Growing bananas can lower fire intensity in urban areas

Reducing fuels, increasing wildland firefighter resources, and building more firebreaks are all techniques used in tandem to reduce wildfire risk. Still, they often come with high up-front prices and uncertain long-term payoffs. A new study claims to have found a new mitigation strategy that sidesteps both issues: growing and maintaining banana trees with recycled water.

Some regions have considered building physical buffers out of concrete or metal to reduce fire risk, but those have high installation costs, require annual maintenance, and provide no additional revenue or benefits. So this study’s researchers focused on potential “edible fire buffers,” or specific vegetation that could be grown in wildfire-prone areas that would also produce a crop — and help add to the area’s economy.

To find the best candidate, the team modeled edible fire buffers by examining how the conditions of a historic fire would have changed if the crop had been present. The study used specifically the 2017 Tubbs Fire, since it fit the requirements of burning in a semi-arid region, originated in wildland, was spread by high winds, and then caused significant loss of life and property. The fire burned three California counties in October and was at the time the most destructive fire in the state. The research team used satellite, census, and fuel-type data from Santa Rosa at the time of the fire.

The study found that bananas were the most viable crop among its choices after testing multiple other possibilities. Vineyards, the most common high-value crop in Mediterranean climates, were too flammable to be considered viable for the study. Ginger is a low-flammability crop, but requires mechanical harvesting that could eat into potential revenue. Carob trees are low-flammability, high-yield, and high-value — but are better suited for areas where irrigation is unavailable or too costly.

The banana trees’ high water content, minimal management needs, and suitability for semi-arid and Mediterranean locations such as like California, Mexico, Chile, Australia, and South Africa drove researchers to and in-depth study the crop’s suitability.

“A medium-sized (633 m) banana buffer decreases fireline intensity by 96 percent, similar to the combination of prescribed burns and mechanical thinning, and delays the fire by 316 min, enabling safer and more effective firefighting,” the study said. “We also find that banana buffers with average yield could produce a profit of $56k USD/hectare through fruit sales, in addition to fire mitigation.”

The study found that not only would banana trees mitigate fire under current conditions, but the the trees would still have a protective effect as fires worsen and the climate changes.

Here is the full study:Edible fire buffers study

More simultaneous large fires in the next 60 years

Wildfire simultaneity, or numerous large wildfires burning at the same time, will become at least twice as frequent by 2085, researchers are warning. A steadily increasing number of large wildland fires — and the number of acres burned — has occurred over the past few decades in the American West, but new research has found that simultaneous large fires will burn even more often. 

Future regional increases in simultaneous large Western USA wildfires” was published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research; it focused on wildfires that burned 1,000 acres or more between 1984 and 2015. Researchers  used multiple fire indices to model how simultaneity will likely change over the next 60 years. The study also measured the fires by Geographic Area Coordination Centers to see whether some geographic areas might see greater increases compared with others.

changes in simultaneity

Simultaneous wildfires were projected to increase in every area of the West. Not only were “bad years” projected to increase, but increases in simultaneity also led to more intense wildfires. Peak season for simultaneous wildfires was projected to become several weeks longer by the end of the century.

“The trend was particularly pronounced for the most severe wildfire seasons — those that currently occur only every 10 years on average,” the National Center for Atmospheric Research said. “In the future, such seasons may be expected to occur at least twice as often, and up to nearly five times per decade in the northern Rocky Mountains, which was the most affected region.”

seasonality of simultaneity
Projected seasonality of simultaneity

The findings point toward a risk in an already understaffed and under-resourced wildland firefighting force. Because crews are transferred across the nation, or sometimes even across nations, to battle fires depending on when an area’s season peaks, an increase in peak season length could mean major challenges for firefighters and fire managers.

“Because firefighting decisions about resource distribution, pre-positioning, and suppression strategies consider simultaneity as a factor, these results underscore the importance of potential changes in simultaneity for fire management decision-making,” the study says.

Steps can reportedly be taken to lessen the future risk of simultaneous wildfires, including thinning forests, conducting prescribed burns, and increasing numbers of firefighting crews and equipment. But that will depend on how long it will take to make those changes.

“The strain on resources created by simultaneous fires can affect the ability to conduct prescribed burns and pursue other preventative action,” the center said.


Long-term effects of Maui’s wildfires still unknown

The fires may have been controlled in Maui, but the fires that burned Lahaina will continue to affect the island in numerous ways.

Experts at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa explained the multiple long-term health and environmental risks during a recent webinar sponsored by the Hawaiʻi Public Health Institute. The webinar was focused specifically on addressing community concerns over remaining toxic chemicals and how people can protect themselves from exposure. There is also little to no precedent for the wildfire seen in Lahaina.

“While there have been large urban fires in other locations, such as Paradise, California, few have been related to hurricanes,” said Catherine Pirkle, an associate professor and global health researcher trained in epidemiology and health services.

Maui, August 2023

Another unusual aspect of the Maui wildfires is their proximity to nearshore tropical reefs. Researchers know very little about the health effects of exposure to compex chemical mixtures from wildfires like those in Maui. The contaminants released by the fire may enter the marine environment and could pose risks for swimmers and people who eat contaminated fish.

While the specific consequences of contamination aren’t known, researchers said the most at-risk populations for developing long-term health issues related to the fire are pregnant women and children, older or low-income people, those with pre-existing health conditions, and people at risk of work-related exposure.

The Hawaiʻi Department of Health and the EPA have already determined that particulate matter from the wildfires caused only low levels of air pollution. Additionally, volatile organic compounds were detected in only a small number of drinking water samples. Researchers offered health guidance to anyone planning to re-enter burned areas, saying they should wear an N95 mask that fits well, along with long sleeves and pants, socks, shoes, and gloves.

“Minimize disturbing the ash that has settled on the ground so that it does not enter the air or nearby waters,” the researchers said. “To reduce the take-home pathway of exposure, people who enter the impacted area should change their clothing before returning to their family members who are advised against entering the impacted area.”

The guidance follows the announcement by Maui Mayor Richard Bissen that he would be reopening all of West Maui — except the burned-out sections of Lahaina — to tourism on November 1.

Watch the University of Hawaiʻi’s full webinar here:

Humans mimicking beavers to combat wildfires and restore wetlands

Researchers in Colorado have built hundreds of dam-like structures in hopes of mimicking a fraction of the success the state’s beavers have had throughout history. Ashley Hom with the U.S. Forest Service co-leads Colorado’s largest beaver-based restoration project — along with many partners. In just two years, this team built 316 beaver mimicry structures, about half of which were BDAs, or beaver dam analogues — manmade structures that imitate beaver dams. Many of them were constructed by volunteers, according to a story by Julie Cleveland.

These BDAs are built using wooden fenceposts and willows that act as a low-cost and low-maintenance structure to protect areas from wildfire while maintaining or improving water quality.

The loss of keystone beaver populations has caused a negative impact on watersheds throughout the western United States. Dams that beavers create slow the flow of spring run-off while raising the water table to keep the landscape wet. Without beavers and their dams, streambanks have eroded, causing snowmelt and run-off to drain too quickly from the landscape.

Beaver dam on Baugh Creek near Hailey, Idaho. USFWS photo
Beaver dam on Baugh Creek near Hailey, Idaho. USFWS photo

“As beavers create and maintain wetlands, the outcomes are vast,” Cleveland wrote. “A lack of beavers has resulted in an increased intensity of drought and wildfires in the West as fires spread rapidly across parched landscapes. Wetlands act as natural fuelbreaks, giving firefighters a chance for containment.”

The effectiveness of beavers against wildfires has been seen in real-time. The 2018 Sharp Flats Fire burned more than 60,000 acres in Idaho, but seemingly left one area untouched.

Loading beavers for transport
Idaho Fish and Game officers load a beaver into a wooden box before he’s loaded on a plane and dropped into the Idaho backcountry. IDFG photo

Nearly 70 years beforehand, Idaho Fish and Game had rounded up and relocated beavers, sometimes by parachute, throughout the state, including the Baugh Creek area.

Beavers in wooden boxes drop from a plane into the Frank Church Wilderness to start a new life.
Beavers in wooden boxes drop from a plane into the Frank Church Wilderness to start a new life. IDFG photo

The Sharp Flats Fire burned all of the land around Baugh Creek, but the beavers’ dams and the wetland they created were left unburned.

The contrast was so stark that researchers at Boise State University and Utah State University teamed up with NASA to start building tools to measure the benefits of beaver reintroduction in other areas of the country.

Post-burn image of the Sharps Flat burn, image by NASA.
Post-burn image of the Sharp Flats burn, image by NASA.

Watch the below video to see what researchers are paying attention to after beavers make their way back to wetlands — beaver rewilding as measured by NASA:

Alert reader Tom Jones sent over some photos he took of the beaver habitat on the B&B Fire in Oregon.

“We were with the NW Oregon type 2 team in September 2003,” wrote Tom. “Robert Alvarado was the Human Resource Specialist (HRSP) and I was the FBAN. Robert liked to go out on the line and talk with the crews to see how they were doing. I went to the line every day, so he would go with me. Each morning after briefing he would ask me, ‘What kind of adventure are we going to have today?’ The last two photos are of me and Robert at Marion Lake.”

Beavers' Fireline, B&B Complex 15. September 2003. Tom Jones photo.
Beavers’ fireline, B&B Complex 15. September 2003. Tom Jones photo.
Beaver Swamp Burned, B&B Complex, September 2003. Photo by Tom Jones.
Beaver swamp burned, B&B Complex, September 2003. Photo by Tom Jones.
Robert Alvarado and BeaverLine, 2003 photo by Tom Jones.
Robert Alvarado and BeaverLine, 2003 photo by Tom Jones.
Fireline put in by beavers on the B&B Complex in Oregon. 2003 photo by Tom Jones.
Fireline put in by beavers on the B&B Complex in Oregon. 2003 photo by Tom Jones.
Robert Alvarado at Marion Lake on the B&B Complex in Oregon. 2003 photo by Tom Jones.
Robert Alvarado at Marion Lake on the B&B Complex in Oregon. 2003 photo by Tom Jones.
FBAN Tom Jones with the NWOregon type 2 team in September 2003 on the B&B Complex. Photo by Robert Alvarado.
FBAN Tom Jones with the NW Oregon type 2 team in September 2003 on the B&B Complex. Photo by Robert Alvarado. (I didn’t know there were crocodiles in Marion Lake, did you?)

from Wikipedia:  The B&B Complex was a linked pair of wildfires that together burned 90,769 acres (367.33 km2) in  Oregon in the summer of 2003. The complex began as two separate fires, the Bear Butte Fire and the Booth Fire; the two fires were reported on the same day and eventually burned together, forming a single fire area that stretched along the crest of the Cascade Mountains between Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Washington. On the western side of the Cascades, the fire consumed mostly Douglas-fir and western hemlock. On the eastern side of the mountains, the fire burned mostly Ponderosa pine, lodgepole, and jack pine. Most of the burned area was on USFS land, including 40,419 acres (163.57 km2) within the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. The fire also burned forest land on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and small areas of state and private land. Firefighters worked on the fires for 34 days.

THANKS, Tom, for the great photos and another
piece of Beaver history in the Beaver State!
 ~ Kelly Andersson


Climate change to lessen safe prescribed burn days, change wildland firefighter schedules

A recent study from UCLA found that a projected 2° Celsius increase in global temperatures by 2060 would reduce the number of days when a prescribed burn could be safely set by 17 percent. The Four Corners region could see as much as a 29 percent decrease in favorable days, while the Pacific Southwest could see a 24 percent decrease.

The main driver behind the decrease in safe prescribed fire days is a combination of a decrease in large-diameter fuel moisture across seasons, an increase in vegetation aridity, and an increase in smoke-trapping low-level stagnation events.

“The narrowing of prescribed fire windows, as well as increases in extreme wildfire burning conditions at other times, will further challenge fire and land management agencies and entities already constrained by limited budgets and growing administrative burdens,” the study said.

However, the study also found that winter may increasingly become a viable season for prescribed fires with researchers predicting a four percent rise in favorable days, especially for northern states. Regions that have historically been too moist or too cool to support prescribed fire may see a boost in safe burn days, assisted by vegetation aridification. Additionally, decreases in safe prescribed burn days mainly affect forested locations, while non-forested areas would see substantial safe burn days.

The study ended by recommending a huge shift in USFS agency fire crew staffing. Seasonal wildland fire workers, who are usually laid off over the winter based on historical burn patterns, may need to capitalize on burn days during winter if safe burn days drastically decrease over the summer. The study also pointed to other research that found winter and spring to be underutilized seasons for prescribed fire in California.

“Our findings provide direct evidence supporting recent calls for an expanded year-round fire management workforce whose responsibilities extend beyond fighting wildfires to also encompass the management of prescribed fire,” the study said. “These findings also highlight the growing importance of tangible support—including increased funding and removal of existing regulatory barriers–for cultural burning practices by Indigenous fire practitioners, including via interagency partnerships.”

U.S. must shift from ‘reactive to proactive’ to manage wildfire crisis

The U.S. faces a wildfire crisis that costs the federal government $2.5 billion a year — a crisis that a recent report [PDF] concluded the feds can’t face alone.

President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021 created the federal Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission and charged it with recommending improvements to federal agencies’ management of wildfire across the landscape. The commission was tasked with creating new policy recommendations to address the wildfire crisis.

The commission released the culmination of its efforts in September, and it includes numerous proposed changes that forest managers and wildland firefighters have been suggesting for decades. The commission ultimately found that many of these changes are needed soon to adequately reduce the risk of wildfires throughout the U.S.

“The Commission urges Congress to take swift action to advance the holistic solutions needed to reduce the risk of wildfire to the nation,” the report says. “Only through comprehensive action can we hope to prepare for the wildfires of today and, critically, the wildfires of tomorrow.”

The commission listed 148 recommended changes in its report, which focused on eight points:

    • Shift focus from fire response to pre-fire planning and risk mitigation
    • Treat the wildfire crisis as a public health crisis
    • Unify local and federal resources
    • Improve community and ecosystem resilience in post-fire areas
    • Increase pay and hiring for wildland firefighters
    • Update the fire management system with current technology
    • Significantly increase investments to reduce long-term costs and risks
    • Enhance work across jurisdictions

“Rather than selecting one or more potential recommendations to carry forward for implementation, the Commission urges audiences of this report to take an ‘all of the above’ approach,” the report says. “There is no single solution to the wildfire crisis; the scale of the issues necessitates solutions that are integrated, comprehensive, and broad in scope. The urgency of this need cannot be overstated.”

September 2012 Mustang Complex, Idaho -- Kari Greer photo
Black Mountain Hotshots, September 2012 Mustang Complex, Idaho      — Kari Greer photo

The suggestions were similar to another report released in September by the National Interagency Hotshot Crew Steering Committee, which also recommended that Congress increase investment in wildland firefighters along with hiring and pay.