Climate Central has examined historical trends in fire weather — a combination of low humidity, high heat, and strong winds — across the U.S., using data from 476 weather stations to assess trends in 245 climate divisions spanning all 48 contiguous states over a 50-year period from 1973 to 2022.
Wildfire seasons have become longer and more intense, especially across the West, and the research also found that many parts of the East have experienced smaller but important increases in fire weather. Even small increases in the East — with almost 28 million homes in fire-prone areas — puts millions more people at increased risk. As the research intro points out, the same weather variables that influence fire weather and wildfire are factors that determine the safe use of prescribed fire, critical to reducing fuels and thus fire risk. More fire weather days means fewer windows for prescribed burning.
The reports include both summaries and in-depth comparisons of Fifty Years of Fire Weather in the West (example: Some places, including parts of Texas, California, Oregon, and Washington, are experiencing fire weather more than twice as often now as in the early 1970s) and Fifty Years of Fire Weather in the East (example: New England has experienced a decrease in annual fire weather days, driven largely by fewer days in which the wind speed variable hit the analytical threshold). Reduced wind speeds could be partially attributed to a decrease in the temperature gradient between land and sea along the Gulf of Maine, as sea surface temperatures have warmed drastically due to climate change.
Best-selling author and futurist Peter Diamandis became frustrated in recent years with the “craziness” of constant wildfire alerts he’d received. But unlike most people, Diamandis has a Rolodex full of wealthy benefactors and politicians, along with experience with a solution he had used before: Create a contest.
On April 21 his group XPRIZE launched its latest contest: finding new ideas to detect and suppress wildfires.
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) said the prize threshold includes detecting and suppressing a high-risk wildfire in 10 minutes or less, and pinpointing from space all fire ignitions across multiple states or countries — in 60 seconds. These are the challenges for innovators in XPRIZE Wildfire, a four-year, $11 million competition to develop and demonstrate fully autonomous capabilities to find and fight wildfires.
The United Nations, the White House, and Congress recently have prioritized destructive wildfires as a major economic, environmental, and safety threat. Patti Poppe, CEO of PG&E, said they are co-sponsoring the project. “Today’s launch of XPRIZE Wildfire is a call-to-action to entrepreneurs, roboticists, artificial-intelligence experts, scientists, and innovators from across the globe to revolutionize wildfire detection and suppression,” she said.
XPRIZE Wildfire encourages teams from around the world to innovate across firefighting technologies in two different tracks designed to transform how fires are detected and suppressed.
In the Autonomous Wildfire Response track, teams will need to monitor at least 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles), and autonomously suppress a wildfire within 10 minutes of detection.
In the Space-Based Wildfire Detection & Intelligence track, teams will have one minute to accurately detect all fires across a landscape larger than entire states or countries, and 10 minutes to precisely characterize and report data (with the fewest false positives) to two ground stations.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Palmer Luckey, a 30-year-old founder of Oculus, a virtual reality company that sold for $2 billion, announced that he was forming the first team to compete for the prize. He said he cares more about solving the problem than winning the money, but he believes the cash will motivate other contestants to form teams and compete.
“I sold my last company for billions of dollars so I can do whatever I want,” he said. “We started working on wildfire tech because I think it’s very, very important. The money in this prize to me is honestly immaterial.” Luckey said at the contest launch that he thinks software, not hardware, will make the difference in detecting and containing fires.
The four-year contest is not winner-take-all. Teams will compete for top prizes of as much as $3.5 million and a bonus $1 million prize to develop technology that can detect fires both from the ground and from space, and fight them using drones or other autonomous vehicles. They’ll compete, for example, to see which technology can accurately detect fires across a land mass the size of a state or country in one minute or suppress fires using an autonomous vehicle within 10 minutes.
Andrea Santy, who is running the competition for XPrize, also said the prize money may not be the most important driver. Teams will benefit from multiple rounds of live testing and validation that would be hard to organize independently. The group is spending an additional $11 million beyond the prize money to run the contest, she said; some of that money will fund a documentary about the competition.
XPRIZE Wildfire is offered in partnership with Co-Sponsors PG&E and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Presenting Sponsor Minderoo Foundation, Bonus Prize Sponsor Lockheed Martin, Supporting Sponsor Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and Benefactors Nichola Eliovits and Michael Antonov. Sixteen teams are already registered. For more information, to get involved, or to register a team to compete, visit the xprize.org/wildfire website.
The National Firefighter Registry (NFR) officially opens its enrollment portal today after a few months in pre-launch testing and years of preparation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Wildland and structural firefighters who register and share their exposure histories at NFR.cdc.gov will help support the NFR’s goal of understanding and reducing cancer in firefighters.
The registry seeks comprehensive participation and notes four objectives that firefighters will support by enrolling:
“Help protect your brothers and sisters in the fire service from developing cancer
“Help lessen the impact of cancer on firefighters’ families and friends
“Pave the way for new health and safety measures to keep the next generation of firefighters safe
“Improve understanding of cancer risk among minority, female, and volunteer firefighters, as well as groups like wildland firefighters”
To develop comprehensive and ongoing analyses of risks and illnesses, the NFR encourages participation by all firefighters, structural and wildland, and all statuses — volunteer, on-call, seasonal, full-time, retired, disabled, with or without a cancer diagnosis.
Bill Gabbert wrote many articles in Wildfire Today covering the genesis and progress toward the National Firefighter Registry (also referred to as the “cancer registry”). One article shared Kathleen Navarro’s “A Brief Look” at cancer and health risks for wildland firefighters, which notes an estimated 8-43% increased chance of lung cancer and a 16-30% increased risk of heart disease mortality among wildland firefighters. Gabbert died of cancer in January.
For agencies and organizations seeking to support enrollment, a communications portal offers a range of print and social media messages.
One suggestion when registering: gather up your experience records first. I completed the first three registration stages (the “profile” stage) in around 10 minutes and then took a break to collect some notes on seasons of service and types and amount of exposure. A registrant can step aside from the profile stage of the portal and continue later, but once you enter details of your fire experience in the “experience” stage of registration, you aren’t able to edit it.
Recording an accurate representation of work and fire experience is a core component of the registry, which seeks to create a database of fire experience, firefighter’s risk exposure and long-term health effects. This has proven a challenge for researchers examining the higher prevalence of cancer occurrence among firefighters.
This can be particularly challenging with wildland firefighters serving on seasonal assignments (and with seasonal exposure to many varieties and quantities of smoke and other potential fireline-related carcinogens). The registry includes questions that may assist in determining wildland smoke exposure, including a firefighter’s role in fire — such as hand crew, engine crew, aviation, etc.; firefighter or fire manager; and the duration and type of fires (wildfire vs. prescribed) that a firefighter responded to on average, by the specific positions held. The experience questionnaire includes most varieties of fire experience, including wildland-urban interface as compared to wildfires. The experience and personal demographic sections may take from 20-30 minutes to complete, longer if you’d had a variety of positions and fire experience in your career.
The document below shares a step-by-step process. Note that the consent is in-depth, in part to ensure participants that their shared information will be kept confidential. Survey questions include general health and demographic questions, including a history of tobacco or alcohol use and workplace but non-fire exposure to potential carcinogens.
Once a firefighter is registered, an anonymized tracking system in state cancer registries will link a cancer diagnosis (if one occurs) to the last four digits of a social security number, which will then correlate the diagnosis with the NFR data that includes the firefighter’s experience and exposure. In some cases, NIOSH may connect with a registered firefighter to seek voluntary participation in additional research.
The University of Oregon in Eugene is launching a new research program to study effects of wildfire smoke and examine options for reducing risks. UO research professor Cass Moseley told KGW News that the center’s launch is due in part to efforts by Oregon’s U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, who secured $800,000 in funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Research will focus in part on new ways to protect homes from smoke infiltration, along with more efficient communication with communities in emergencies and developing community action plans tailored to different regions in the Northwest.
The new Wildfire Smoke Research and Practice Center builds on research already completed through the Ecosystem Workforce Program (EWP), a joint venture between the UO and Oregon State University. KLCC reported that the EWP’s senior policy advisor Cass Moseley will head up the new center; she said recent incidents in the Pacific Northwest, particularly the 2020 Labor Day fires, highlighted the need for new smoke research. Much of Oregon, particularly the southern Willamette Valley, was choked with wildfire smoke for weeks during the 2020 fire season.
Those fires and the severe levels of smoke really emphasized the need for new research, according to Moseley. “And we saw this fall in Oakridge, several weeks of highly dense smoke as the fire there settled into that valley and really stayed; that community spent a lot of time and energy responding to that smoke event.”
The center’s launch was announced by Merkley and Wyden, who secured the funding to help communities prepare for wildfire smoke. One area of interest is the toxins released when manmade structures burn, as these risks became obvious during western Oregon fires in wildland/urban interface areas over the last few years. Most smoke research has focused on burning timber and wooden structures, and part of the new planned research will study effects of smoke from burning plastics, glass, fuels, and other synthetic materials. Moseley said the center has three co-investigators and a principal investigator leading the group, along with research assistants and graduate and undergraduate student assistants.