Although Australia is no stranger to wildfires, the 2019-2020 season was one of the worst fire seasons on record. Major bushfires began in spring 2019 (June), and by September were stronger, more intense, and more frequent. The fire situation continued to worsen, and by November, Australia requested international assistance to suppress the thousands of fires on the landscape.
Over a span of four months, the United States responded to Australia’s request for firefighters by providing personnel from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service. In total, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) provided 11 individuals to assist in suppression efforts.
FWS employees filled important roles, including engine captain, situation officer, aircraft officer, task force leader, fire behavior analyst, division supervisor, planning section chief, operations section chief, air support group supervisor, and public information officer.
“Our mission was to support the Australian government in suppressing the bushfires and keeping the Australian people and communities safe,” said Reynaldo Navarro, Assistant Fire Management Officer, South Texas Refuge Complex. “Our tasks included firing operations, engine support, mopping up or blacking out, hand line construction, hazard tree felling, and structure triage and protection.”
“Being in Australia was a great, yet very humbling experience,” said Kyle Bonham, Engine Captain at Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, of his time in Australia.
Although the Australia bushfires brought great destruction and impacts to the country, FWS personnel were welcomed with cheer and open arms.
“What stands out to me are the Australian people,” said Richard Sterry, Fire Management Specialist, Lakewood, Colorado. “I was assigned to a more rural area, and the Australian people were wonderful to work with. They always had smiles on their faces and were constantly going out of their way help us learn their system.”
By mid-February, more than 46 million acres (72,000 square miles) burned since the first fires in June, 2019. Overall, 80 percent of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area in New South Whales, and 53 percent of the Gondwana World Heritage rainforests in Queensland burned.
Fighting bushfires in Australia provided a unique opportunity for FWS firefighters to learn new firefighting skills, as well as hone the skills required to fight fire in the United States. Due to Australia’s location in the southern hemisphere, fire season occurs at a time when much of the U.S. is out of danger of wildfire. Firefighters helping with suppression efforts in Australia were afforded a unique opportunity to polish firefighting skills needed during wildfire season in the U.S.
Kari Cobb is the acting public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the National Interagency Fire Center.
As California and the American West head into fire season amid the coronavirus pandemic, scientists are harnessing artificial intelligence and new satellite data to help predict blazes across the region.
Anticipating where a fire is likely to ignite and how it might spread requires information about how much burnable plant material exists on the landscape and its dryness. Yet this information is surprisingly difficult to gather at the scale and speed necessary to aid wildfire management.
Now, a team of experts in hydrology, remote sensing and environmental engineering have developed a deep-learning model that maps fuel moisture levels in fine detail across 12 western states, from Colorado, Montana, Texas and Wyoming to the Pacific Coast.
The researchers describe their technique in the August 2020 issue of Remote Sensing of Environment. According to the senior author of the paper, Stanford University ecohydrologist Alexandra Konings, the new dataset produced by the model could “massively improve fire studies.”
According to the paper’s lead author, Krishna Rao, a PhD student in Earth system science at Stanford, the model needs more testing to figure into fire management decisions that put lives and homes on the line. But it’s already illuminating previously invisible patterns. Just being able to see forest dryness unfold pixel by pixel over time, he said, can help reveal areas at greatest risk and “chart out candidate locations for prescribed burns.”
The work comes at a time of growing urgency for this kind of insight, as climate change extends and intensifies the wildfire season – and as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic complicates efforts to prevent large fires through controlled burns, prepare for mass evacuations and mobilize first responders.
Getting a read on parched landscapes Fire agencies today typically gauge the amount of dried-out, flammable vegetation in an area based on samples from a small number of trees. Researchers chop and weigh tree branches, dry them out in an oven and then weigh them again. “You look at how much mass was lost in the oven, and that’s all the water that was in there,” said Konings, an assistant professor of Earth system science in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “That’s obviously really laborious, and you can only do that in a couple of different places, for only some of the species in a landscape.”
The U.S. Forest Service painstakingly collects this plant water content data at hundreds of sites nationwide and adds them to the National Fuel Moisture Database, which has amassed some 200,000 such measurements since the 1970s. Known as live fuel moisture content, the metric is well established as a factor that influences wildfire risk. Yet little is known about how it varies over time from one plant to another – or from one ecosystem to another.
For decades, scientists have estimated fuel moisture content indirectly, from informed but unproven guesses about relationships between temperature, precipitation, water in dead plants and the dryness of living ones. According to Rao, “Now, we are in a position where we can go back and test what we’ve been assuming for so long – the link between weather and live fuel moisture – in different ecosystems of the western United States.”
AI with a human assist The new model uses what’s called a recurrent neural network, an artificial intelligence system that can learn to recognize patterns in vast mountains of data. The scientists trained their model using field data from the National Fuel Moisture Database, then put it to work estimating fuel moisture from two types of measurements collected by spaceborne sensors. One involves measurements of visible light bouncing off Earth. The other, known as synthetic aperture radar (SAR), measures the return of microwave radar signals, which can penetrate through leafy branches all the way to the ground surface.
“One of our big breakthroughs was to look at a newer set of satellites that are using much longer wavelengths, which allows the observations to be sensitive to water much deeper into the forest canopy and be directly representative of the fuel moisture content,” said Konings, who is also a center fellow, by courtesy, at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
To train and validate the model, the researchers fed it three years of data for 239 sites across the American west starting in 2015, when SAR data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellites became available. They checked its fuel moisture predictions in six common types of land cover, including broadleaf deciduous forests, needleleaf evergreen forests, shrublands, grasslands and sparse vegetation, and found they were most accurate – meaning the AI predictions most closely matched field measurements in the National Fuel Moisture Database – in shrublands.
Rich with aromatic herbs like rosemary and oregano, and often marked by short trees and steep, rocky slopes, shrublands occupy as much as 45 percent of the American West. They’re not only the region’s biggest ecosystem, Rao said, “they are also extremely susceptible to frequent fires since they grow back rapidly.” In California, fires whipped to enormous size by Santa Ana winds burn in a type of shrubland known as chaparral. “This has led fire agencies to monitor them intensively,” he said.
The model’s estimates feed into an interactive map that fire agencies may eventually be able to use to identify patterns and prioritize control measures. For now, the map offers a dive through history, showing fuel moisture content from 2016 to 2019, but the same method could be used to display current estimates. “Creating these maps was the first step in understanding how this new fuel moisture data might affect fire risk and predictions,” Konings said. “Now we’re trying to really pin down the best ways to use it for improved fire prediction.”
Konings is also Assistant Professor, by courtesy, of Geophysics in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. Co-author A. Park Williams is affiliated with Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. Co-author Jacqueline Fortin Flefil, MS ’18, is now an engineer at Xylem, Inc.
The research was supported by Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud Credits for Research, the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship, the UPS Endowment Fund at Stanford, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and the Zegar Family Foundation.
This is an excerpt from an article at Headwaters Economics written by Kimiko Barrett titled “Federal wildfire policy and the legacy of suppression.” Most of the original piece lays out the history of wildfires and the related government policies. Below is the last part that covers the 2018 wildfire budgeting fix and the responsibilities of individual homeowners and the government. It is used here with permission.
…To end the cycle of deficit spending and wildfire borrowing, a massive appropriations bill was passed in 2018—which was also the worst wildfire season in decades and saw the death of over 80 civilians from the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. Captured as a provision in the omnibus bill, the “wildfire fix” treats wildfires similar to other natural disasters and establishes a reserve fund to use during extreme wildfire seasons. Starting in 2020, a wildfire disaster fund of $2.25 billion was created and will be gradually increased over the following 10 years. When the Forest Service’s suppression costs exceed annual appropriations, based on FY2015 levels, funds can be withdrawn from the reserve budget rather than borrowing from nonfire programs. The spending bill also increases funding for fuels reduction projects, grants environmental review exemptions for projects meeting categorical exclusion, extends land stewardship programs, and initiates the process of wildfire risk mapping.
The 2018 wildfire fix was widely applauded by nongovernmental organizations, industries, and policymakers for stabilizing agency budgets and ending wildfire borrowing. While the new legislation provides the Forest Service with the financial flexibility to accommodate soaring suppression costs, it reaffirms the government’s prioritization of fire control and the protection of people and homes at any price.
From Federal Policy to Local Action
Continued reliability on wildfire suppression shifts responsibility for home protection from the individual homeowner and local jurisdictions to the federal government. Yet local communities bear the economic, environmental, and social costs of wildfire disasters, and some of the most essential mitigation actions need to be taken at the scale of individual communities and homes.
At the neighborhood and community scale, land use planning provides a suite of mitigation measures. Land use planning tools, such as regulations, zoning, and building codes can influence how, where, and under what conditions homes can be built in high wildfire hazard areas. Through the proactive lens of planning and anticipating wildfires, people and communities can learn to live with wildfire on the landscape.
By performing basic home mitigation measures, such as trimming trees, managing vegetation, safely storing flammable materials away from the home, and reducing other vulnerabilities within the home ignition zone (HIZ), a home’s chances of surviving a wildfire greatly increase. Constructing a home using wildfire-resistant building materials can also contribute to a home’s survivability during a wildfire.
Large and extreme wildfires are inevitable and efforts to extinguish them are costly, dangerous, and unrealistic. The federal government’s ongoing commitment to wildfire suppression is rooted in early 20th century policies that haven’t kept pace with current science and knowledge on wildfire behavior. If communities are to become truly fire-adapted, suppression efforts must be complemented with other preventative mitigation measures.
Kimiko Barrett has a deep interest in rural landscapes and the people who live there. Born and raised in Bozeman, Montana, she appreciates the outdoors and the intimate connections people have with the land. After obtaining undergraduate degrees in Political Science and Japanese, Kimi completed a Master’s in Geography from Montana State University and a Ph.D. in Forestry from University of Montana. Her doctorate research focused on climate change impacts in high mountain ecosystems and took her to remote places in the western Himalayas.
While taking active measures to protect the public and employees and minimize exposure to COVID-19, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) continues to reduce hazardous fuels across the West and in Alaska and to plan for the upcoming fire season by maintaining and strengthening firefighting capabilities.
“We are committed to protecting our colleagues in the BLM and those with whom we come in contact during this challenging time; however, as westerners we know we must fight fire all year long and we will do exactly that,” said BLM Deputy Director for Policy and Programs William Perry Pendley. “Guided by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and local health authorities, we continue to implement proactive COVID-19 measures to protect employees and the public, but, when it comes to fire, we have no intention of standing down.”
The BLM Fire and Aviation program works closely with, and relies on, its state and local partners for all wildfire suppression efforts. During the COVID-19 outbreak, some state governments have declared they will not permit state and local resources to respond to wildfires outside of their local jurisdiction, which will greatly limit the national response capabilities of these valuable resources. The BLM is working with these governments to address concerns and to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that shared resources are available to be deployed wherever need may be greatest.
“In order to ensure smooth interstate wildfire suppression operations, all wildland firefighters must be permitted to cross state boundaries without restriction to ensure safe and effective wildfire operations throughout the country,” said Pendley. “We beseech our federal, state, and local partners to ensure that ability.”
Every year, the BLM works with its Federal, state, and local partners to conduct initial attack on all wildland fire incidents to suppress wildfires as soon as they ignite. Aggressive initial attack is the single most important method to ensure the safety of firefighters and the public; it also limits suppression costs. During the COVID-19 outbreak, the wildland fire agencies will continue to work to suppress wildfires with the goal of reducing wildfire size and intensity.
The BLM is also working with its Federal, state and local partners to develop specific COVID-19 wildfire response plans to provide for wildland fire personnel safety. These plans outline best management practices to limit the spread of the virus and to provide a safe working environment for all wildland fire personnel.
In addition to large air tankers and Type 1 and 2 helicopters under contract with the U.S. Forest Service, the BLM will have on contract 34 Single Engine Airtankers (SEAT), 4 water scooping air tankers, 7 smokejumper planes, 19 tactical support aircraft, and 25 helicopters for wildfire suppression efforts this year. The BLM also has access to call when needed helicopters, SEATs, Large and Very Large Airtankers, water scoopers, and tactical support aircraft.
People have long understood that the air they breathe can impact their health, dating back more than 2,000 years to Hippocrates in his treatise on Air, Water, and Places. Today, there is a growing consensus among researchers that air pollution, specifically the very fine particles called PM2.5, influences risk of respiratory illness. These particles are a tiny fraction of the width of a hair and can travel deep into the lungs.
Researchers in Montana later connected that effect to wood smoke. They found that animals exposed to wood smoke 24 hours before being exposed to a pathogen ended up with more pathogen in their lungs. The researchers showed that wood smoke exposure decreased the macrophages’ ability to combat respiratory infection.
Now, new evidence suggests that long-term exposure to PM2.5 air pollution, which is produced by sources such as wildfires, power plants and vehicles, may make coronavirus particularly deadly.
Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a nationwide study of county-level data and found that even a small increase in the amount of PM2.5 from one U.S. county to the next was associated with a large increase in the death rate from COVID-19. While small increases in PM2.5 also raise the risk of death from other causes for older adults, the magnitude of the increase for COVID-19 was about 20 times greater. The results were released last week, before the usual peer review process was conducted, to help warn people of the risks.
Taken together, these findings suggest that air pollution, including wood smoke, could increase the risk that wildland firefighters will develop severe COVID-19 symptoms.
That probably doesn’t surprise seasoned firefighters.
They’re already familiar with “camp crud,” a combined upper and lower respiratory illness accompanied by cough and fatigue that has become common in firefighting camps.
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group, in its guidance on infectious disease, has pointed out that “the close, overlapping living conditions of an incident command post lends itself to rapid spreading of contagious microorganisms, as witnessed by the common outbreaks of ‘camp crud.’ Outbreaks also have a history of spreading from incident to incident as people are reassigned.”
How to protect wildland firefighters
So, what can be done to avoid the spread of COVID-19 among wildland firefighters and prevent them from being vectors in the communities they serve?
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s guidance on infectious disease encourages planning ahead so personal protective equipment is available and maintaining records of symptoms so illnesses can be tracked and stopped from spreading.
The guidance also calls for better camp hygiene, providing access to medical care, making isolation possible and coordinating cross-agency communication about the public health risks.
Firefighter camps are not typically well outfitted to promote good personal hygiene. Improving those conditions could help prevent a virus’s spread, such as by adding hand-washing stations and possibly mobile shower units. Single-person tents would allow for more effective social distancing.
Camp personnel should also have access to thermometers and coronavirus test kits. Protocols for quarantining and removing infected firefighters from the field should not only be implemented but practiced.
Also missing from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s guidance are policies on traveling to and from training sites, working within communities and traveling from camp. Social distancing may not always be possible, so protective gear, such as face masks, should be made available and their use encouraged.
A recent paper from Belgium suggests that even some of the ways firefighters operate in the field should be reconsidered to protect against the virus’s spread. It shows how droplets released when a person exhales can travel farther than six feet during heavy activity. For firefighters, that could mean walking farther apart and in a V-shaped delta formation, rather than a traditional line, to reach the fire.
It is also important to consider that frontline firefighters are often younger and could be asymptomatic but still able to spread the virus, so their contact with with rural community members, such as volunteer firefighters and ranchers, should be considered.
Finally, a system for cross-state communication should be engaged to facilitate sharing of best practices and lessons learned. It also could help track the movement of firefighters across the region.
The safety of rural western communities depends on the wildland firefighters and their ability to respond to emergencies. Protecting their health helps protect public health, too.
BY JEFF RUPERT The nature of wildfire and the risks associated with it have changed dramatically in the last few decades. In most areas the window in which wildfires traditionally occur has grown from five to seven months of the year. Taking regional differences into account—California, Florida, and Montana burn at different times of the year—we no longer have “fire seasons” in the United States. We have “fire years.”
These changes are compounded by how much fires have grown. The average number of acres burned by decade is double what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Over that same time span, the wildland urban interface—those bits of land that blend housing and the natural, burnable world—has grown by 40%, putting more far more people at risk to wildfire.
Land managers around the world face significant challenges. The recent wildfires in Australia illustrate the gravity of the situation and the tremendous risk to communities. People in California continue to recover from wildfires that claimed lives and homes. As U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said earlier this year, “This is an issue that impacts the whole country, and we’re looking broadly at what we can do to reduce wildfire risk.”
The Department of the Interior recruits a workforce of thousands to manage wildland fire on public and Tribal lands across the country. Most of these people work in temporary appointments limited to six months. But if fires are no longer seasonal, should our workforce be?
The Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2021 includes a proposal to greatly expand and stabilize the wildland fire workforce. It calls for a $50 million increase to fund an additional 601 full-time equivalents*, converting many of our temporary seasonal positions into career seasonal or full-time permanents. This funding would provide over one million additional labor hours every year, enabling us to respond to wildfires during peak periods and complete active vegetation management projects like prescribed fires during times of low fire activity.
Expanding our cadre of permanent employees builds resiliency and sustainability into our programs. On average, temporary seasonal employees remain on the job two years, while career seasonal employees serve an average of 14 years. Constantly hiring and training new people is not only expensive, it robs us of the experienced, knowledgeable, senior firefighters we so desperately need.
Establishing career appointment positions also provides firefighters a reliable income and year-round benefits like access to healthcare and support organizations. Firefighters deserve these things given the tasks that lie ahead for all of us.
*Full-time equivalent (or FTE) is the annual number of “work years” produced by employees. A “work year” is roughly 2,080 hours. Reporting personnel in this way enables a common view of the workforce across government agencies.
Jeff Rupert is the Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. In over 20 years with the Department of the Interior, Jeff also served as the Chief of Natural Resources and Conservation Planning for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Refuge Manager of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (Oklahoma), and Refuge Manager for the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Texas).