds push aerosols away from the fire, the particles gather a reflective coating of organic matter, which has a cooling effect. White aerosols scatter light, sending that energy back into space.

[…]

So the smoke from wildfires can impact the climate directly, by reflecting and absorbing sunlight, and also indirectly, by influencing the formation of clouds. But how will these effects change as the frequency of wildfires increases in a warmer, drier world?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Lewis said.

To try to answer that question as precisely as possible, Sedlacek, Lewis and their colleagues sampled 17 wildfires, seven urban plumes, and more than three dozen agricultural burns during 120 hours of flight time in 2013. Their research project is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

[…]

Sedlacek recalls one mid-summer flight that got especially hairy. “I remember about this time, hanging on, and thanking God I listened to the pilot when he said ‘buckle up’ because one of my colleagues had not and he went flying.” But that wasn’t the worst of it. In the thick of the plume the flight got even bumpier. Sedlacek overheard his pilot pleading with his engine, saying “stay with me baby, stay with me.”

As soon as the aircraft safely landed, Sedlacek pulled the pilot aside to ask why he was so worried about the engine. The pilot explained that aircraft engines need oxygen to burn fuel, and there’s very little oxygen in a smoke plume.”

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Vegetation fires affect snow melt

Wildfire, climate change and declining snowpacks are intricately connected. As temperatures rise, moisture-stressed forests can lead to bigger, hotter, longer and more frequent wildfires. In turn, wildfires can impact the amount and timing of snowmelt runoff according to a study by Anne Nolin and her Ph.D. student Kelly Gleason. The two researchers have presented new evidence showing that particles and burned woody debris from charred forests increase snowmelt and impact the hydrologic cycle — illustrated in this animation.

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Study finds firefighters more likely to get two types of cancer

According to a recently published study, firefighters in three major municipal fire departments were more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer and leukemia than the general population.

Researchers examined the firefighting exposure and medical histories of 20,000 firefighters with over 1,300 cancer-related deaths and 2,600 cancer incidence cases in Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco who were on duty between the years 1950 and 2009. This was one of the largest studies of its kind, and was the first to relate the time elapsed during fire runs to cancer risk.

Among eight types of cancers examined, they found slight, but statistically significant positive exposure–responses for lung cancer and leukemia risk. The researchers wrote:

These findings contribute to the evidence of a causal association between firefighting exposures and cancer.

The study did not address the health effects on wildland firefighters who, unlike structural firefighters, do not have access to an effective breathing apparatus to provide them clean air to inhale into their lungs. There could also be significant differences between the harmful effects of vegetation smoke and that produced by materials in structure fires.

Some wildland firefighters, especially those on hand crews, are routinely exposed to smoke-filled air for hours each day when assigned to a large fire, sometimes for 14 days. At other times they can be stationed in a smoky environment 24 hours a day for weeks at a time when inversions trap smoke. This frequently occurs in northwestern California, for example on the Six Rivers, Klamath, and Shasta-Trinity National Forests. In those cases even non-firefighters working in administrative positions at the Incident Base have been adversely affected by breathing contaminated air.

As we wrote in January, 2011:

There needs to be a concerted effort to conduct a similar study on wildland firefighters. It should be led by a physician/epidemiologist and should evaluate the long term health and occurrence of cancer and other diseases among wildland firefighters. There is a lot of grant money out there and it should be possible to get some of it pointed towards this overlooked niche of firefighting.

Other articles on Wildfire Today tagged cancer and firefighter health.

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Long-term changes in dead wood reveal new forest dynamics

Healthy forest ecosystems need dead wood to provide important habitat for birds and mammals, but there can be too much of a good thing when dead wood fuels severe wildfires. A scientist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW) compared historic and recent data from a forest in California’s central Sierra Nevada region to determine how logging and fire exclusion have changed the amounts and sizes of dead wood over time. Results were recently published in Forest Ecology and Management.

DeadwoodPSW Research Ecologist Eric Knapp and a field crew visited three research plots initially established in 1929 in old-growth, mixed conifer stands on the Stanislaus National Forest. The stands had not burned since 1889 and were logged with a variety of methods later in 1929, shortly after the first survey of the plots. In this study, Knapp and a research crew first used digitized maps to locate and re-measure all live and dead trees in the plots. They later used old plot maps to reconstruct the number and size of downed logs in the 1929 plots and also surveyed logs in the present-day plots.

The research crew compared their present-day data with those from 1929 and documented a more than nine-fold increase in the density of standing dead trees (snags) coupled with a decrease in the average diameter of the snags. Additionally, they observed nearly three times as many logs on the ground (coarse woody debris), but found a substantial decrease in the size of these logs. The majority of downed logs in the present-day re-measurement were highly decayed.

“Because larger-sized dead wood is preferred by many wildlife species, the current condition of more, smaller, and more decayed woody pieces may have a lower ratio of habitat value relative to potential fire hazard,” says Knapp. Long-term dead wood changes in these forests pose a challenge for forest managers who must balance concerns for wildlife habitat with reducing the chance for damaging wildfires.

But dead trees, like live trees, can be managed. “To restore dead wood to conditions more like those found historically will require growing larger trees and reducing the addition of dead wood from small and intermediate-sized trees,” says Knapp. “Forest thinning, through mechanical means and/or fire has been shown to slow the mortality rate of the remaining trees. In addition, using prescribed fire and low-intensity wildfire, which preferentially consume smaller and more decayed wood, would shift the balance to larger and less decayed pieces of dead wood, and help reduce fuels that contribute to uncharacteristically severe wildfires.”

To read the paper, view or download the publication from Treesearch, the U.S. Forest Service online system for sharing free, full text publications by Research and Development scientists.

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