Wildfires, logging topic of conversation in Washington D.C. this week

Above: The High Park Fire in Poudre Canyon about 15 miles from Ft. Collins, Colo., June 18, 2012. (Official Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Jess Geffre/RELEASED)

A University of Colorado fire ecologist testified during a Congressional hearing this week that climate change stands to exacerbate fire size and intensity in the West.

The Wednesday hearing — previewed in this memo — focused on “the impacts of wildfire, disease and infestation on America’s overgrown and fire-prone federal forest lands and the need to significantly increase forest management activities to improve the health of our nation’s forests.”

Among those called to testify:

  • Dr. John Ball, professor and forest health specialist at South Dakota State University
  • Steven A. Brink, vice president of public resources for the California Forestry Association
  • James L. Cummins, executive director of Wildlife Mississippi
  • Dr. Tania Schoennagel, Department of Geography and Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado.

Schoennagel said increasing temperatures, drought, and earlier snow melt lead to longer fire seasons and increased fire risk.

“That warming and drying is going to translate to more area burned across the west,” Schoennagel said, as quoted in a wrap-up piece on the hearing by the Durango Herald newspaper in Colorado. “We will also see more drought-related mortality.”

The full video of the two-hour hearing — “Seeking Better Management of America’s Overgrown, Fire-Prone National Forests” — is available below.

Military training exercise sparks 4,000-acre Florida wildfire

A military training exercise in Florida this week sparked a wildfire that has since burned thousands of acres and sent smoke billowing for miles.

The fire started Wednesday in the weapons-impact area of Avon Park Air Force Range in central Florida. Officials had restricted training activities that involved exploding or incendiary devices, but the fire still sparked and quickly grew to about 4,000 acres, news outlets in the area reported. 

Firefighters are generally letting the fire burn to containment lines, citing concerns about the possibility of encountering old munitions or un-exploded devices.

The range is used for air-to-ground training exercises  and consists of more than 100,000 acres of land. No structures were immediately threatened, and no injuries were reported.


LA Times re-publishes historic photos from 1961 Bel-Air Fire

Above: This photo by George Fry appeared on the front page of the Nov. 7, 1961, Los Angeles Times. This image and several others were recently scanned from the original negatives. LA Times Photo. 

The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday re-published a look-back piece about the 1961 Bel-Air fire that charred nearly 500 homes in a high-end, celebrity-packed part of the city.

In addition to the (fascinating) half-dozen photos dug up from the archives and republished, The LA Times coverage included this line:

“Among the most notorious California wildfires, the Bel-Air/Brentwood fire began in a trash heap…..a blaze that left hundreds of the rich and famous homeless in what LIFE magazine called ‘A Tragedy Trimmed in Mink’ and prompted brush clearance laws and an eventual city ban on wood shingle roofs.”

The brush fire started Nov. 5, 1961, and blackened more than 16,000 acres. Santa Ana winds fanned the flames.

Want more? Here’s some local news coverage from that pre-Twitter world (there’s plenty of other videos on the fire worth watching if you can’t quite get enough of a trip down memory lane on this Throwback Thursday).


New tool will help estimate wildfire risk

Researchers this week announced a new tool that can take some of the guesswork and resource limitations out of the equation when it comes to estimating wildfire risk.

Investigators with the National Centers for Environmental Information and the NASA DEVELOP National Program collaborated with a series of groups to create the tool that automatically processes satellite and weather station information. The Fire Risk Estimation tool — FIRE Tool for short — takes into consideration temperature, precipitation, relative humidity and wind observations and produces a single measurement of fire potential.

The new tool will be able to process data in almost real-time, determine when indicator thresholds are met or exceeded, and weigh how much each indicator would influence risk. From there, fire managers will be better able to more intently mobilize resources to high-risk areas — a tactic that until now was severely limited due to gaps in available information and computation.

“To create the FIRE tool, the team began with a list of indicators used to assess wildfire risk and the thresholds for each that would indicate higher risk,” researchers wrote in an online piece posted to NCEI. “Provided by fire managers in South Dakota, these initial indicators and thresholds were based on meteorological conditions that accompanied several large, complex wildfires in the past decade.”

A sample visualization of wildfire risk, via the National Centers for Environmental Information.
A sample visualization of wildfire risk, via the National Centers for Environmental Information.

Once the overall risk potential is calculated, information is plotted on a color-coded map spanning five categories — low to high.

From the NCEI report:

“This gives fire managers an overall view of risk in different locations, helping them quickly decide when and where to allocate their resources.”

The FIRE Tool was initially built for the Great Plains. However, experts say it can be modified to landscapes and geographical regions across the country.

Researchers worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the South Dakota State Fire Meteorologist to create the tool.


Wednesday webinar to focus on wildfire response and management

A free webinar today is slated to address wildfire management and the alignment of fire operations with landscape planning objectives.

The event, hosted online by the Southwest Fire Science Consortium, lasts noon to 1 p.m. MST Wednesday and will be led by Christopher O’Connor with the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station.

From the event sign-up page:

“Part of the solution to dealing with the increasing complexity of wildfire management is to reduce uncertainties inherent within active fire management, where time-sensitive decisions often rely upon incomplete information. Breaking out of the wildfire paradox requires aligning the short-term operational objectives of incident responders with the longer term ecological and management objectives of landscape planning.”

The session is expected to focus on three specific topic areas. Among them, according to the event’s website:

  1. Using risk-based analysis to quantify the potential hazards and benefits of wildfire to the things we care about.
  2. Developing a network of potential fire control opportunities from characteristics identified from historical fire perimeters
  3. Leveraging these control opportunities and risk assessment outcomes to develop response strategies that align fire operations with landscape planning objectives.

To register, click on this link and follow the online registration form. And if you tune in, feel free to share highlights or your thoughts in the comments below.

Drones to help crews combat future Grand Canyon wildfires

Above: A drone is used to assist wildlfire operations, as shown in this file photo from Bill Gabbert.

Wildland firefighters at Grand Canyon National Park have added drones to their toolkits, marking the latest iteration of unmanned aircraft systems’ love-hate relationship when it comes to wildfire. 

Rangers have started using drones to scout fires from above, the Grand Canyon News reported. From the article published Tuesday:

Justin Jager, interagency aviation officer for Grand Canyon National Park, Kaibab and Coconino National Forests and Flagstaff and Verde Valley Area National Monuments, said the drones are utilized in conjunction with traditional methods. Operators use the devices to scout fire lines, or communicate information to other personnel in the area.

The unmanned systems aren’t replacing fixed-wing scouting planes. Rather, they’re being used to search a fire’s outer edges and providing intelligence that can help establish stronger fire lines.

Also from the Grand Canyon News: 

“We’re taking what we’re learning and creating a guide for other agencies, like BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or other national parks to create their own programs,” Jager said. “I think they can all benefit from adding this tool.”

Drones and the Grand Canyon have been in the news for other reasons of late, most recently in assisting search and rescue operations for LouAnn Merrell and her step-grandson Jackson Standefer. Both went missing in April while on a hike — the boy’s body has since been recovered, though the woman has not yet been located.

Grand Canyon National Park is the only park with its own fleet of unmanned aircraft that can be used for locating people who have gotten lost, stranded, injured or killed. Under a program that began last fall, it has five drones and four certified operators, the Associated Press reported. 

The drones are about 18 inches across and 10 inches high, with a battery life of about 20 minutes. Drone operators watch the video in real time and then analyze it again at the end of the day.

As fire season revs up, so will conversations about the crossroads of the devices and wildfire. While crews have successfully used drones for recon and to aid in igniting prescribed burns, it’s only a matter of time until a curious hobbyist — once again — flies too close to firefighting operations.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has come out in the past supporting the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service in their simple message to drone operators: If you fly; we can’t.

“Flying a drone near aerial firefighting aircraft doesn’t just pose a hazard to the pilots,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “When aircraft are grounded because an unmanned aircraft is in the vicinity, lives are put at greater risk.”

That didn’t matter. After a string of incidents last year, the FAA warned in a mass email to recreational drone operators that those “who interfere with wildfire suppression efforts are subject to civil penalties of up to $27,500 and possible criminal prosecution.”

Looking for more about the intersection of drones and wildfire? This dated, yet relevant, Smithsonian video below documents the use of the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator Drone in the August, 2013, Rim Fire in California.