Research indicates that wildfire smoke may distribute microbial life

That may be what causes allergic reactions in some people who are sensitive to smoke

smoke wildfires Utah and Colorado
Satellite photo at 5:37 p.m. MDT Sept. 13, 2018 showing smoke from wildfires in Utah and Colorado.

We have known for a long time that smoke from wildfires can be harmful to humans, but in recent years that knowledge base has increased significantly. And it may have reached a new level with research conducted by fire ecologist Leda Kobziar. After learning that some snow machines use bacteria as condensation nuclei, she started to wonder if bacteria was a component of smoke. Using petri dishes and drones she collected air and smoke samples at a prescribed fire.

Below is an excerpt from an article at KQED.org:

…Then they compared what was collected to the contents of ambient (non-smoky) air. They sampled for abundance and diversity by culturing colonies and analyzing DNA.

Turns out a surprising amount and diversity of bacterial cells and fungal spores gets lofted into wildfire smoke during a fire. The more severe the burn, the more cells it transports. This is a newly emerging area of research, but Kobziar thinks these microbes have the potential to affect human health.

“There are numerous allergens that we’ve found in the smoke. And so it may be that some people who are sensitive to smoke have that sensitivity, not only because of the particulate matter and the smoke, but also because there are some biological organisms in it.” … Possibly, she says, wildfire smoke has been a driving factor in the global distribution of microbial life.

“We think that the role that wildland fire is playing in transporting organisms through smoke has probably had some influence on the evolution of species as well and development of communities,” Kobziar said.

Let’s be careful out there.

TBT – Waldo Canyon Fire

Waldo Canyon Fire
Waldo Canyon Fire, Colorado Springs, CO, July 1, 2012; burn operation in Division Oscar-Papa (below Blodgett Peak) with Vandenberg Hotshots. USFS photo by Kari Greer.

Throwback Thursday –
On June 23, 2012 the Waldo Canyon Fire started in the Pike National Forest southwest of Colorado Springs, Colorado. On June 26 it spread into the Mountain Shadows area of the city. Before the fire was out, it had killed two people and burned 18,000 acres and 347 homes.

Waldo Canyon Fire
Waldo Canyon Fire, Colorado Springs, CO, July, 2012; Mountain Shadows aftermath. USFS photo by Kari Greer.
Waldo Canyon Fire President Obama
The President at the Waldo Fire Incident Command Post, June 29, 2012. USFS photo by Kari Greer.

How the media covers fires

What can they do to improve?

Alissa Cordner

The video below about how the media covers fires features professors from Whitman College and Oregon State University.

They talk about the myth of how after a disaster there are often reports of widespread social upheaval and discontent, which may not be accurate. And the media, they said, tends to concentrate on the singular focus of damage and short term effects.

When a wildfire occurs, obviously what  you will see or read on the news will be the immediate effects, especially on populations near the fire. You will hear about homes burned, structures threatened, roads closed, people that have been injured or killed, and evacuations. And all that is appropriate as the incident develops.

The media also has a responsibility during the event to help spread information that can save lives. Too often we hear how government systems that are supposed to warn residents about an approaching fire have not been effective, were used improperly or not at all.

There may be examples of media outlets that exaggerate or hype the emergency to get ratings, but when covering fires most respected media organizations do their best to provide accurate information as quickly as possible. (Unlike the political reporting we see.) But we should keep in mind that breaking news may not be accurate news.

There are other aspects of fires that could be covered more throughly such as fire ecology, fire dependent ecosystems, “normal” fire return intervals, fuel management, prescribed fire, and the physical and mental health risk firefighters experience. Plus, of course, the five things that are the responsibility of homeowners and state and local governments to make structures and communities more resilient — so they can live with fire.

The media sometimes reports on the costs of suppressing a fire, but that is only about nine percent of the real long term cost, according to a study by Headwaters Economics. Those additional expenses may be missed by the casual observer or consumer of news.

Additional costs can include:

  • Short and long term landscape rehabilitation
  • Lost business and tax revenues
  • Home and property loss
  • Depreciated property values
  • Property, energy, and infrastructure repairs
  • Degraded ecosystem services
  • Aid relief and evacuation

Meet Burner Bob

Burner Bob promotes prescribed fire in longleaf forests

Burner Bob
Burner Bob. Longleaf Alliance photo.

Longleaf pine needs fire to survive, so the Longleaf Alliance is using “Burner Bob” to educate the public about “good fire”. Here is how they describe the program.

“Burner Bob is a bobwhite quail who lives in the longleaf forest with other animal friends such as gopher tortoises and red-cockaded woodpeckers.  He devotes his life to explaining to people that the longleaf forest with its many plants and animals has evolved over time to being burned on a regular basis.  The forests needs fire to survive.  He goes about the land telling the story, and showing people how to control burn safely.”

Video: how the fire tornado formed at the Carr Fire

formation fire tornado Carr Fire
Early stage in the formation of the fire tornado at the Carr Fire, July 26, 2018. Screenshot from Scientific American video below.

Scientific American has produced a video that describes the formation of the fire tornado that burned and scoured a mile-long path as the Carr Fire burned into Redding, California July 26, 2018.

In the video below, click on the little square at bottom-right to see it in full screen.

There were two fatalities on the Carr Fire that day. Redding Fire Department Inspector Jeremy Stoke was burned over in his truck on Buenaventura Boulevard. On the other side of the Sacramento River, on the west side, Don Ray Smith was entrapped and killed in his dozer.

According to a Green Sheet report by CAL FIRE, the conditions that resulted in the entrapment of three dozers and the Redding Fire Department Fire Inspector that day were due to the fire tornado — a large rotating fire plume that was roughly 1,000 feet in diameter. The winds at the base were 136-165 mph (EF-3 tornado strength), as indicated by wind damage to large oak trees, scouring of the ground surface, damage to roofs of houses, and lofting of large steel power line support towers, vehicles, and a steel marine shipping container. Multiple fire vehicles had their windows blown out and their bodies damaged by flying debris.

The strong winds caused the fire to burn all live vegetation less than 1 inch in diameter. Peak temperatures likely exceeded 2,700 °F.

The Carr Fire burned 229,651 acres, destroyed 1,077 homes, and killed 3 firefighters and 5 civilians

The news media sometimes calls any little fire whirl a “fire tornado”, or even a “firenado”. These and related terms (except for “firenado”) were, if not founded, at least documented and defined in 1978 by a researcher for the National Weather Service in Missoula, David W. Goens. He grouped fire whirls into four classes:

  1. Fire Devils. They are a natural part of fire turbulence with little influence on fire behavior or spread. They are usually on the order of 3 to 33 feet in diameter and have rotational velocities less than 22 MPH.
  2. Fire Whirls. A meld of the fire, topograph, and meteorological factors. These play a significant role in fire spread and hazard to control personnel. The average size of this class is usually 33 to 100 feet, with rotational velocities of 22 to 67 MPH.
  3. Fire Tornadoes. These systems begin to dominate the large scale fire dynamics. They lead to extreme hazard and control problems. In size, they average 100 to 1,000 feet in diameter and have rotational velocities up to 90 MPH.
  4. Fire Storm. Fire behavior is extremely violent. Diameters have been observed to be from 1,000 to 10,000 feet and winds estimated in excess of 110 MPH. This is a rare phenomenon and hopefully one that is so unlikely in the forest environment that it can be disregarded.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

“It smells like it’s time to go to work”

Said one of the American firefighters as they landed in smoky Sydney, Australia

Firefighting personnel from U.S. arrive in Australia
Firefighting personnel from the U.S. arrive in Australia, December 7, 2019. NSW RFS photo.

The 42 firefighting personnel from Canada and the United States have arrived in Australia. Each country sent 21 fire supervision and aviation specialists who will assist with suppressing the fires that have been burning in nearly unprecedented numbers over the last several weeks. There is no long term relief in sight since the Australian summer is just starting.

The Sydney Morning Herald has an interesting article about the Americans being incorporated into the New South Wales fire culture. Check out their very interesting article and the photos. Here is an excerpt:

As the first ever deployment of American firefighters made the descent into Sydney from the United States on Saturday morning, the bushfire smoke cloaking the city for the past week filled the aircraft cabin. For firefighting aviation specialist Michelle Moore, from Idaho, the smell wasn’t alarming.

“I understand it’s pretty traumatic for you guys, but it’s something we deal with – it’s our comfort zone,” she said. “It smells like it’s time to go to work.”

The group is spending Sunday in briefings before heading out on Monday to locations including the “mega fire” around Gospers Mountain that stretches from the Hawkesbury into the Hunter and Central Coast regions, and the Currowan fire north of Batemans Bay on the South Coast.

Inside the briefing notes on Sunday was the important lesson of getting familiar with Australia’s spiders and snakes. Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Paul Baxter said the Australian accent will probably also take some getting used to.

Firefighters from Canada arrive Australia
Firefighters from Canada arrive in Australia. Photo by NSW RFS December 5, 2019.