Dolly Parton’s foundation gives $200,000 to fire departments affected by 2016 Gatlinburg wildfires

Dolly Parton donation fire departments
L to R: Pete Kilman, Marvin Rolen, Tim Baker, John Satterfield, Heidi Satterfield, Dolly Parton, Joe Fields, Stephen Walley, Chris Young, Tony Patty, John Linsenbigler. Photo: Curtis Hilbun.

About 48 hours after the Chimney Tops 2 Fire spread from Great Smoky Mountains National Park into Gatlinburg, Tennessee November 28, 2016 burning 2,400 structures and 17,000 acres, country music artist Dolly Parton established the My People Fund.

In the weeks and months that followed, the fund provided $1,000 each month for six months to Sevier County families whose homes were uninhabitable or were completely destroyed in that fire and a few others that burned at the same. Any family that lost their primary residence (renters and homeowners) due to the wildfires in the county were eligible. Thanks to a tremendous outpouring of donations, the final distribution checks were $5,000 per family.

As if that were not enough, Ms. Parton continued with the generosity on March 16, 2019 when she met with the Fire Chiefs of the fire departments in Sevier County. In recognition of their roles in fighting the fires of 2016, the My People Fund donated the remaining dollars in the account — $20,000 to each volunteer fire department and $40,000 to their area training center.

Embers, firenados, and modeling wildfires

bonfire new years netherlands
The Hague firefighters on an aerial ladder apply water to the roofs of buildings as embers from a bonfire shower the neighborhood during a New Year celebration, January 1, 2019.

Knowable Magazine has an interesting article by Alexandra Witze on a variety of physics principles that affect wildland fires. She covers the research by Michael Gollner of the University of Maryland on how embers start spot fires, how Janice Coen, an atmospheric scientist who studies wildland fires at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado monitored the start of the Camp Fire as she sat in the back of a room at a conference, and the real time radar signature of the firenado (fire tornado) at the Carr Fire.

Below is an excerpt from a section about embers propagating spot fires.

It turns out that a single ember, or a handful of embers, can’t build up that much heat if it lands on a material such as a deck or a roof. But put one or two dozen embers into Gollner’s device and the heat flux goes up dramatically, he and his colleagues report in the March Fire Safety Journal. “You start to have re-radiation between them,” he says. “It glows, under the wind — it’s just beautiful.”

Just a small pile of embers can generate about 40 times the heat you’d feel from the sun on a hot day. That’s as much heating, and sometimes more, as comes from the fire itself. It’s also enough to ignite most materials, such as the wood of a deck.

So if there are a lot of embers flying ahead of a fire, but those embers land relatively far from one another, they may not build up the radiative heat needed to generate a spot fire. But if the embers pile up, perhaps blown by the wind into a crevice of a deck, they can smolder together and then trigger an ignition, Gollner says. Most homes that burn in the wildland-urban interface ignite from these embers, often hours after the fire front itself has passed.

Understanding the heat flux at these small scales can illuminate why some houses burn while others don’t. During the Tubbs fire, homes on one side of some streets were destroyed while those on the other side had hardly any damage. That may be because the first house that ignited radiated energy to its neighbor, which then burned neighboring homes like dominoes because of the radiative heat. When houses are closely packed together, there’s only so much homeowners can do to mitigate the danger by clearing brush and flammable material around the house.

President proposes cuts to fire research and a small increase in fuels treatments

The President’s proposed budget for FY 2020 will likely be heavily modified by Congress

The Trump administration has released their recommendations for the federal budget for Fiscal Year 2020 which begins October 1, 2019. The Constitution gives sole authority for appropriating taxpayer funds to Congress, and it is certain that the 535 elected members of the House and Senate will heavily modify the proposal. However, Mr. Trump has an unusual amount of influence on how the members of his party in Congress vote, so it may not be a complete waste of time to quickly review the Administration’s proposed budget for wildland fire to see along what lines the White House is thinking.

I looked at the President’s FY 2020 recommendations for the U.S. Forest Service and the four major land management agencies in the Department of the Interior — National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs  — with the numbers for the DOI agencies lumped. I compared the proposed numbers with the FY 2018 budget. There was no approved budget for this year, FY 2019. Instead, the agencies had to make do with a series of continuing resolutions that basically maintained the same amounts as in FY 2018.

The charts below are from the information released by the Administration (at the links above).

President's FY 2020 proposed budget U.S. Forest Service
President’s FY 2020 proposed budget for the U.S. Forest Service.

Previous budget recommendations from the Administration broke it down in detail, listing the numbers of firefighters, engines, dozers, hot shot crews, and aircraft that would be funded. This latest document does not have that level of detail.

There is not much change in Preparedness, the category that covers existing firefighting capability and funds all base-8 salary costs for firefighters. It remains the same in the DOI, and the FS would see a 5 percent increase.

For the Suppression category, actually putting out or managing fires, the rules will change in FY 2020. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 kicks in and provides new budget authority to fight wildfires, known as the “fire fix.” Beginning in FY 2020 and through FY 2028, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior will have new budget authority available when standard fire Suppression funding has been exhausted in a busy fire year. This starts with an additional $2.25 billion in FY 2020 and increases by $100 million each year through FY 2027. These additional funds are to be allocated to both the FS and the DOI as needed. This adds some budget stability and should help mitigate  the “fire borrowing” problem, where unrelated programs see their funds moved over to fire Suppression.

Below: proposal for the DOI (millions of dollars):

presidents proposed budget DOI fire
President’s FY 2020 proposed budget for wildland firefighting in the Department of the Interior.

Science and research would take a big hit under the President’s recommendation, with Forest Service Research being cut by 14 percent while the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) would be completely unfunded. Shuttering the JFSP has been talked about for a couple of years, with the administration saying the funds would be moved over to general Research — which is being reduced.

The Hazardous Fuels allocations in the DOI and FS would both see a modest 5 percent increase, which may seem surprisingly small since the President has ranted several times about “cleaning up the forests” in California. The combined rates of inflation in 2017 and 2018 were 4.5 percent.

Funds allocated for building or improving Fire Facilities in the DOI would be reduced from $18 million to zero.

Outside Magazine breaks down the total budget proposal for the National Park Service.

Investigators determine that a power line caused the Thomas Fire

The fire burned 281,893 acres near Santa Barbara, destroyed 1,063 structures, and caused the death of one civilian and one firefighter

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

The Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD) has determined that an arcing power line caused the Thomas Fire that destroyed 1,063 structures and caused the death of a civilian and a firefighter.

Investigators found that strong winds on December 4, 2017 forced Southern California Edison power lines to come in contact with each other, resulting in molten metal falling to the ground which ignited vegetation. The common term for this is “line slap.”

Measured east to west the Thomas Fire spread for over 42 miles, stretching between Fillmore and Santa Barbara in Southern California.

map Thomas Fire
Map of the west side of the Thomas Fire. The red line was the perimeter on December 23, 2017. Click to enlarge.

CAL FIRE Fire Apparatus Engineer Cory Iverson of the San Diego/San Diego County Fire Authority was overrun by fire and killed December 14, 2017 while battling the blaze. A 70-year-old woman died in a car accident while fleeing the fire on December 6, 2017.

At one point nearly 9,000 emergency personnel were working on the fire.

The investigative team was comprised of four agencies: CAL FIRE, Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Wildfire risk in California no longer coupled to winter precipitation

Recent large fires may be harbingers of things to come, researchers say

Eiler Fire, Northern California, August 6, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

By Mari N. Jensen, University of Arizona College of Science

Wet winters no longer predict possible relief from severe wildfires for California, according to a new study from an international team that includes a University of Arizona scientist.

From 1600 to 1903, the position of the North Pacific jet stream over California was linked to the amount of winter precipitation and the severity of the subsequent wildfire season, the team found. Wet winters brought by the jet stream were followed by low wildfire activity, and dry winters were generally followed by higher wildfire activity.

After 1904, the connection between winter moisture brought by the jet stream from December through February and the severity of the wildfire season weakened. The weakened connection between precipitation and wildfires corresponds to the onset of a fire suppression policy on U.S. federal lands, the team reports in the March 4 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The connection disappeared altogether after 1977.

Now, fuel buildup from decades of fire suppression in the 20th century plus rising temperatures from climate change means any year may have large fires, no matter how wet the previous winter, the team writes.

“The moisture availability over California is still strongly linked to the position of the jet stream, but fire no longer is,” said co-author Valerie Trouet, an associate professor of dendrochronology at the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

The finding surprised Trouet.

“I didn’t expect there to be no relationship between jet stream dynamics and fire in the 20th century. I expected it to be maybe weaker than before, but not to completely disappear,” Trouet said.

California’s wet winter of 2016-2017 is a good example, she said. That winter was followed by many large fires in 2017, including the Tubbs fire in October and the Thomas fire in December. Twenty-four people died and 6,699 structures burned in those two fires, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire.

“It’s not either climate change or historical fire management–it’s really a combination of the two that’s creating a perfect storm for catastrophic fires in California,” Trouet said.

To reconstruct California’s fire and moisture patterns and the position of the North Pacific jet stream for the past 400 years, the researchers combined instrumental and historical records of temperature, precipitation and fires with the natural archives of climate and fires stored in tree rings that go back in time for centuries.

Lead author Eugene R. Wahl of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said, “The method we used to determine the average winter jet stream conditions is a real advance. Coupled with independent precipitation and fire records, this is a state-of-the-art coupling of paleoclimate and paleoecology.”

The study is the first to show the close connection between winter precipitation in California and the position of the jet stream back to the year 1571, Trouet said. The study is also the first to examine the relationship of past winter precipitation, the position of the jet stream and past fire activity stretching back to 1600, she said.

The paper by Wahl, Trouet and two co-authors is, “Jet Stream Dynamics, Hydroclimate, and Fire in California from 1600 CE to Present.”

Initially, Wahl and co-author Eduardo Zorita of the Helmholz-Zentrum Geesthacht in Germany were working independently of Trouet and co-author Alan Taylor.

As part of a larger project to extend global reconstructions of temperature, precipitation and atmospheric circulation further into the past, Wahl and Zorita were figuring out how the North Pacific jet stream affected precipitation in California for centuries. Wahl, a paleoclimatologist at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Boulder, Colorado, was a co-leader for the North America part of the larger project.

Trouet and Taylor of Penn State in University Park, Pennsylvania, had already reconstructed California’s fire history back to 1600, and Trouet had reconstructed the behavior of the North Atlantic jet stream back to 1725.

After Wahl heard Trouet give a presentation about her North Atlantic jet stream research, the four scientists joined forces to see whether there were links between the past behavior of the North Pacific jet stream and California’s fire and precipitation history.

“When the jet stream is positioned over California, it’s like a fire hose–it brings storms and moisture straight over California,” Trouet said. “What we see post-1900 is that the position of the jet stream is still an important driver of moisture to California–it brings moisture to California when it’s in the right position–but there’s a disconnect with fire.”

The likelihood that every year may be a high-fire year will be a significant societal challenge, Taylor said.

“Fire not being influenced by moisture anymore? That is surprising. It’s going to be a problem for people, for firefighters, for society,” he said. “The only thing we can control is fuels, so what it suggests is that we take that very seriously.

“The last three years may be a harbinger of things to come,” he said. “Between 1600 and 1903 there was not a single case of a high-precipitation year coupled with a high-fire year as occurred in 2017.”

The research team’s next step is to expand this research to see how the jet stream patterns correspond with fire in other types of forested ecosystems farther north.

The research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwest Climate Science Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, the German Science Foundation Cluster of Excellence Clisap, a George H. Deike, Jr. Research Grant, and the Swiss National Science Foundation.


Note from Bill. Even though the research was funded by universities and government agencies, you would still have to pay $10 to a private organization to read the report. It does not comply with Open Access policies.

Burning sky lantern lands on Oklahoma man’s home

sky lantern
Screengrab from Fox61 video below.

As a man in Moore, Oklahoma pulled into his driveway he saw a burning sky lantern on the roof of his house. He was able to get it off the roof before the house caught fire, but was not pleased someone’s irresponsible act almost destroyed his home.

These dangerous devices use burning material to loft a small paper or plastic hot air balloon into the air. The perpetrator has no control over where it lands. Usually the fire goes out before it hits the ground, but not always. Sometimes the envelope catches fire while in flight. Numerous fires have been started by sky lanterns. Even if they don’t ignite a fire, they leave litter on the ground. Metal parts have been picked up by hay balers causing serious problems when fed to livestock. They are banned in most U.S. states and many countries.