Humans are by far the main cause of wildfires

Every year in the U.S., billions of dollars are spent on wildfire suppression and risk reduction. The five federal fire agencies — Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Fish & Wildlife Service — spent a combined $4.4 billion (2021) and $3.5 billion (2022) in wildfire suppression alone, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). The USFS announced in February that it would be investing nearly $500 million more in its “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis” 10-year strategy focusing on 21 priority landscapes across the West.

Despite the numerous projects and strategies billions in taxpayer monies have funded, one thing hasn’t changed over the past decade: Humans are still the main cause of wildfires — and numbers have worsened since 2014.

Air quality publication HouseFresh analyzed NIFC data from 2023 and ranked the causes of wildfires by number of occurrences. Of the recorded fires, 72.6 percent were directly caused by humans.

The bulk of last year’s wildfires were caused by debris burning and open burning, resulting in 1,302 wildfires. That is an increase from the 1,120 fires started by debris and open burning in 2022. Equipment and vehicle use, power generation/transmission/distribution, and arson were the next listed causes of wildfires in 2023 at 507, 390, and 364 respectively.

“The balance between human and natural fires has almost reversed since 2014, although the trend has not been smooth,” the HouseFresh report said. “The proportion of human-caused wildfires grew significantly in 2015, 2016 and 2020, peaking at 77.2 percent in 2020.”

How People Start Wildfires
This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License ::: creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0

To no one’s surprise, California leads the nation in number of acres burned by wildfires. The state totaled 344,878 acres burned, followed by Alaska at 295,105 acres and Arizona at 218,286 acres. Arizona led the nation, however, in the biggest increase in acres from 147,553 acres in 2022 to 218,286 acres in 2023. Southeast Fairbanks County in Alaska was the leading county in acres burned in 2023 at 141,399 acres.

“Alaska suffered the second-most land damage in 2023, despite the largest annual reduction in acres — down 2,818,744 acres from 3,113,849 in the previous, record-breaking year,” the report says. “Unfortunately, many places where fires burn are hard to reach; at the same time, permafrost and surface fuels make Alaska’s wildfires particularly pollutive.”

~ The full report’s posted on the HouseFresh website.

Every year in the U.S., billions of dollars are spent on wildfire suppression and risk reduction. The five federal fire agencies — Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Fish & Wildlife Service — spent a combined $4.4 billion (2021) and $3.5 billion (2022) in wildfire suppression alone, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). The USFS announced in February that it would be investing nearly $500 million more in its “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis” 10-year strategy focusing on 21 priority landscapes across the West.

Canadian conservationists push emission limits for wildfire reduction

Groundbreaking research last year found around 37 percent of burned land across North America can be traced directly back to carbon emissions from 88 major fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers. Now, environmentalists in Canada are using the research to push for change.

The study, published last May in the journal Environmental Research Letters, used climate, burned area, and global energy balance models to determine what contribution carbon emissions had on increases in vapor pressure deficit (VPD), which partially caused a rise in burned forest area in the United States and Canada. The research concluded, along with the fossil fuel link, that carbon producer emissions contributed to 48 percent of long-term VPD rise between 1901 and 2021.

canada smoke reaches Europe
Smoke from fires in Canada traversed the Atlantic Ocean and drifted over European countries including Portugal and Spain. ~ NASA image of the day for June 27, 2023

“As loss and damage from these hazards mounts, this research can inform public and legal dialogues regarding the responsibility carbon producers bear for addressing past, present, and future climate risks associated with fires and drought in the western U.S. and southwestern Canada,”  researchers said. Nearly a year later, Climate Action Network Canada advocates are using that research to advocate a new push for nationwide carbon emission limits.

June 26, 2023 Canada smoke
June 26, 2023 Canada smoke

“To cap wildfires and other climate impacts, the government must cap oil and gas emissions,” said Climate Action Network Executive Director Caroline Brouillette. “Other sectors and everyday Canadians are reducing their emissions, while for decades the oil and gas sector has increased its pollution and pushed back against every form of accountability. Further delay benefits only oil and gas executives’ pocketbooks and climate-denying politicians.”

A survey of nearly 2,000 Canadians found that nearly two-thirds of residents support a greenhouse gas emissions cap for the oil and gas industry. The survey also found that support for an emissions cap is the highest among Canadians aged 60 or older at 71 percent and only 18 percent of Canadians said the industries shouldn’t be required to limit emissions.

Such a cap would prevent 4,800 premature Canadian deaths and yield $45 billion in economic benefits, according to research projections from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. The results were attributed to projected reductions in air pollution — specifically in nitrogen dioxide, fine particulate matter, and annual ozone — if oil and gas industry emissions are capped at 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2023, which is Canada’s national climate target.

~ Full statement from Climate Action Network Canada.

 

 

North America’s largest ski town prepares for wildfires

There’s only one way in and out of the Canadian municipality of Whistler.

The Coast Mountains surround the forested British Columbia town north of Vancouver, giving Whistler its world-renowned trait of being North America’s largest ski resort community. The rocky slopes, however, occasionally cause transportation problems for Whistler’s residents. Highway 99, the only passage through the southern parts of the mountain range, stands as residents’ only escape route during times of emergency.

Whistler firefighters reflect on the 2023 wildfire season
Whistler firefighters reflect on the 2023 wildfire season

The frequently suffocated roadway and recent devastating wildfires in the nearby communities of West Kelowna and Kelowna pushed the perennially  snow-focused municipality to begin serious planning for a potential fire disaster. Most Whistler neighborhoods are classified as “interface,” but the wildland and ornamental fuel load between residences have characteristics of an “intermix,” or homes being within a forest community. Because of this, Whistler scores high in the plan’s “overall fire risk” category.

Whistler’s pervasive forest primarily drove town officials to take a more proactive approach to wildfire defense in its creation of a community wildfire defense plan.

Whistler firefighters reflect on the 2023 wildfire season
Whistler firefighters reflect on the 2023 wildfire season

“Typically when a wildfire is approaching a community, these defense plans are done at the time as it’s approaching,” Whistler Fire Chief Thomas Doherty told Global News journalists for a recent article. “Obviously wildfire specialists will come in and assist with doing these neighborhood defense plans. We’ve done that in advance. We believe we’re one of the first municipalities to do this type of plan, to have this information readily available ahead of time.”

Whistler firefighters reflect on the 2023 wildfire season
Whistler firefighters reflect on the 2023 wildfire season

The approach Doherty references includes increasing FireSmart education for residents and visitors, changing municipal legislation and community planning with a wildfire resiliency focus, increasing interagency and firefighters’ wildfire response, and continuing strategic vegetation management efforts.

Resort Municipality of WhistlerGlobal News, in their conversation with Doherty, reports that one of the tools created from this plan includes 19 tactical sheets and GIS maps for various critical infrastructure and water source locations, identifying which neighborhoods have a one-way-in and one-way-out access, and safe zones for responders during times of emergency. All this information will reportedly be available to fire personnel through scannable QR codes.

“Extremely critical to have all this information done in advance,” Doherty said. “It’s just unfortunate when an event does occur. At least we’re that much more prepared. And we have all that information readily available.”

You can read the full Whistler Community Wildfire Defense Plan [HERE].

The Coast Mountains surround the forested British Columbia town north of Vancouver, giving Whistler its world-renowned trait of being North America’s largest ski resort community. The rocky slopes, however, occasionally cause transportation problems for Whistler’s residents. Highway 99, the only passage through the southern parts of the mountain range, stands as residents’ only escape route during times of emergency.

The Great Plains: Where prescribed burns are a community collaboration rather than a federal effort

A fire-focused NPR article had a concise central theme: Trees are not always good, fire is not always bad, and prescribed burning can bring a community together.

The article, written and beautifully photographed in 2022 by journalist Andria Hautamaki, told the story of the Loess Canyon Rangeland Alliance to paint a larger picture of the quick growth prescribed burn associations (PBAs) have had across the country, particularly in states without huge extents of government-owned land.

The Great Plains Fire Science Exchange estimated in 2022 that there were 113 PBAs throughout the United States. That exchange now estimates 135 PBAs, an 83 percent increase in under two years.

RxFire by Florida Panther NWR
Plants flourish after a prescribed fire. Image courtesy Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

PBAs got their start in California and are now found throughout the state. Despite this, California is an outlier in the average states with PBAs: nearly half of California’s land is federally owned. Other states with numerous PBAs (including Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas) have less than 2 percent of their land owned by the federal government.

Prescribed Burn Associations Interactive Map
PBA interactive map at gpfirescience.org

Instead of the USFS burning on federal land, stakeholders in non-West states must convince and collaborate with landowners to spread the gospel of prescribed fire.

“The only way you’re ever going to get fire on the ground is through the landowners, especially in states with a lot of private land,” John Weir, an Oklahoma State University extension specialist for prescribed fire, told Hautamaki during the story. “This is landowner helping landowner. Agencies are important; they help provide technical assistance. But it’s all about grassroots. Landowners can burn safely and effectively because they’re out there managing their own land.”

An abundance of privately owned land isn’t the only thing driving PBA popularity in non-West states. The negative perception fire has gained from numerous disastrous wildfires in recent years has hampered Rx burn efforts in the West. Midwest and Southern states, which don’t have that same negative association with burning, have seen a rise in a grassroots-led fire efforts rather than an agency push.

Previous data have also shown the community-prescribed fire drive to be safe and effective in overcoming common burn limitations related to expertise, equipment, and personnel. A 2012 survey of PBAs found the majority were effective at developing burn plans, working within burn windows, and limiting liability.

“The safety record of PBAs indicates they provide a safe and viable option for landowners and managers who use or would like to use prescribed fire on their lands,” the survey said.

 

FIRE history, northern Great Lakes

In the northwest portion of Lake Superior is a chunk of land of about 132,000 acres that is both a geographic novelty and an International Biosphere Reserve. The Isle Royale National Park is 56 miles off Michigan’s shore and 18 miles from Minnesota’s mainland. Congress designated the 50-mile-long island as a national park in 1931, but even before that it was apparent the island’s boreal forests had a close history with fire.

2021 Horne Fire

“Official fire record keeping began in 1847, when the first General Land Office survey of Isle Royale was conducted,” according to the park’s website. “These records show 31 fires between 1847 and 1898. Data suggests fire was more frequent and/or severe in the boreal forest of the island’s northeast end, compared with the northern hardwoods of the southwest end.”

The island’s dense concentration of high-flammability trees, e.g. balsam fir, black spruce, and jack pine, heightened the risk of wildfires igniting when lightning struck. A zoologist in 1931 recognized the important role fire played in the island’s unique ecosystem, but his ideas were discarded in favor of the system-wide preference toward fire suppression.

flammable species on Isle Royale
Flammable species on Isle Royale

“In planning for improvements and facilities on Isle Royale, the National Park Service consulted with University of Michigan Zoologist Adolph Murie,” the park said. “Murie visited Isle Royale in June 1935 and recommended that no new trails be cleared by the CCC and all efforts be made to ‘guard against any sort of development which will reduce space or increase travel.’ He also recommended that forest fires be allowed to occur on Isle Royale, but this idea was rejected, and instead, an aggressive anti-forest-fire point of view was adopted.”

Isle Royale map

Officials would soon come to regret dismissing Murie’s ideas. Park historians describe the summer of 1936 as hot and dry. Hundreds of CCC enrollees arrived at the heavily logged and mined island to establish the park. On July 25, a fire started near the Consolidated Paper Company and, while a cause was never determined, the “Fire of 1936” would have the most profound effect on the natural and human history of Isle Royale compared with any other historical event.

Around 200 CCC members and loggers tried in vain to fight the fire as it grew from 200 to 5,000 acres over 10 days. The fire was reported as contained on August 4, but two spot fires that had ignited on August 2 would become much larger problems. By August 18, the three fires burned 27,000 acres before they were officially declared out after heavy rainfall.

Multiple factors contributed to the high number of acres burned in the fire, park historians said. The island’s ground was, at the time, mostly covered in highly flammable mosses. In-fighting between the park system and CCC members, including a short CCC strike when tobacco supplies ran out, likely made matters worse.

SEAT on the Horne FireThe island wouldn’t see significant wildfires again until the 2021 Horne Fire and the 2022 Mount Franklin Fire, which burned 335 acres and 6 acres respectively. In the fires’ wake, scientists and researchers hope to use the burned areas to learn more about the dynamics between fire and the island’s life.

“The area may look different, but wildfire is an agent of necessary change,” the park said. “At the site of the Horne Fire, Isle Royale ecologists now have a living laboratory, and these researchers can begin to study the relationships between fire, living things, and an island environment.”

 

::: more about fire ecology research on the island :::

 

 

Yellowstone’s first superintendent: Imprison anyone who doesn’t extinguish their campfire

Iconic views of YellowstoneThis month marks Yellowstone’s 152nd anniversary since it was designated as the world’s first national park.

Stories about the land the park exists on, located at the convergence of the Great Plains, Great Basin, and Columbia Plateau, were originally seen as tall tales because they were too fantastical to be true, according to park nonprofit Yellowstone Forever. Eventually, however, formal expeditions verified that the land was indeed covered in multicolored hot springs and spouting geysers, paving the way for the area’s federal protection and park designation.

The people who originally pushed Congress to protect the area were crafting their own tall tale, unbeknownst to themselves. The park’s first leaders told Congress that the park could be protected and run without any funding from the federal government. That idea was soon disproven.

Yellowstone’s first superintendent, Nathaniel Langford, was unpaid, and he and others quickly saw how the lack of funding made protecting the park’s wildlife and natural resources extremely difficult.

Essex County Herald, Vermont. September 02, 1920
Essex County Herald, Vermont. September 02, 1920

Langford’s first annual park report to the federal government was filled with stories of squatters, poachers, and vandals creating problems throughout the area.

“A few months before … creating the park, several persons had located upon land at some of the points of greatest interest, with a view to establish squatter’s right of preemption,” Langford’s report said. “The reality of the land should be held alone by the Government, and be subject to such rules and regulations as may, from time to time, be adopted by the Department of the Interior.”

Langford’s report also marked a step toward the first national park’s first fire policy.

“It is especially recommended that a law be passed, punishing, by fine and imprisonment, all persons who leave any fire they may have made, for convenience or otherwise, unextinguished,” the report said. “Nothing less than a stringent law punishing negligence and carelessness can save the extensive pine timber fields of the park from destruction.”

The policy would soon become a reality not just for the park but for the nation as a whole. U.S. law mandates that anyone who starts a fire on federal lands and doesn’t extinguish it could face imprisonment for up to six months (on USFS lands) and no more than 12 months if on BLM lands.