Wildfire news, November 24

Los Angeles County Fire Chief announces retirement.

P. Michael Freeman today announced that he will be retiring in March, 2010. Chief Freeman has served as Fire Chief with the Los Angeles County Fire Department LACFD for 21 years.

On November 18 the LADFD issued a report about the Station fire that lobbed some criticism towards the U. S. Forest Service for their management of wildland fires.

NASA’s Predator UAV flies burn sites in California

NASA provided this information in a press release:

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MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. – NASA’s remotely piloted Predator B aircraft, named Ikhana, recently conducted post-burn assessments of two Southern California wildfire sites, the Piute Fire in Kern County and the Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest. Ikhana, an unmanned aircraft equipped with an infrared imaging sensor, completed a seven-hour imaging flight on Nov. 19, 2009 from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

The Autonomous Modular Scanner, developed by NASA’s Ames ResearchCenter, Moffett Field, Calif., was carried in a pod under the aircraft’s wing. The scanner operates like a digital camera with specialized filters to detect light energy at visible, infrared and thermal wavelengths.

The scanner operated with a new photo mosaic capability requested by the U.S.Forest Service. A photo mosaic provides easier interpretation for the end user, which in the case of an active wildfire, is the fire incident commander.

Traveling northwest of NASA Dryden, the aircraft flew several data collectionroutes over the area burned by the month-long Piute Fire in Kern County that grew to 37,026 acres before it was contained in July 2008. The burn area is located in the Sequoia National Forest and on Bureau of Land Management public land near Lake Isabella.

Ikhana then traveled southeast to fly image collection routes over the arson-caused Station Fire. It burned more than 160,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest northeast of Los Angeles after being ignited on Aug. 26, 2009. The scanner collected images that will indicate the severity of devastation within the fire area. Another use of the images is for the U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation, or BAER.

The Forest Service uses BAER to reduce further damage to land made unstable by fires, rather than replace what is burned. The BAER data are derived using multi-spectral data available from the Autonomous Modular Scanner on the aircraft. The processes can be changed mid-mission to enable improved collection of critical information, either in mapping active fires or assessing post-burn severity.

The post-burn images collected by the scanner were transmitted through a communications satellite to NASA Ames, where the images were superimposed over Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth maps to better visualize the locations. The images then were made available to the Forest Service for initial assessment of the damage caused by the fires and rehabilitation required.

Scientists prove mega-droughts occurred

By studying mineral deposits in caves, scientists have proved that extended droughts, or “mega-droughts” have occurred hundreds of years ago. The researchers took core samples of deposits left by dripping water in caves, and studied them much like scientists study tree rings to determine fire history.

Their analysis in caves in the Sierra Nevada in California determined that one of the droughts they detected lasted 140-years around the year 1100. The pattern of droughts seems to be associated with rapid climate warming.

More information.

Bushfires wreaking havoc in Australia

From The Trumpet:

Thousands of homes are threatened by huge wildfires sweeping across eastern Australia. Record temperatures and persistent winds have combined to make this the worst bushfire threat in 100 years in New South Wales, just months after the country’s most devastating wildfire disaster to date.

The record heat has kindled fears of a repeat of February’s cataclysmic fires in Victoria that killed 173 people and consumed more than 2,000 homes. The conditions have prompted authorities to issue the first “catastrophic” or “Code Red” alert—a new level of warning introduced since the deadly Black Saturday fires in February—for parts of New South Wales and South Australia.

“The very hot temperatures we’ve seen across New South Wales right throughout this last week are simply breaking hundred-year records,” said Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

In a Code Red warning, residents cannot be forcibly evacuated, but are strongly advised to leave their property because of the dire risk of death, injury and destruction.

Fire expert Kevin Tolhurst said, “What we saw on (Black Saturday) was an extraordinary day from a weather point of view. We are starting to see those sort of days more frequently.”

Bill introduced in Senate to aid in control of pine beetles

From KPVI news:

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall says the insect infestation killing millions of pine trees in the West is 1 of the region’s “biggest natural disasters.”

The Colorado Democrat said Monday he has introduced a bill to give forest managers more ways to respond.

The bill, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, would allow the U.S. Forest Service to identify high-priority areas and expedite analysis of proposed treatments.

More than 2.5 million acres of pine trees in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming have been killed by tiny beetles that burrow under the bark.

Forest managers say the outbreak poses wildfire and public safety risks.

A national management team will help the Forest Service coordinate responses to the outbreak.

As we reported on November 11, one of the NIMO teams has been activated to assist in battling beetles.

Fewer inmates could hamper fire suppression in California

The state of California is under a court order to reduce their prison population by 40,000 people, from 150,000 to 110,000. In order to comply, Governor Schwarzenegger is seeking legislation to implement alternatives to state incarceration, such as house arrest or utilizing local jails.

A reduction of this size in low risk inmates will mean there will be fewer prisoners available to staff the state’s Type 2 inmate crews. When working on a fire an inmate earns $1 per hour, much less than a CalFire employee, so replacing the crews with CalFire firefighters is not an option in a state with major financial problems.

The reason the court ordered a reduction in the prison population was to improve the treatment of physically and mentally ill inmates. They labeled the care so poor that it violates an inmate’s constitutional rights.

Climate change researchers: Yosemite NP to have 19% more fires

According to researchers who published a recent paper in the International Journal of Wildland Fire (Volume 18[7] 2009), climate change will increase the number and burn severity of fires in Yosemite National Park. Using fire records, weather data, and satellite imagery they analyzed the fires in the park that occurred between 1984 and 2005. Comparing snowfall records with fire severity, they determined that during those years, decreased spring snowpack exponentially increased the number of lightning-ignited fires and the proportion of the landscape that burned at higher severities.

The researchers then made some predictions:

Using one snowpack forecast, we project that the number of lightning-ignited fires will increase 19.1% by 2020 to 2049 and the annual area burned at high severity will increase 21.9%. Climate-induced decreases in snowpack and the concomitant increase in fire severity suggest that existing assumptions may be understated – fires may become more frequent and more severe.

Here is the way this is supposed to work. There is some evidence to suggest that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will lead to more lightning strikes. With less snow, the lightning strikes are more likely to ignite fires. The dryer fuels will result in the fires burning more intensely.

UPDATE, November 5, 2009:

The authors of the report are James A. Lutz, Jan W. van Wagtendonk, Andrea E. Thode, Jay D. Miller, and Jerry F. Franklin. They are employed by the National Park Service, the U. S. Forest Service, the University of Washington, and Northern Arizona University.
They chose to publish the results of their taxpayer-funded research in a publication that is not accessible to taxpayers unless they pay substantial subscription or membership fees to the International Journal of Wildland Fire or the International Association of Wildland fire. IAWF members after paying their membership fee can access the content of the Journal.
We have written about this issue before. If you want a copy of this taxpayer-funded research, you can pay the fees, or you can email James A. Lutz at jlutz@u.washington.edu and ask him for a copy.
The authors of the report are James A. Lutz, Jan W. van Wagtendonk, Andrea E. Thode, Jay D. Miller, and Jerry F. Franklin. They are employed by the National Park Service, the U. S. Forest Service, the University of Washington, and Northern Arizona University.
They chose to publish the results of their taxpayer-funded research in a publication that is not accessible to taxpayers unless they pay substantial subscription or membership fees to the International Journal of Wildland Fire or the International Association of Wildland fire. IAWF members after paying their membership fee can access the content of the Journal.
We have written about this issue before. If you want a copy of this taxpayer-funded research, you can pay the fees, or you can email James A. Lutz at jlutz@u.washington.edu and ask him for a copy.

Researchers: "Ethnicity does matter when it comes to prescribed fire"

Researchers from the USDA’s Southern Research Station (SRS) concluded in a study that a person’s ethnicity and culture may affect their perceptions of prescribed fire. Here is an excerpt from a summary of their report:

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SRS researchers Mike Bowker, Cassandra Johnson, and Ken Cordell, along with university collaborators Siew Lim, Gary Green, and Sandra Rideout-Hanzak (former SRS scientist) used data from a recent version of the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment to look at how culture affects perceptions and attitudes about fire and fire management in the South. When they analyzed the results, they found definite variations among respondents from the three most prominent ethnic groups in the South—African- Americans, Hispanics, and whites— about prescribed fire and its effects.

“The purpose of the southwide survey was to provide policymakers with a broad picture of public opinion on prescribed fire among major ethnic groups in the Southern United States,” says Bowker, SRS research social scientist based in Athens, GA. “The goal is to enhance agency communications with the public and to gain acceptance of prescribed fire as a fuel control program.”

Though overall most survey respondents agreed that public land managers and forest professionals can be trusted to choose the best methods for dealing with fire, African- American and Hispanic agreement was lower. African-Americans and Hispanics were also less likely to support prescribed fire as a management tool, and were more concerned about fire effects—harm to wildlife, reduced scenic quality, and smoke—than whites. Females across all groups also tended to be more concerned about the effects of prescribed fire than males. In addition, although level of education had no effect on preference for prescribed fire in general, concern over side effects diminished as education increased.

“Though we found that concern over the side effects of prescribed fire diminished as education level increased, it doesn’t mean that more education leads to environmental knowledge,” cautions Bowker. “The whole correlation between education and environmental knowledge needs to be more carefully examined.”

One reason for differences among groups may have to do with ethnic environmental beliefs and backgrounds, an area that social environmental science has only started to explore. Another factor uncovered in the survey was local private forest land coverage. According to the survey data, as the presence of private forest land increases in the area a respondent lives in, so does distrust in the use of fire as a management tool. This result may indicate a lack of confidence in the expertise of private land owners or managers, distrust of state liability laws, or a lack of communication between residents and private land managers.

“Our statistical evidence suggests that ethnicity does matter when it comes to prescribed fire,” says Bowker. “To gain wide public support and trust, land managers and owners should be aware of these differences, and fuel control programs should be tailored with the concerns and preferences of the local community in mind.”

 

via @fireinfogirl

Bushfire news from Australia, August 17

There are two items of interest from our down under brothers and sisters.

Black Saturday report

A 360-page interim report from the Black Saturday bushfires royal commission was released on August 17. Here is an excerpt from The Australian:

THE Black Saturday bushfires royal commission has been scathingly critical of Victoria’s fire services and of Country Fire Authority chief Russell Rees, finding he failed to take on an operational role “even when the disastrous consequences of the fires began to emerge”.

In its 360-page interim report released yesterday, the royal commission found that public warnings issued by the CFA on February 7 were inadequate, its contentious “stay or go” policy understated the risk of dying while trying to defend homes and the control centre for the most serious Black Saturday wildfire was inadequately staffed.

The CFA and the Department of Sustainability and Environment’s fire agency, which were supposed to have a fully integrated command structure on Black Saturday, were in reality doing little more than sharing the same location on the day that 173 people died and more than 2000 homes were destroyed.

The royal commission has made 51 recommendations, including an immediate overhaul of the “stay or go” policy, better public warnings and the introduction of voluntary evacuations or “relocations”, and set a deadline for the Brumby government of September 30 to provide a schedule for implementing the changes.

Addressing concerns raised during commission hearings that its recommendations might not be fully followed, it has also demanded an update from the government by March 31 next year on how the implementation of the changes is progressing.

Premier John Brumby said yesterday all 51 recommendations would be accepted, although some only in principle until the details of what the changes involved were examined more closely.

$15 million for research related to the Black Saturday fires

The Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre will receive $15 million over three years tackle specific research tasks arising from the experience of the Victorian bushfires.

From a news release from Sanator the Hon Kim Carr:

“Following the devastating Victorian bushfires, there is an urgent need to address the outcomes of the Royal Commission. The Bushfire CRC is well placed to bring together university and public sector researchers with industry to collaborate on research and development projects associated with bushfires,” Senator Carr said.

Thanks Chuck and Dick

Public access to taxpayer-funded wildfire research

On July 2 we reported on new research about how climate change and precipitation affect fire occurrence, but that you would have to pay at least $20 to have limited access to it. The only way to read the entire report, produced by government employees from the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Washington and paid for by taxpayers, is to buy it from ESA Journals at a minimum cost of “$20 for 30 days” unless you have the contact information of the authors and can convince them to send you a copy of their paper.

The products of research funded by taxpayers should be available on the Internet to all citizens at no additional charge. Period.

However, it is common for government research to be published in scientific journals. If you want access to it you would have to find a library that subscribes to that particular journal, then go there and read it, or pay the publisher a substantial subscription fee or a single use fee.

Government-funded research should be in the public domain, not encumbered by copyright. If it is not, then why do we fund the research in the first place? Is it just a jobs program for PhD’s? If scientific journals want the exclusive rights to research papers, they should pay for the research, not taxpayers.

The government is subsidising scientific journals by giving them exclusive access and copyrights to government documents. To add insult to injury, the government usually pays the journals hundreds or thousands of dollars in “page charges” to publish each scientific paper.

We wrote on July 2:

Before the Internet existed, publishing papers in a paper journal was the only way to distribute new-found knowledge. But paper, or subscription-only journals have outlived their usefulness. Today a scientific paper can be distributed within seconds over the Internet at virtually no cost to the researchers. We no longer need fee-based journals, however many of them do have a peer-review process which can weed out the lower quality papers.

Reactions

When we expressed this opinion on July 2, it created a bit of a kerfuffle. We heard from some of the authors of the paper in question. One of them wrote to us:

All the articles that the Forest Service *publishes* — General Technical Reports, Research Papers, Research Notes, Proceedings — are available through TreeSearch http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us or through individual research station websites. This includes some journal articles, but usually just the older ones or those not considered to be covered by copyright. We will continue to wrestle with distribution of most journal articles.

However, your comment prompted a more thorough investigation with the Ecological Society of America, and we just learned they will allow us to post the fire-climate article on our website where people can then access it. So some progress has been made!

One of the other authors wrote:

Next time, just email the author(s) and ask for a copy, which you can read, or ask for link, which I think you can post. You can’t post the .pdf due to ESA copyright, but you can link to the legal post authors make and read the paper yourself.

Another researcher not associated with the paper in question and formerly with the U.S. Government but now working for a university, had this to say in responding to a thread of email messages on the subject:

Interesting. I actually downloaded that article this morning after clicking on the FERA site link. So I thought — what is (he) talking about? But I decided to take another look and then realized that the reason I was able to download the .pdf file was that I was recognized as being from (my university) because of my IP address — and we have full access to ESA journals. So you do raise a good point of which I was not aware — to wit, since at least US Government scientist time was involved in the research and publication and the project appears to have been funded by US Government agencies —- why is a publication deriving from those US Government funded efforts not available at no cost to the public?

Why indeed?

International Journal of Wildland Fire

The International Journal of Wildland Fire, published by CSIRO on behalf of the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF), until recently had policies similar to that of ESA Journals, charging substantial fees for subscriptions or access to an individual paper. But the IAWF just renegotiated their contract with CSIRO giving free access to the Journal articles to all members of the IAWF. This is still not free to all taxpayers, but it is a small step in the right direction. An individual membership in the IAWF costs $60.

How can we fix this?

It turns out that there is an organization called Alliance for Taxpayer Access. At the top of their web site it says:

American taxpayers are entitled to the research they’ve paid for. The Alliance for Taxpayer Access works to ensure that the published results of research funded with public dollars are made available to the American public, for free, online, as soon as possible.

We discovered on their web site a link to an article written on July 21 that has information about the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) (S. 1373), a bill that was reintroduced in the Senate on July 18 by Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and John Cornyn (R-TX).

The article says in part:

The original bill was introduced in 2006 and would “require every federal department and agency with an annual extramural research budget of $100 million or more to make their research available to the public within six months of publication,” according to Andrew Albanese of Publishers Weekly.

The bill has its opponents and that includes a strong and very annoyed group of publishing lobbyists. They are not prepared to get off the government research gravy train just yet.

It is too bad that the bill is limited to agencies with a research budget of at least $100 million.  It should apply to all federal government agencies.

At Wildfire Today we don’t get involved in politics unless an issue affects wildland fire. This issue does, since there have been many thousands of papers written about fire at taxpayer expense, which should be available on the Internet, free to U.S. citizens.

Write your Senators, and ask them to support the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) (Senate bill #1373). And ask your representatives to support the House version when it is introduced.

New study: climate influences AND drying of fuels are most significant

New information is available about how climate change and precipitation affect fire occurrence. But you will have to pay at least $20 to have limited access to it.

Apparently the only way to read the entire report, produced by government employees from the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Washington and paid for by taxpayers, is to buy it from esajournals at a minimum cost of “$20 for 30 days”. This is just wrong. This data should be in the public domain and the property of the citizens that paid for the research, not a private company.

If esajournals wants the exclusive rights to this information, THEY should pay for the research, not the taxpayers. But the dirty little secret is that most likely the government agencies that funded the research also paid esajournals hundreds or thousands of dollars in “page charges” for the privilege of allowing the research to be printed in the private publication…where the public can’t benefit from it.

Why do taxpayers pay these scientists if their work products are not available to taxpayers? The U.S. Forest Service, the University of Washington, and the authors, Jeremy S. Littell, Donald McKenzie, David L. Peterson, and Anthony L. Westerling, need to find a way to make this taxpayer-owned information available to the taxpayers.

To be fair, there are other professional journals that have the same policy, including the International Journal of Wildland Fire. Taxpayer-funded researchers pay the journals to print their papers. Before the Internet existed, publishing papers in a paper journal was the only way to distribute new-found knowledge. But paper, or subscription-only journals have outlived their usefulness. Today a scientific paper can be distributed within seconds over the Internet at virtually no cost to the researchers. We no longer need fee-based journals, however many of them do have a peer-review process which can weed out the lower quality papers.

Here is a summary of the new research paper from ScienceDaily:

The recent increase in area burned by wildfires in the Western United States is a product not of higher temperatures or longer fire seasons alone, but a complex relationship between climate and fuels that varies among different ecosystems, according to a study conducted by U.S. Forest Service and university scientists. The study is the most detailed examination of wildfire in the United States to date and appears in the current issue of the journal Ecological Applications.

“We found that what matters most in accounting for large wildfires in the Western United States is how climate influences the build up—or production—and drying of fuels,” said Jeremy Littell, a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group and lead investigator of the study. “Climate affects fuels in different ecosystems differently, meaning that future wildfire size and, likely, severity depends on interactions between climate and fuel availability and production.”

To explore climate-fire relationships, the scientists used fire data from 1916 to 2003 for 19 ecosystem types in 11 Western States to construct models of total wildfire area burned. They then compared these fire models with monthly state divisional climate data.

The study confirmed what scientists have long observed: that low precipitation and high temperatures dry out fuels and result in significant fire years, a pattern that dominates the northern and mountainous portions of the West. But it also provided new insight on the relationship between climate and fire, such as Western shrublands’ and grasslands’ requirement for high precipitation one year followed by dry conditions the next to produce fuels sufficient to result in large wildfires.

The study revealed that climate influences the likelihood of large fires by controlling the drying of existing fuels in forests and the production of fuels in more arid ecosystems. The influence of climate leading up to a fire season depends on whether the ecosystem is more forested or more like a woodland or shrubland.

“These data tell us that the effectiveness of fuel reductions in reducing area burned may vary in different parts of the country,” said David L. Peterson, a research biologist with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station and one of the study’s authors. “With this information, managers can design treatments appropriate for specific climate-fire relationships and prioritize efforts where they can realize the most benefit.”

Findings from the study suggest that, as the climate continues to warm, more area can be expected to burn, at least in northern portions of the West, corroborating what researchers have projected in previous studies. In addition, cooler, wetter areas that are relatively fire-free today, such as the west side of the Cascade Range, may be more prone to fire by mid-century if climate projections hold and weather becomes more extreme.

Thanks Dick