Around 90 percent of all people exposed to wildfires over the past 23 years lived in either California, Oregon, or Washington. Among those, researchers found a disproportionate number were poor, a racial minority, disabled, or over the age of 65.
A recent study examined the “social vulnerability” of the people exposed to wildfires over the last two decades. Social vulnerability describes how persons with certain social, economic, or demographic traits were more susceptible to harm from hazards including wildfires or other natural disasters.
From 2000 to 2021, the number of people in the western United States who lived in fire-affected areas increased by 185 percent, while structure losses from wildfires increased by 246 percent. The vulnerability of the people living there, however, isn’t well known despite these populations potentially never recovering after a disaster strikes.
Researchers asked whether highly vulnerable people were disproportionately exposed to wildfire, how vulnerability has changed over the past 20 years, whether population changes before a fire alter the vulnerability of the population, and whether social vulnerability of people exposed to fires was equal among states.
Each of the three West Coast states recorded disproportionate wildfire exposure of the socially vulnerable; Oregon and Washington had more than 40 percent of their exposed population being highly vulnerable while California had around 8 percent of of those exposed considered highly vulnerable. The most vulnerable populations were also those with low income, while age, minority status, and disability also affected populations’ ability to cope after wildfire.
The number of highly vulnerable people exposed to fire in the three states also increased by 249 percent over the past two decades. An increase in social vulnerability of populations in burned areas was the main contributor to increased exposure in California, while Oregon and Washington saw wildfires increasingly encroaching on vulnerable population areas.
“Our analysis highlights the need to increase understanding of the social characteristics that affect vulnerability, to inform effective mitigation and adaptation strategies,” the study said. “Particular attention to residents who are older, living with a disability, living in group quarters, and with limited English-speaking skills may be warranted, and cultural differences need to be addressed for effective policy development and response.”
Other research published earlier this year, The Path of Flames: Understanding and Responding to Fatal Wildfires, found unequal access and assistance could also play a role in who survives and who dies during catastrophic wildfires. In the study, researchers found that for many of the Paradise, California residents who died in the 2018 Camp Fire, the inability to evacuate on their own was a major factor in their deaths.
A keystone species — an organism that helps define an entire ecosystem — is calling the fire area home again, 150 years after being hunted and driven out. A pack of gray wolves, one adult female and four cubs, has been seen in the area, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). The pack is officially the state’s southernmost wolf pack and is more than 200 miles from the nearest separate wolf pack.
“CDFW investigated the reported location, found wolf tracks and other signs of wolf presence, and collected 12 scat and hair samples from the immediate area for genetic testing,” according to the agency. “The new pack consists of at least one adult female, who is a direct descendant of California’s first documented wolf in the state in recent history.”
This image is the first photo of the pack’s adult female:
While the wolves’ return to the area is historically and ecologically significant, wolves finding home in a burn scar is reportedly a common occurrence, according to an article from Scientific American.
A lack of trees allows more sunlight to hit the soil and causes plants to sprout. The plants attract deer and other species, offering wolves ample eating opportunities. Burn scars can also act as prime den sites for wolves, with clear forests offering less obstructed views of their surroundings, intruders, and predators. And wolves aren’t the only animals to take advantage of a post-wildfire landscape.
“Other animals, such as wild turkeys, are attracted to areas soon after fire because they forage on seeds and invertebrates on the ground in the blackened areas,” said Chris Moorman, a professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at NC State University. Low-intensity prescribed fires can also increase abundance and diversity of certain plant species in forest understories.
In 1993, District Manager John Koehler was in the midst of a shift in popular fire management practices. In his position with the Florida Forest Service (then the Division of Forestry) he’d noticed a new trend developing among the country’s wildfire managers, but he found there was little data to support their claims. So he decided to conduct a study to either verify or debunk the usefulness of prescribed burns.
Koehler wasn’t the first to gain interest in whether the historical practice of prescribed burning was as effective as people claimed. Fire Scientist Robert Martin, in his 1988 study, found that prescribed burning reduced the number of acres burned per wildfire, but said the practice’s effect on wildfire occurrence was “at best, speculative.” Forester James Kerr Brown, in his 1989 study, said a prescribed burning program would not have prevented the disastrous Yellowstone fires that had burned the year before.
Koehler was less than impressed by either study. He wanted to learn whether prescribed fires held quantifiable, tangible benefits – which neither study supplied. To compile hard data, Koehler used nine years’ worth of Florida Forest Service fire statistics to determine whether prescribed burns were affecting the frequency and size of wildfires at all. His study would go on to produce the hard data he was looking for, concluding that in every area where prescribed burns occurred, decreases were recorded in the total number of wildfires, the number of acres burned, and the average number of acres burned per wildfire.
“Prescribed burning will not eliminate wildfires, but this practice does reduce the threat posed from wildfires,” Koehler said.
At the end of his study, he recommended more research focused on quantifying benefits of prescribed burning as a prevention tool. Fast-forward 30 years, and Koehler would get his wish after a team of researchers on the other side of the country completed one of the most comprehensive examinations of prescribed burns’ effect on future wildfires.
The new research, “Low-intensity fires mitigate the risk of high-intensity wildfires in California’s forests,” was published in the journal Science by Biostatistician Xiao Wu from Columbia University and a team of Stanford researchers. In the study, the team analyzed 20 years of satellite data on fire activity across more than 62,000 miles of California forests to determine whether intentional low-intensity burns mitigate the consequences of the increasing frequency of severe wildfires.
Their conclusions were the same that Koehler had heard wildfire managers espousing decades before: prescribed
burns help prevent future wildfires.
In conifer forests, they found, areas that have recently burned at low intensity are 64 percent less likely to burn at high intensity in the following year relative to unburned synthetic control areas – and this protective effect against high-intensity fires persists for at least 6 years.
The study not only found prescribed burns widely successful in California, but also showed that they’re a necessary practice vital to conifer forests’ health, something Native American tradition has known for centuries.
The study does not shy away from referencing previous case studies that indicate frequent and low-intensity fires were the norm before the forceful removal of numerous Native American tribes from California. Previous research from Ecologist Alan Taylor shows that fire regime changes over the past 400 years likely resulted from socioecological changes rather than climate changes. Fire Scientist Scott Stephens found around 4.4 million acres of California had burned annually before 1800, in part helped by Native American cultural burning. Geographer Clarke Knight determined that indigenous burning practices promoted long-term forest stability in the forests of California’s Klamath Mountains for at least one millennium.
“The resilience of western North American forests depends critically on the presence of fire at intervals and at intensities that approximate presuppression and precolonial conditions that existed prior to the extirpation of Native Americans from ancestral territories in California,” Wu wrote.
The research led the study’s authors to recommend a continuation of the policy transition from fire suppression to restoration – through the usage of prescribed fire, cultural burning, and managed wildfire. The maximum benefits a prescribed fire program can yield, however, are dependent on whether the practice becomes a sustained tradition. If sustained, prescribed burning could have an ongoing protective effect on nearly 4,000 square miles of California’s forests.
Getting to that point would require many more resources. As pointed out in Fire Scientist Crystal Kolden’s 2018 research, management practices in the West have still failed to wholeheartedly adopt and increase prescribed burning despite calls from scientists and policy experts, including the 30-year-old call from Koehler.
The result is the continual compounding
of the ongoing fire deficit.
“Federal funding for prescribed fire and other fuel reduction activities has been drastically depleted over the past two decades as large wildfires force federal agencies to expend allocated funds on suppression rather than prevention,” said Kolden.
She also gave a well-deserved shoutout to fire managers in the Southeast U.S., crediting them with accomplishing double the number of prescribed burns compared with the entire rest of the U.S. between 1998 and 2018. “This may be one of many reasons the Southeastern states have experienced far fewer wildfire disasters relative to the Western U.S. in recent years,” Kolden said.
Even as the USFS and other federal agencies continue to tout prescribed burns in their national strategies, it won’t be until the agencies collectively create policy changes and budgetary allocations sufficient that prescribed burning is used at a scale in which it can create meaningful prevention. Without those meaningful changes, the wealth of prescribed burn research clearly shows that more catastrophic wildfire disasters are inevitable.
A “super fog” is blanketing the New Orleans area, worsening vehicle crashes and causing health concerns among residents. The weather phenomenon has been blamed for numerous traffic incidents including a series of horrific crashes in late October involving 158 vehicles that left seven people dead and 25 injured.
But attempts to douse a nearby wildfire may actually be making the super fog worse.
A 200-acre wildfire burning near the Bayou Sauvage Urban National Wildlife Refuge has been fully contained for weeks, but residents have told local media that “noxious smoke” from the fire is causing a harsh chemical-like odor. The uniquely foul-smelling smoke is caused, in part, by the fire’s underground burning.
“Your usual marsh fire is on dry brush and grass, and it burns fast and has a sweet smell,” the New Orleans Fire Department told the Times-Picayune. “But when it gets into that stuff underground, that’s rotting vegetation. And yes, it starts stinking.”
The stink may be gaining potency because of firefighters’ suppression efforts. They are working with the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the city’s Sewerage & Water Board, and the Army Corps of Engineers to drive drainage canal water to flood the swamp where the wildfire is burning.
The City of New Orleans’ Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said the flooding is a last-ditch effort, with few other above-the-surface suppression efforts having any effect on extinguishing the fire. But, as more water is poured on the fire, more smoke rises.
“As you put water on some areas, you do experience more smoke coming up,” New Orleans Fire Department Superintendent Roman Nelson told the newspaper.
Vegetation in swamps and wetlands have a higher than average fuel moisture content, which requires more energy to drive off the water and increases emissions, i.e. smoke, per unit of fuel consumed, the FS Smoke Management Guide said. The last-resort flooding is, albeit temporarily, increasing the fuel moisture content and the noxious emissions.
Firefighters say it’s difficult to estimate just how much of the fire has been extinguished since the ground absorbs so much of the flooding, but they believe around 20 percent of the fire is now out.
The U.S. Forest Service will fund almost $45 million over five years for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to expand the organization’s prescribed fire projects and workforce.
In a recent statement, TNC said the funding will prioritize prescribed fire in the 21 landscapes and 250 high-risk firesheds in the Western U.S., and hiring to expand the workforce started in October. TNC also received permission to work on prescribed fires in any national forest within Idaho, according to Boise State Public Radio.
“For more than a century, policies suppressing wildfire and stamping out Indigenous Peoples’ burning practices largely kept healthy fire from hundreds of millions of acres of North American landscapes that needed it,” said Marek Smith, director of TNC’s North America Fire program.
The expansion is part of the FS Wildfire Crisis Strategy, specifically the program’s National Prescribed Fire Resource Mobilization.
Along with expanding its prescribed fire workforce, the strategy also calls for an expansion of both the Forest Service Fuels Academy and National Interagency Fire Training Center, which train new prescribed fire practitioners, managers, and entry-level fuels specialists. It also calls to address issues in resource availability, including overtime and hazard pay, contracts and agreements, and hiring more authorities.
“Implementation of the National Cohesive Strategy will be undertaken in the same manner it was created — with recognition of the differences among stakeholders across the country and a vision of how we can collectively achieve more together,” the plan says. “Together, we can learn from and replicate existing collaborative behaviors and successful practices to achieve even greater success.”
Congress temporarily averted a wildland firefighter pay cliff when it narrowly stopped a government shutdown at the end of September. As that stop-gap nears its expiration on November 17, senators are making new pushes to increase wildland firefighter pay.
Nevada Senators Jacky Rosen and Cortez Masto introduced the “Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act,” which would permanently raise firefighter pay caps. The legislation, if passed, would also expand eligible employment to NWS meteorologists deployed with firefighters and would require a report from the USDA and DOI and NWS on necessary staffing levels of wildland firefighters and meteorologists.
The senators had previously written a letter to legislators urging them to include a permanent salary increase for wildland firefighters in the government funding bill.
“Nevada’s wildland firefighters are heroes who keep our communities safe,” Rosen said. “We must provide them with the pay they deserve, and I’m glad to help introduce this bipartisan legislation to permanently increase their overtime pay caps.”
The bill isn’t the only piece of legislation trying to improve conditions for wildland firefighters. The Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act (WFPPA) would authorize premium pay for federal firefighters portal-to-portal whenever they respond to an incident. The act was introduced to Congress before the shutdown was temporarily averted, but was never voted on.
There were 11,187 wildland firefighters (of GS-9 and below) employed through the USFS as of July 25, the according to the agency website. Funding proposed for the next fiscal year would reportedly support the hiring of 970 more firefighter positions, but Congress has yet to make that budget a reality.
If neither bill is approved by November 17, when the government shutdown stopgap is set to expire, wildland firefighter pay will be reduced by either 50 percent of current salary or by $20,000 annually, whichever is lower. It’s expected that the reduction could lead to a third of wildland firefighters walking off the job, according to the employee union and others.