Researchers: smoke promotes the germination of some seeds

We used to say “Wood smoke is good smoke”, when downplaying the negative aspects of putting smoke into the air during a prescribed fire. But apparently to some species that is literally the truth. Researchers have found that plant-derived smoke is a potent seed germination promoter for many species.

From an article in Science Daily:

Forest fire smoke. Photo by Bill Gabbert
Photo: Bill Gabbert

The innermost secrets of fire’s role in the rebirth and renewal of forests and grasslands are being revealed in research that has identified plant growth promoters and inhibitors in smoke. In the latest discovery about smoke’s secret life, an international team of scientists are reporting discovery of a plant growth inhibitor in smoke.

The study appears in ACS’s Journal of Natural Products.
“Smoke plays an intriguing role in promoting the germination of seeds of many species following a fire,” Johannes Van Staden and colleagues point out in the report. They previously discovered a chemical compound in smoke from burning plants that promotes seed germination. Such seeds, which remain in the undercover on forest and meadow floors after fires have been extinguished, are responsible for the surprisingly rapid regrowth of fire-devastated landscapes.

In their new research, the scientists report discovery of an inhibitor compound that may block the action of the stimulator, preventing germination of seeds. They suspect that the compounds may be part of a carefully crafted natural regulatory system for repopulating fire-ravaged landscapes. Interaction of these and other compounds may ensure that seeds remain dormant until environmental conditions are best for germination. The inhibitor thus may delay germination of seeds until moisture and temperature are right, and then take a back seat to the germination promoter in smoke.

The research was conducted at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the University of Stellenbosch, the University of Copenhagen,  and the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

Thanks Stephen

Forest Service fined $12,000 for smoke from prescribed fire

From the Yakima Herald:

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YAKIMA, Wash. — Months after a controlled burn that sent thick smoke into the Yakima Valley, a local environmental agency has fined the U.S. Forest Service a maximum penalty of $12,000 for violating the Washington Clean Air Act.

Officials at the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency said the Naches Ranger District failed to provide details about how it will assure that future burns don’t compromise air quality. In late October, the Forest Service was told that its Sept. 28 burn in the Bethel Ridge area had posed health risks to Yakima County residents.

This is the first time the regional environmental agency has imposed a fine on the Forest Service, or issued the maximum financial penalty for a single violation of the state’s clean air law.

“We want people to understand we’re trying to do something,” said Dave Caprile, spokesman for the clean air agency, which monitors air quality in Yakima County. “We are going to treat the Forest Service as we would any other individual.”

Forest officials say they don’t believe Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency even has the authority to regulate smoke from burns on Forest Service land.

Naches District officials have said the Bethel Ridge burn met state smoke management requirements and that they received day-of approval from the state Department of Natural Resources.

The 2,000-acre burn was intended to reduce the danger of a catastrophic wildfire by reducing downed tree limbs, bushes and other debris that have built up after decades of fire suppression.

Forest authorities have said an unexpected wind shift late in the afternoon — after the controlled burn had begun — sent smoke toward Yakima for more than five hours.

At least 17 residents from Tieton, Selah and Yakima complained to the Clean Air Agency about eye irritation, scratchy throats and aggravated asthma after the Sept. 28 burn.

“The smoke intrusion … was a very unfortunate event that none of the experts we consulted at DNR or National Weather Service predicted,” District Ranger Randall Shepard wrote to the Clean Air Agency last month in a letter obtained through a public records request.

“We acted in good faith within the authorization granted us and thus can only conclude that our actions that day were appropriate and responsible.”

While he has said that the Forest Service will now notify the clean air agency before future burns, he doesn’t recognize it as a regulatory authority.

“The short answer is we feel like we’ve gone through the proper authorities and that’s the Department of Natural Resources,” Shepard told the Herald-Republic on Tuesday. “We’re consulting with our legal counsel to see where we go next.”

The Forest Service has until early January to pay the fine or appeal.

Do you want your smoke now or later?

An organization called Citizens Against Polluted Air (CAPA) has created a web site called PrescribedBurns.com.

The stated purpose of the site is to convince the public that prescribed fires are “deadly” and “the smoke could be killing your children and grandparents”. It says the “smoke emitted from prescribed burns and manged wildfire is unfiltered wood smoke“.

CAPA also has another web site called Bad-Air Arizona, which is  based at a free hosting company. It has some of the same text as the other site, such as stating that “prescribed burn and managed burn smoke is unfiltered wood smoke“. They always underline the “unfiltered wood smoke” as if to emphasize that land mangers are negligent by not installing smoke filters on their wildfires and prescribed fires.

Both web sites claim that wood smoke “kills at least 40,000 adults and children every year”. The site does not provide any documentation for this statistic.

The PrescribedBurns.com internet domain was first registered by the Prescott, Arizona-based group on July 8, 2009. DomainTools.com claims CAPA owns about 100 other internet domains, and that PrescribedBurns.com is for sale. Phone calls and emails to the owner of the web site were not immediately returned.

The web site states that “we” are in the early stages of obtaining legal counsel and preparing litigation against officials of the U. S. Forest Service and the Department of Environmental Quality.

The web site has a solution to prescribed fires:

There is a better way. Unlike fires that kill trees, animals, and people, mechanical methods such as tree thinning and mulching machines remove only unwanted trees and brush grinding them into healthy mulch leaving the forest clean and healthy instead of burned and charred. Mechanical methods are cleaner, safer and properly maintain forest health while protecting the environment from air pollution, but officials argue that prescribed burns are easier, cheaper and increase their budget faster than other methods.

There is no question that wildfires and prescribed fires produce a lot of smoke, and the smoke contains a lot of particulates and chemicals that can be harmful to humans. Wildfire Today has documented that previously (also, HERE). And, some people with respiratory problems can be extremely sensitive to smoke.

But I don’t think it will ever be economically or environmentally feasible to treat all of our forests, grasslands, and brushlands with mechanical methods while banning prescribed fires.

The vegetation will burn eventually, either by management ignited prescribed fires, or by unplanned ignitions. Both produce smoke, but at least with a prescribed fire, the managers have some control over the vegetation conditions, weather, timing, wind direction, and the mixing height.

Postponing the inevitable is not the answer.

Thanks Dick

Underground coal fire in Colorado

An underground coal fire recently discovered near the western Colorado town of Silt is venting smoke and fumes through two holes in the ground. No damage has been reported and the temperature near the surface is not high enough to start a vegetation fire yet, but state reclamation workers began filling the holes with dirt this week.

In 2002 an underground coal seam fire started a fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado which destroyed some structures about 15 miles east of Silt.

Smoke map, Sept 25

The live web cam showing the Arnica fire in Yellowstone National Park showed a lot of drift smoke north of the fire at 1:20 p.m. MT. But the predicted north-ish wind is supposed to be blowing the smoke away from Mt. Washburn, the location of the camera, so I checked the smoke map.

NOAA

It shows an unusual smoke dispersal pattern today.