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

Researchers testing fire on beetle-killed trees

burning beetle killed tree
Zach Becker and Eric Jones of the Alpine Hot Shots test a burning technique on a Lodgepole pine. The Coloradoan

The Alpine Hot Shots are assisting researchers who are testing the effects of burning trees in a 50-acre test site that were killed by bark beetles in Rocky Mountain National Park west of Denver.

Standing in the snow and using a propane-fueled torch, the Hot Shots ignite the dead or dying, red-needled lodgepole pine trees one or two at a time hoping that the fire will kill the beetles that spend the winter embedded in the bark of the trees.

The researchers from Colorado State University and the National Park Service also want to determine if the heat will cause the serotinous cones, which only open with the heat of a fire, will drop their seeds onto the snow and reforest the affected areas.

In tests on Wednesday, the Hot Shots and researchers found that if a tree has lost 50 percent of its needles or if it is infested but still has some green needles, it is difficult to burn in the winter.

Burning the standing trees while there is snow on the ground may also be a method for reducing the flammable fuels around developed areas, creating a fuel break.

If this experiment works, the technique might also be used to pretreat planned prescribed fire areas, creating a black line around the perimeter and making it easier and safer to burn the unit.

Vegetation could override climate change effects on wildfires

Ben Clegg and study co-authors Linda Brubaker and Feng Sheng Hu collect sediment cores from a lake in the Brooks Range, AK. (Credit: Philip Higuera)

It seems to be the conventional wisdom that climate change, in this case warmer temperatures, will lead to (or has led to) more fires and more acres burned.  And that may be the case in the short term, but a new study shows that over the last 15,000 years warmer temperatures resulted in changes to vegetation types with more resistance to wildfires–at least in Alaska.

The research was led by Philip Higuera of Montana State University who examined historical fire frequency in northern Alaska by analyzing sediments at the bottom of lakes.  The cores they took showed changes in plant parts, pollen, and accumulations of charcoal deposits.  From this they could determine vegetation type and fire frequency which they then compared to known historical climate changes.

They found that climate change involving warmer temperatures caused the vegetation to change from flammable shrubs to more fire-resistant deciduous trees.

Higuera concludes:

Climate affects vegetation, vegetation affects fire, and both fire and vegetation respond to climate change. Most importantly, our work emphasizes the need to consider the multiple drivers of fire regimes when anticipating their response to climate change.

From Ecological Society of America (2009, April 21). Plants Could Override Climate Change Effects On Wildfires. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 21, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2009/04/090421111701.htm

Fingers of fire

Researchers have identified a wildland fire behavior phenomenon that is a little scary–fingers of fire that shoot out from the main flaming front at 100 miles per hour, or 147 feet per second.  These fingers can be tens of feet wide and can extend for hundreds of feet, but then they collapse, all within two seconds.

Shaded contours show the temperature detected by the infrared imager. The vectors show the calculated flow velocities. Every eighth point in the x direction and every fourth point in the z direction are plotted.Janice Coen, Shankar Mahalingam, and John Daily observed this behavior on infrared imagery of going fires and described it in their paper, Infrared Imagery of Crown-Fire Dynamics during FROSTFIRE, Journal of Applied Meteorology, 43, 1241-1259.

According to the report:

This powerful, dynamic mechanism of fire spread could explain firefighter reports of being overtaken by ‘‘fireballs.’’

Climate change and larger fires

The Sacramento Bee has an interesting article about how climate change is affecting wildland fires. Here is an excerpt.

Wildfire has marched across the West for centuries. But no longer are major conflagrations fueled simply by heavy brush and timber. Now climate change is stoking the flames higher and hotter, too.

That view, common among firefighters, is reflected in new studies that tie changing patterns of heat and moisture in the western United States to an unprecedented rash of costly and destructive wildfires.

Among other things, researchers have found the frequency of wildfire increased fourfold – and the terrain burned expanded sixfold – as summers grew longer and hotter over the past two decades.

The fire season now stretches out 78 days longer than it did during the 1970s and ’80s. And, on average, large fires burn for more than a month, compared with just a week a generation ago.

Scientists also have discovered that in many places, nothing signals a bad fire year like a short winter and an early snowmelt. Overall, 72 percent of the land scorched across the West from 1987 to 2003 burned in early snowmelt years.

Across the Sierra, satellite imagery shows that today’s wildfires are far more destructive than fires of the past, leaving larger portions of the burned landscape looking like nuclear blast zones. That searing intensity, in turn, is threatening water quality, wildlife habitat, rural and resort communities and firefighter lives.

As the climate warms, the ability of the region’s mixed conifer forest ecosystem to recover from these destructive fires is in danger.

“We’re getting into a place where we are almost having a perfect storm” for wildfire, said Jay Miller, a U.S. Forest Service researcher and lead author of a recent paper published in the scientific journal Ecosystems linking climate change to the more severe fires in the Sierra.

“We have increased fuels, but this changing climate is adding an additional stress on the whole situation,” Miller said. “When things get bad, things will get much worse.”

Longer, more intense fire seasons

That future may already have arrived. This year, the fire season got off to an early June start in the north state and only recently came to a close. Statewide, 1.4 million acres burned in 2008, just shy of last year’s 1.5 million acres, the highest total in at least four decades.

“When I started fighting fire, the normal fire season was from the beginning of June to the end of September,” said Pete Duncan, a fuels management officer for the Plumas National Forest. “Now we are bringing crews on in the middle of April and they are working into November and December.”

“And we’re seeing fires now burning in areas that normally we wouldn’t consider a high-intensity burn situation.”

Just a few weeks ago, Duncan heard about one such incident: the Panther fire on the Klamath National Forest near the Oregon border.

“It made an eight-mile run one afternoon, in late October. It burned through an area of fairly high elevation old-growth timber and at very high severity,” Duncan said.

“I was kind of amazed,” he added, “that something would have burned to that scale. To make a 40,000-acre run in an afternoon is significant for any time of year – but particularly for that time of year.”