New wildfire alert system cuts down warning times

Oklahoma is the testing ground for a new wildfire system that uses local National Weather Service (NWS) forecast offices to quicken alerts sent to nearby communities.

The alert system software, called “Wildfire Analyst,” was created by wildfire technology company Technosylva. Its promising results were backed up at a recent U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing.

Oklahoma State Forester Mark Goeller explained the system to representatives while testifying at the hearing. He said the software, using NWS data and local emergency management warning systems, significantly reduces fire warning times by predicting a wildfire’s potential spread from the ignition point.

“The fire warning was issued in just six minutes on a recent wildfire occurring in a heavily populated wildland/urban interface area in the Oklahoma City metro,” Goeller said. “Oklahoma is the first state in the nation to use this system. Using our legacy process, it often required approximately 90 minutes to issue the fire warning.”

The Wildfire Analyst software has three core applications, according to Technosylva. The software’s “FireSim” application was the main tool Goeller referred to during the hearing. The application generates real-time fire spread predictions and supports wildfire planning through “what if” scenarios. The software’s other two applications, “FireRisk” and “FireSight,” predict wildfire risk days through forecasts and calculate risk reduction, respectively.

The state’s goal to overhaul its wildfire alert system started after its 2005-06 season when numerous fires burned in Texas and Oklahoma, Goeller said during the hearing. The fires resulted from prolonged drought and strong winds and killed 25 people and 5,000 head of cattle — and destroyed hundreds of homes, according to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.

Soon after that catastrophic season, the “Southern Great Plains Wildfire Outbreak Group” came together, including members of the Oklahoma Forestry Services, Texas Forest Service, and National Weather Service forecast offices. The partnership spawned from that group eventually led officials to look specifically at how weather dynamics did and could affect the states’ wildfire response.

“The things that I would emphasize as the lessons learned are for other states’ forestry agencies and local emergency management agencies to get to really working closely with their National Weather Service forecast offices,” Goeller said. “Look at the model we apply in Oklahoma, look at the process we went through … the research that went into what affects our weather systems would absolutely be employable in other places.”

Oklahoma is the testing ground for a new wildfire system that uses local National Weather Service (NWS) forecast offices to quicken alerts sent to nearby communities.

The alert system software, called “Wildfire Analyst,” was created by wildfire technology company Technosylva. Its promising results were backed up at a recent U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing.

Climate change will make wildfires worse, even in areas that don’t have wildfires today

Yet another destination known for its skiing and snowy winters will be forced to contend with growing wildfire severity and frequency.

The Alps, Europe’s largest mountain range and a world-renowned skiing destination, and the Alpine Foreland, a deep trough in southern Germany at the edge of the Alps, have both enjoyed minimal wildfire danger thanks to abundant winter snowfall and temperate summer conditions. But that will change by 2040.

A study published in Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences (NHESS) used climate models to forecast fire risk for the two locations and others from 1980 to 2099. Researcher Julia Miller used the Canadian Forest Fire Weather Index (FWI) as a fire danger indicator.

The research forecasted a likely increase in wildfire danger in temperate areas through the 21st century, with fire danger increasing to high even in regions where it is very low today. The results displayed a continual trend of worsening wildfire danger in the Alps and Alpine Foreland, with the climate change trend exceeding natural variability in the late 2040s. The excess would likely have happened earlier if not for the area’s current low wildfire danger.

These areas are expected to see what’s today considered a “100-year” fire event every 30 years by 2050 and every 10 years by the end of the century.

Severe debris flow in Ascona, Switzerland, in summer 1997, five months after a forest fire. Photo: Lorenza Re, Forest Service Canton Ticino
Severe debris flow in Ascona, Switzerland, in summer 1997, five months after a forest fire — photo ©1997 Lorenza Re, Forest Service Canton Ticino

“Alterations in these variables are projected to more than double the frequency of occurrence of extreme fire weather until the end of the 21st century … and increase the duration, severity, and spatial extent of fires,” Miller said. “Due to climate change, fire weather and hence the likelihood of fire events are projected to increase in several regions of the world – including historically less fire-prone areas – in the future.”

A study posted on PreventionWeb indicates that fires in the Alps will increase because of growing intensity of drought periods and heat waves — and the increasing fire hazard resulting from rural abandonment and more recreational activities.

Alpine communities, such as the previously mentioned Canadian community of Whistler, may see this as a hard pill to swallow. The lack of historical fires in the area means local people also lack an established “culture” for living with fires, according to Switzerland’s University of Bern. Researchers there are currently working to identify the wildfire risk awareness of communities throughout the canton of Bern and determine the best approaches for specific groups in the area.

“Based on scientific findings, the project aims to develop optimized and/or new communication strategies and materials for implementation,” the university said. “These can promote behavioral changes regarding forest fire risks, thus helping to prevent such fires.”

Water system on the Tonto needs pre-season fire help

A longstanding wildfire safety collaboration between the Tonto National Forest and Arizona’s Gila County officials needs updating. The county began collaborating with the USFS and local fire districts back in 2006 when it installed 14 water tanks, bladders, and storage systems in helicopter-accessible areas on the forest. The intent, according to a recent Gila County Board of Supervisors meeting, was to put fires out as soon as they were detected in the Rim Country area near Payson. The water sites were positioned where helicopter turnaround time would be less than five minutes.

2019 Woodbury Fire
The Woodbury Fire, Superstition Wilderness on the Tonto, photo (c)2019 Daisy Mountain Fire Department

But those water systems are now falling apart. Gila County Emergency Services Coordinator Carl Melford told the Board of Supervisors that the average lifespan of a water bladder is five to seven years, and many of the sites have old bladders with deteriorating water storage tanks.

Melford hopes to use a $609,000 congressionally directed earmark grant through the USFS to fix the deteriorating system. The funds would have to be matched from Gila County for a total of $1.2 million.

“This funding provides the opportunity for the evaluation and purchase of new water tank storage systems to replace the dilapidated tanks and old bladders and to hire a qualified contractor to transport and install 56 tanks of 5000-gallon capacity at the 14 locations,” Melford said in his proposal to the board. “This will increase the capability of fire suppression efforts, which is vital to the protection of Gila County residents’ life and property in areas prone to wildfires.”

East Verde River trail on the Tonto National Forest
East Verde River trail on the Tonto National Forest — photo ©2023 Joey Cavaleri

Bids for the project are due by May 14, just in time for what used to be the start of Arizona’s wildfire season from late April to the beginning of monsoon in June. That “season,” however, looks to mostly be a thing of the past as wildfires burn 100 days more than they did 50 years ago.

“We really don’t say we have a ‘fire season’ because we can have activity throughout the state year-round,” Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management spokesperson Tiffany Davila told the Arizona Republic last year. “We can see fire activity increase during the end of April, beginning of May.”

The Tonto National Forest’s most recent wildfire, the Valentine Fire, started on August 16 last year, nearly caused evacuations, and burned nearly 10,000 acres.

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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.

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.

Texas hearings live

Here’s a tip from Michael Archer’s “Wildfire News of the Day”

ABC 7 in Amarillo is livestreaming the Texas House Committee that’s  investigating the deadly Panhandle wildfires; it resumes testimony today in Pampa.Before testimony began, Chairman Ken King, R-Canadian, said Osmose decided the company does not need to participate in the investigation. Osmose is a third-party contractor that inspects power poles for Xcel Energy. The company is named in some of the wildfire related lawsuits.

According to one of the lawsuits, the pole determined to be the ignition source of the Smokehouse Creek Fire should have been removed after it was inspected by Osmose earlier this year.

Day 2 of testimony in legislative hearings on deadly Panhandle wildfires:

One of the witnesses is explaining that without the many loads of water and retardant dumped on the Smokehouse Fire, his town would have completely burned to the ground. (Remember as you listen that the references to the “Forest Service” is not the federal USDA agency — it’s Texas A&M Forest Service.)

Here’s Day 1 of testimony, with a transcript: