Soaring Himalayan wildfires don’t have only climate change to blame

Nepal has already seen 5,000 wildfires in 2024, the second-most wildfires recorded in a single year since record-keeping began in 2002. The fires have killed more than 100 people and have for days engulfed Kathmandu in hazardous wildfire smog.

“There is no respite from fires — both forest fires and house fires — continue to wreak havoc across the country in recent days,” the Kathmandu Post reported in April. “Massive fires have been raging across hectares of forest lands in more than a dozen places.”

Smoke from fires in Nepal -- NASA photo
A satellite fire map by NASA shows fire hotspots dotted across the bottom of the Himalayas, with a few creeping up the mountains. Image acquired by one of the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites on March 28, showing the region near Kathmandu engulfed in smoke.

The newfound prevalence of wildfires in the country has spiked researchers’ interest. A study published in the Climate Change scientific journal in 2023 analyzed the aftermath of 2021, Nepal’s worst wildfire year on record with 6,300 wildfires.

“In spring 2021, Nepal underwent a record wildfire season in which active fires were detected at a rate 10 times greater than the 2002–2020 average,” the study reported. “Prior to these major wildfire events, the country experienced a prolonged precipitation deficit and extreme drought during the post-monsoon period.”

Researchers concluded that both climate variability and climate change-induced severe drought played a factor in the country’s explosive wildfire growth. However, an environmental scientist stationed in Kathmandu recently told the Nature scientific journal that the study didn’t tell the full story.

Uttam Babu Shrestha, stationed at Kathmandu’s Global Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, told Nature a large cause of increasing wildfires is the deterioration of Nepal’s relationship with its forests. A 1979 World Bank report warned that the nation was nearing an “ecological disaster” as a result of the country’s widespread deforestation and heavy reliance on agriculture. Nepal’s government listened and decentralized the management of its forests, resulting in the country’s forest cover nearly doubling in three decades. The abolition of the country’s monarchy and transition to a federal system, however, left forest management by the wayside.

“But this new political atmosphere didn’t prioritize the management of community forests like before,” Shrestha said. “With no clear benefits coming out of forests, the locals don’t feel the same ownership.”

A proposal to lessen both wildfire severity and forest management inaction was proposed by the lead researcher of the 2023 study. Binod Pokhrel, a climate scientist at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, found that Nepal’s 282 weather stations could work together to inform community members.

“By using weather station data, we could precisely forecast drought index up to a local ward level,” Pokhrel told Nature. “The lack of management of increasing forest cover can easily lead to another disaster.”

Pokhrel proposed that a smartphone-based fire forecast would reduce the chance of fires getting out of control — and save lives. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development uses a similar idea to update its wildfire-monitoring webpage, but Pokhrel told Nature that the Nepalese government must be involved to safeguard against future disastrous wildfires.

Smoke temporarily covered nearly all U.S. lakes between 2019 and 2021

As wildfire activity and severity increase globally, so too does the pervasiveness of wildfire smoke.

Researchers in the U.S. are working to find out how growing amounts of wildfire smoke nationwide affect ecosystems including aquatic habitats. A recent study published in the Global Change Biology research journal found that even smoke impacts lake ecology.

“An incredible 98.9 percent of lakes experienced at least 10 smoke-days a year, with 89.6 percent of lakes receiving over 30 lake smoke-days, and lakes in some regions experiencing up to 4 months of cumulative smoke-days,” the study said.

lake smoke

The term “smoke-days” describes the number of days on which any portion of a lake’s boundary intersected with smoke as defined by NOAA’s hazard mapping system daily smoke product. The smoke-days concept has been used previously to demonstrate smoke exposure by ecoregion, but was used specifically for lakes for the first time in this study.

Smoke and ash from wildfires lower the solar radiation that enters lake habitats, affecting organisms in numerous ways from physiology to behavior, according to the research. Particles from the smoke deposited within lake ecosystems can also affect several biological and geological processes, including the availability and cycling of various nutrients.

Less than 0.01 percent of land in North America burned between 2019 and 2021, but the area covered in smoke was 75 percent of the continent’s total land. The year 2021 marked the largest number of high-density lake smoke-days and is the year with the largest portion of the country burned and largest area covered with smoke, while 2020 had the lowest number of high-density smoke-days and the smallest area burned and smallest area covered with smoke.

“Large knowledge gaps impede our ability to predict and manage the responses of lakes to smoke and ash,” the researchers concluded. “Measuring the extent and effects of smoke and ash deposition remains challenging. Larger-scale studies are necessary to disentangle the mediating effects of scale and watershed context on the responses of lakes to smoke and ash deposition.”

Read the entire study here.

‘Let burn’ narrative put to the test on USFS lands

Fires not fully suppressed but herded around and allowed to burn have allegedly been an unofficial USFS practice since the 1970s. A new study challenges whether that practice is as common as many believe.

The naming convention for the practice has reportedly changed repeatedly. They were originally called “let burn” fires, but forest managers soon dropped the term because a pervasive misunderstanding quickly arose that wildland firefighters were ignoring fires and letting them run amok. Even though other terms like “Natural Wildland Fires” and “Managed Fire” took the “let burn” term’s place, the incorrect view of the practice has persisted, being referenced as recently as in 2021’s Tamarack Fire.

That lightning-caused fire forced the evacuation of nearly 2,000 residents, destroyed 25 structures, and burned 67,000 acres in California and Nevada. Many members of the public blamed the fire’s negative outcomes on the supposed “let burn” practice, despite the policy’s not formally existing.


PREVIOUS COVERAGE:
Tamarack Fire lifts evacuation orders for nearly 2,000 residents


Researchers from the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station wanted to put the “let burn” narrative to the test — by quantifying the damage from consequential lightning-caused fires such as the Tamarack Fire.

The study, published in SpringerOpen Fire Ecology scientific journal, used multiple sources of fire-reporting data to identify numerous USFS fires from 2009 to 2020 using management strategies similar to those used during the Tamarack Fire. Of the 940 wildfires that burned within that time, the researchers found only 32 fires with characteristics similar to the Tamarack, nearly half of which ignited within wilderness areas.

Woodbury Fire Phoenix Roosevelt
The Superstition Wilderness inside the perimeter of the Woodbury Fire, June 22, 2019. InciWeb.

The researchers found that firefighter hazard mitigation was the primary driver on 26 of the 32 wildfires, with only six of the fires managed for “resource objectives” like the reported “let burn” fires. Risks posed to firefighters from terrain, snags, or inaccessibility were by and large what fire managers are concerned about during a wildfire — not how they can let the fire burn for potential ecological gains, or for the oft-alleged “treatment acreage quota.”

ICS-209“Our results suggest that a ‘let burn’ strategy is not a predominant USFS management approach,” the researchers concluded. “A limited palette of strategic reporting categories may be partially responsible for the falsely premised ‘let burn’ narrative.”

Researchers theorized that a large reason for the pervasiveness of the “let burn” misconception is how fire managers fill out ICS-209 forms post-fire. Managers select one of four categories to classify the intent behind their decisions, including “monitoring,” “confine,” “point or zone protection,” or “full suppression.” The subtlety that’s lost on which option is chosen —  any option other than full suppression — may be responsible for the spread of misinformation on the fire’s management.

“These categories may not capture enough of the nuance and complexity of the decision environments in which they are made,” said the Rocky Mountain Research Station. “In turn, this information gap may permit inaccurate explanations to dominate the conversation.”

Western legislators introduce National Prescribed Fire Act of 2024

Oregon, Washington, and California legislators have reintroduced a bill poised to create a national prescribed burn collaborative program and increase the practice nationwide.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden reintroduced the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2024 [PDF] on Tuesday, three years after the act’s first attempt died in committee. Representative Kim Schrier of Washington, Representative David Valadao of California, and Senator Alex Padilla of California joined the act’s push.

The act would invest $300 million in hazardous fuels management and increase prescribed burn plans, preparations, and practices through both the USFS and DOI. The funds are required to be used to develop a prescribed burn strategy for each USFS or BLM region, implement prescribed fires on federal land, and fund an increase in prescribed burn crew staffing.

Prescribed fire, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore near Ogden Dunes in northwest Indiana in 2013. NPS photo.
2013 RxFire at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore near Ogden Dunes, northwest Indiana — NPS photo

It would also put $10 million toward the collaborative prescribed burn program based on the previous USFS Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP). The previous program, one of the first national efforts that encouraged collaborative landscape restoration, ran from 2009 to 2019 and focused on reducing wildfire risk, enhancing watershed health, and benefiting local rural economies. The program reported its results to Congress, saying it successfully restored 5.7 million acres of forest while creating nearly $2 billion in local labor income.

The 2024 act has the support of numerous conservation agencies and fire officials, including The Nature Conservancy, which has been conducting Rx burns in Oregon since 1983.

“Prescribed fire is an essential tool to restore and steward fire-dependent ecosystems, reduce the risk of extreme wildfire to communities, and help many of Oregon’s most iconic natural landscapes adapt in the face of climate change,” said Katie Sauerbrey, Oregon fire program director at The Nature Conservancy. “We are grateful for Senator Wyden’s leadership on the National Prescribed Fire Act — providing a pathway to accelerate the pace and scale of prescribed fire necessary to combat the wildfire crisis in the western United States.”

The bill’s full text is posted [HERE].

Oregon, Washington, and California legislators have reintroduced a bill poised to create a national prescribed burn collaborative program and increase the practice nationwide.

Heatwave elevates fire danger across Western U.S., worsen already burning wildfires

The National Weather Service is predicting the year’s first major heat wave will hit U.S. states in the West starting Tuesday.

NWS has forecasted temperatures at above normal from June 4 through at least June 17, according to its 8- to 14-day temperature outlook.

The heatwave will likely worsen wildfires in Arizona, New Mexico, and California. The temperature spike is expected to significantly affect crews currently fighting the Corral Fire near the city of Livermore outside of San Francisco. Numerous counties in the area are under excessive heat warnings and heat advisories. The fire has burned more than 14,000 acres as of Tuesday afternoon, has caused the evacuation of thousands, and sits at 90 percent containment.

“This morning is the calm before the warm as the first batch of Heat Advisories go into effect in the North and East Bay,” said the NWS San Francisco Bay Area office.

NWS map

The National Weather Service is predicting the year’s first major heat wave will hit U.S. states in the West starting Tuesday.

NWS has forecasted temperatures at above normal from June 4 through at least June 17, according to its 8- to 14-day temperature outlook.

British Columbia starts season with most applicants in a decade

More than 2,000 applicants wanted to be a part of the British Columbia Wildfire Service in 2024, the highest number of applicants the service has seen in the past decade. The agency told WildfireToday that the application boost was linked to feedback received from the Expert Task Force on Emergencies established last October by BC Premier David Eby after the province’s historic 2023 wildfire season. The task force issued 31 recommendations, some of which were enacted swiftly ahead of the 2024 wildfire season.

Fire management made numerous enhancements to the Service’s wildland firefighter recruitment and hiring process as a result of the recommendations. Upgrades included expanding First Nations boot camps, extending the hiring period for new recruits, and encouraging applicants to indicate their work location preference.

The Service directly attributed the improvements to their having a full staff of 162 Initial Attack Crews and 30 Unit Crews in 2024, compared with the 149 Initial Attack Crews and 30 Unit Crews in 2023. Approximately 1,300  fire crew positions are employed directly with the Service, including an additional 500 permanent staff and 300 seasonal positions; 250 new recruits were invited by the Service from its New Recruit Boot Camps and First Nations Boot Camps this spring. The provincial 2024 budget provided $38 million to support stable, year-round staffing, including fire crew leaders and frontline staff who work in structure protection, prevention, risk reduction, and wildfire land-based recovery.

“People living in First Nations, along with rural and remote communities bear a disproportionate impact from the rising threat of wildfires,” said Wayne Schnitzler, task force member and executive director of First Nations’ Emergency Services Society. “I’m pleased to see the Province is boosting recruitment initiatives, including expanding First Nations boot camps as recommended by the Premier’s expert task force on emergencies. These initiatives break down barriers and pave the way for increased participation of Indigenous peoples as wildland firefighters.”

Apart from hiring, the Service said it will continue to implement numerous task force recommendations through 2024, including:

        • Launching a wildfire training and education center at Thompson Rivers University
        • Increasing new technology use to predict wildfire movement and growth
        • Increasing community evacuee support funding
        • Increasing the volunteer pool to support evacuees
        • Boosting wildland firefighting fleet and equipment
        • Enhancing wildfire recruitment tactics

BC Wildfire Service airtankers, meanwhile, are conducting practice flights from Kamloops and Penticton airports in the afternoons. The BCWS said airtankers out of Kamloops are flying the east side of Adams Lake, and  the Penticton aircraft will conduct practice about 40 nautical miles east of Penticton.

CastanetKamloops.net reported that BCWS noted the exact location and timing of tanker practices are subject to change depending on weather and other conditions; the practices don’t involve active fire. After six days with no flying activity, practices are run to make sure aviation teams are ready to respond. “It is important for air attack officers and pilots to practice, as it allows them to remain proficient and prepared to respond to active wildfires,” BCWS said. “Practices also ensure the aircraft are mechanically sound and ready to respond.”