Record-breaking fires, COVID-19, and impacts on firefighters

It’s been four years since a near-perfect storm hit the U.S. West. COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020, just months before the worst wildfire season in recorded history.

The interactions between wildfire and COVID-19 were large and sweeping, research in the years since has shown. The 2020 season left lasting impacts on the wildland firefighting force, both systemically and personally.

Wildland firefighters are at high risk for both COVID-19 infection and, when infected, experiencing severe illness from the virus, research published in the National Library of Medicine and Science academic journals found. Researchers in one study examined potential health and workforce capacity impacts by modeling the movement of suppression resources across the country over a season and the corresponding potential for disease spread and cascading outbreaks across wildfire incidents.

inbound and outbound firefighters on a Montana fire

The increased risk stems primarily from firefighters’ exposure to wildfire smoke, limited access to hygiene supplies, and constantly being physically near other wildland firefighters and the public.

IHC superintendents were surveyed by USFS researchers a year after the fires burned. At the beginning of the pandemic, the agency launched a wide range of new practices for hotshot crews to limit the spread of COVID-19 while also, it was hoped, improving operational efficiency. New practices included changes in pre-fire preparation, using virtual paperwork and briefings, and reformatting traditional fire camps to a more widespread layout. The USFS also created a COVID-19 Incident Risk Assessment Tool for fire managers; it measured numerous factors including camp size, mitigation techniques, and number of positive cases to estimate how at-risk each crew was.

The researchers wanted to know if superintendents were interested in maintaining any of those practices in daily hotshot crew use in the years after 2020, regardless of COVID-19. The survey found that the majority of practices contributed positively to operational efficiency in addition to crewmember safety and well-being. Most respondents preferred the ease of virtual vs. in-person paperwork and briefings, they liked having crews spike on or near the line with the full-scale ICP camp away from the fire, and they felt better physically and mentally as a result of these changes.

Wildland firefighter well-being — and proper pay — are still a major focus for the USFS post-2020 as retention becomes an increasingly worrying issue. Research conducted this year on retention found that highly skilled wildland firefighters with a high number of assigned days, payment of additional annual earnings, and gained experience throughout the firefighter’s career all had positive effects on retention. Local wages of alternative occupations in a firefighter’s local area had no significant effect on retention.

The future of wildland firefighter physical health may also see improvements thanks to technological developments stemming from COVID-19. Respiratory illnesses like coronavirus, and other long-term health risks firefighters face such as lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, may be seen in firefighters less and less as mobile respirators proceed further in development.

California fitted wildland firefighters with a mobile respirator prototype last October while they dug firelines or cut down trees with chainsaws. The results were mixed.

“Plenty broke. Hoses popped out of sockets. Straps snapped. Masks slid down sweating faces. Filters became dislodged,” Julie Johnson wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle.

During this event, firefighters from Cal Fire, L.A. County and the USFS took turns trying out several types of mask. They hiked down a slope and then back up, then pulled off their masks, sweating and breathing hard in triple-digit temps. Each round took only about ten minutes.

Firefighters shared their impressions with observers: Felt like a muzzle. Was too bulky. Too tight. It slipped off my face once I began to sweat.

Hearing one of her colleagues say “it’s better than nothing,” Cal Fire’s Sol Espinoza spoke up. “I’d rather take nothing,” she said.

The test is one of many completed or planned throughout the country as the fire agencies look to lower firefighter mortality from diseases increasingly found to be worsened through wildfire smoke inhalation. Experts have hedged their bets on technology frequently used to keep COVID-19 patients hospitalized with severe cases alive. Adaptations in the technology are still under development as researchers figure out which version might be best suited to meet the dynamic needs of firefighters in the field.

Espinoza, a firefighter with Cal Fire in San Bernardino. Espinoza said she could never imagine wearing a constrictive device that makes it harder to breathe.

Will fire be the death of California’s wine industry?

The “beating heart of the American wine industry” has had to reckon with this question since 2017 when numerous wildfires spread across northern California’s famed wine country. The Tubbs, Atlas, and Nuns fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres, caused numerous deaths, and destroyed multiple wineries and vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties.

The total acreage burned and widespread property damage caused the 2017 wildfire season to be the most destructive in California’s history. That record-breaking year was quickly surpassed by the 2018 and 2020 fire seasons. The 2020 season, in particular, also broke burn records in the other top American wine-producing states of Oregon and Washington, and even Canada in 2021. Wildfires in the years following impacted international wine markets as well, including Italy, France, and Australia.

University California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Intense flames aren’t the only threat wildfires bring to vineyards; it’s also the smoke they produce. A condition called “smoke taint” causes wine grapes exposed to smoke to acquire “unmarketable smoky, burnt, ashy, or medicinal sensory characteristics,” according to the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI).

The international wine industry has made it clear that it views wildfires and smoke as existential threats, along with increasing water shortages and climate change as a whole. The industry has poured billions of dollars into research on ways to stave off the industry’s wildfire-caused death rattle. Examples of recent smoke-related wine research in the U.S. include a protective spray coating for grapes, detecting the compounds responsible for the undesirable taste, and using smoke sensors in vineyards for risk assessment.

Oregon State University smoke research
Oregon State University smoke research

Agriculture-based technological developments, however, can only do so much to keep a fire-sensitive crop alive after it’s planted on fire-dependent lands. Grapes, while not technically invasive, have invaded portions of the Western United States’ lands and have largely usurped once highly forested regions where fire played an important ecological role. As prescribed fire establishes a larger role in modern Western land management practices, how long can an industry based on fruit that needs a smokeless environment survive and thrive?

The birth of California’s wine industry is well-recorded: Spanish missionaries planted the state’s first sustained vineyards in southern California during the late 1700s using grapes native to Europe — to make sacramental wine. Wine production then exploded in the northern and central parts of the state during the Gold Rush, paving the way for California’s current top grape-producing counties of Fresno, San Joaquin, and Kern.

What’s not well-recorded is how agricultural land conversions cleared millions of acres of conifer and oak forests throughout the state to make way for vineyards and other crop fields. In Napa and Sonoma counties specifically, areas now known as the pinnacle of “wine country,” modern vineyards sit on land that once supported massive oak forests culturally maintained by the area’s various Indigenous tribes.

“While almost all of the valley oaks are gone from Napa — the savannas were largely cleared to make way for intensive agriculture in the late 19th century — a few pockets remain,” a New York Times article on the Napa Valley Historical Ecology Atlas said. “The oldest trees, dating back more than 300 years, were alive when the Caymus, Napa, Canijolmano and Mayacma tribes managed the valley to produce abundant acorns, deer, salmon, and other staples.”

The clearing of these woodlands was coupled with a government-mandated suppression of cultural burning, a kind of prescribed burning Native Americans used to promote culturally significant foods and resources within a landscape. After a century of fire suppression, the USFS has begun to understand how significant cultural fire is to promoting biodiversity and creating healthy landscapes.

“Colonization and subsequent governmental fire policy mandates have disrupted the cultural use of fire, which in turn has disrupted ecological functions where those fires are absent,” USFS research said. “As society grapples with the devastating impacts of wildfires and the loss of biological diversity, many Indigenous people see traditional fire use as a key to mitigation of devastating losses while retaining traditional livelihoods associated with burning.”

In hopes of preventing future megafires, California increases prescribed burns throughout the state, including wine country. Even though research shows smoke from prescribed burns tends to be less harmful and toxic compared with smoke from wildfires, the grapes themselves don’t seem to care.

“Studies have shown that grapes need to be exposed to only a single smoke event, irrespective of the source, to become ‘tainted,’” AWRI said. “Bushfires, forest fires, planned burns, grassfires, and agricultural burns can all cause smoke taint if smoke from those fires is present in a vineyard at a high enough level for a period of time. Current research suggests fresh smoke presents the greatest risk for smoke taint, but smoke that has drifted hundreds of kilometers has also resulted in smoke taint.”

Efforts have been made for fire planners and wine producers to work together to minimize smoke’s negative effects on wine grapes, but thus far have mostly been in vain. AWRI and other wine industry researchers recommend the best time to conduct prescribed burns to limit smoke taint  is during the height of wildfire season between May and October; before grapevine flowering and after grape harvest. The “usual” best times to set prescribed burns, mid-spring or in the fall, are the most at-risk times for smoke taint in grapes.

The contradiction is clear: Grapes, at least those that winemakers don’t want smoke-tainted, can’t exist in an area with regularly prescribed burns, e.g. California.

Grapes themselves are partly to blame for this. A concept called “terroir” has been used for centuries to describe the deep ecology behind why grapes grown in different places and in different ways acquire different qualities. Everything including temperature, soil, geology, elevation, water quality, wind direction, farming practices, and the winemaking process influences grapes and, by extension, the wine made from them. Even if researchers could 100 percent prevent smoke-taint issues in wine grapes, the grapes themselves would still be affected by the inevitable changes the fire-dependent landscape will experience in years to come.

The irony is that California does have native grapes, which thrived in the state’s pre-colonized and fire-dependent forests. In fact, the global wine industry wouldn’t exist today without California Wild Grapevines, as the species was used to save the European wine industry between 1870 and 1900 when most wine grapes were killed by leaf- and root-attacking aphids. Winemakers, in a last-resort desperate bid, used Califonia Wild Grapevine roots and grafted them onto European grape varieties. The result was a plant with the root resilience of a wild grape and the desirable taste of a European grape.

California wild grapes themselves, however, were originally discredited by European colonists for being too “foxy” and not containing enough sugar. But in a state destined to have more smoke, the more fire-resilient California Wild Grape, whose burnt vines can resprout, may soon be the California wine industry’s only option. One farmer in Sonoma County agrees and is experimenting with more than 30 different native grape hybrids in response to climate change.

The global wine industry is one of stubborn tradition. The industry’s desire to find easy “solutions” to existential problems without systemic change paints a worrying picture of the role California’s vineyards play in the state’s fight against future wildfires. Winemakers can only hide behind the industry’s $70 billion price tag for so long.

There comes a point at which economic benefit is outweighed by potential ecological destruction, and the industry will soon have to decide whether it will play a role in California’s solutions to megafires or actively hamper efforts to help make the state’s landscape healthy. Winemakers in California may soon have to answer the question of “when should this industry die?”

Australia’s ‘Black Summer’ bushfires’ impact on tourism still being uncovered

Researchers are still learning the full impact of the Australian brushfires that burned nearly 60 million acres, or 24 million hectares, between 2019 and 2020.

Numerous reports have looked into different facets of the disastrous season, including the massive loss of plant life and firefighter experiences during the bushfires. Australia also created the Bushfire Royal Commission,  later renamed the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. The commission produced a report that modernized the nation’s disaster preparedness and recovery.

Air-Crane about 10 years ago in the North Grampians.
Air-Crane about 10 years ago in the North Grampians — photo ©Kenny Chapman

The most recent report on the bushfires focused on how they affected the  nation’s tourism industry, specifically how previous reports underestimated the financial losses.

“Our novel research into the losses from the tourism shutdown resulting from Australia’s 2019-20 fires found that flowing on from direct impacts of AU $1.7 billion, indirect impacts along supply chains resulted in $2.8 billion in total output losses and $1.6 billion in reduced consumption,” the University of Sydney researchers’ report said. “We calculated significant spill-over costs, with total output losses being an increase of 61 percent on top of the direct damages identified.”

The study was reportedly the first time researchers documented changes throughout Australia’s entire supply chain, rather than focusing on specific parts of the Australian economy. Researchers said the ability to fully quantify disasters’ effects on a nation’s economy will become more important as climate change intensifies natural disasters.

“Natural hazards may increase economic inequalities, with the burden of climate adaptation and mitigation adding to the costs of governments already struggling under business-as-usual,” the report says. “Australia’s reputation as a pristine destination could become permanently damaged in the longer term under global warming, with fewer people traveling in Australia in our peak summer holiday season; similarly, people may start to avoid other countries and regions that are increasingly in the media for their wildfires and other natural hazards.”

Click here to read the full study.

Researchers are still learning the full impact of the Australian brushfires that burned nearly 60 million acres, or 24 million hectares, between 2019 and 2020.

Numerous reports have looked into different facets of the disastrous season, including the massive loss of plant life and firefighter experiences during the bushfires.

In some parts of Canada, the 2023 fires never ended

Wildfire seasons have been getting longer since the 1970s, according to (among others) the USDA Climate Hubs.

“The wildfire season in Western states has extended from 5 months to over 7 months in length,” the department said. Since the 1980s, the annual number of large fires and area burned has significantly increased  (according to a report by Anthony Westerling, Hugo Hidalgo, Daniel Cayan, and Thomas Swetnam in the journal Science). The average burn time of individual fires has grown from 6 days (between 1973 and 1982) to 52 days (between 2003 and 2012).

The increase in another wildfire phenomenon may spell the end of wildfire seasons altogether and turn wildland firefighting into a year-round effort, more than it already is.

“Zombie fires,” or wildfires that smolder underground during the winter before reemerging in the spring, are becoming more common in Arctic forests, according to a 2021 study published in Scientific American. The most likely cause was attributed to climate change.

“Contrary to the hypothesis that overwinter fires sustain themselves in carbon-rich, organic soil layers known as peat, the researchers learned that most of them had burned in drier, upland sites with dense tree populations; the find suggested fires had instead smoldered underground in woody tree roots,” another Scientific American article on the subject said.

The woody tree roots in British Columbia’s boreal forests are feared to be the next place where a zombie fire could emerge, continuing Canada’s record-breaking wildfire season of last year. As of January 18, the BC Wildfire Service map shows that around 100 active wildfires are still burning in the province, some of which are still smoldering underground and threaten to kick off yet another disastrous wildfire season this year.

BC Wildfire Service map
BC Wildfire Service map — current fires — 01/26/2024

It wouldn’t be the first time zombie fires foretold a bad fire season. At the beginning of 2023, British Columbia recorded 16 “carryover” fires, according to the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, and BC Wildfire Service data shows that in most years since 2014, only five or fewer  carryover fires were reported.

“A lot of people have talked about the 2023 fire season being over, but it’s not over,” said Sonja Leverkus, a BC wildland fire crew leader. “It is not over in northeast British Columbia. Our fires did not stop burning.”

Risk assessment in the West

In 2018 Rick Stratton, a USFS fire planning program manager for the R6 Regional Office in Portland and Pyrologix provided a Quantitative Wildland Fire Risk Assessment for communities most at risk in the Pacific Northwest — and he listed the top 25.

Six years later he compared that assessment with what had actually happened, and 18 of the 25 communities had recorded significant/catastrophic wildland fires. His assessment illustrates a rapidly evolving wildland fire environment, in which entire communities are at risk. Below are some of Stratton’s slides.

Risk assessment presentation by Rick Stratton

How do interface disasters occur? Jack Cohen‘s work on wildland/urban interface fires demonstrated that in the beginning, the set-up for a disaster fire includes extreme fire conditions — much of which has been widespread across the West over the last decade or more. Abundant dry fuels, fire-friendly weather such as drought, extreme heat, low humidities, and high winds all contribute to a landscape ready for a fire disaster.

To that setting is added both wildland fire (with rapid spread) and urban fire — which includes multiple simultaneous ignitions and residential areas in which fire spreads from house to house to house, complicated by non-vegetation burning of cars, fences, decks, garages, stacked firewood, and often-hazardous materials typically found on interface industrial properties, workshops and garden sheds, or even gas stations. Frightened residents trying to evacuate on limited access routes, often with uncoordinated communications and plans, simply multiply the crisis.

How interface disasters occur
How interface disasters occur — Jack Cohen

Pacific Northwest risk map: Clearly illustrated here is the band of interface-populated communities that runs down from the northeast corner of Washington to the southwest corner of Oregon — adjacent to and in forested areas.

Pacific Northwest risk map

Unlike the larger metro areas (Seattle, Portland), these communities are surrounded by rural and forested land, and consist mainly of smaller communities with limited suppression resources, and sometimes challenging water supply or prevention resources.

charted risk exposure

… and … 6 years later:

Interface fires in Northwest communities at risk fir catastrophic interface fire
Interface fires in Northwest communities at risk fir catastrophic interface fire

Only a few of those ranked community exposure locations were NOT burned by a large interface fire. Ellensburg, Washington, suffered multiple fires, as did Spokane, Grants Pass, and Chelan.

Joe Stutler
Joe Stutler

A Western Region Co-Chair for the Wildland Fire Cohesive Strategy, Joe Stutler worked 35 years with the U.S. Forest Service. Since retiring, he’s worked for Northtree Fire International and as senior forester with Deschutes County for 8 years. He has worked as a hotshot, smokejumper, district and forest FMO, district  ranger, law enforcement officer, and regional fire operations specialist  for both R5 and R6. He put in 33 years as Type I and II Incident Commander and 6 years on National Area Command Teams. He has managed all-hazard and law enforcement assignments across the country and currently fills Command and General  positions on Type 1 IMTs and Area Command teams.

Here are a few of Joe Stutler’s thoughts on these risk assessments: I am wide-eyed at the accuracy of Rick Stratton’s predictions and the big fires that followed in 2018-2022.  Most of these high-ranking landscapes were in Fire Regimes 1 & 2, and those that have been burned by large intense wildfire have now reset to Condition Class 1.  But what about those that remain in Condition Class 3, like here in central Oregon and other places in the U.S.?

The wildland fire environment is rapidly changing, and this slide deck shows that to be true. The question is, what can we in the business of helping people understand it actually do about it?  The answer lies in  collectively and strategically communicating these issues.

From my world, I immediately think about how the Cohesive Strategy has been affirmed by the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC) AND the President’s Wildfire Mitigation and Management Commission as THE strategic framework that can be applied at and by every level (federal, tribal, state, local, and NGOs) to address wildland fire challenges to make substantial, meaningful progress toward landscape resiliency, community resiliency, and fire adaptation — and a safer, more effective, risk-based wildfire response.

The part that stands out to me (apart from the obvious needs to increase the pace and scale of landscape resiliency treatments and address the different response approaches and needs of the “urban firestorm” probability) is the need for doubling down toward the CS goal of fire-adapted communities.  The goal is described as “communities that are as prepared as possible to receive, respond to, and recover from wildland fire.”

This elevates the responsibility for preparedness to more than just our response as land management agencies and organizations, but to us as residents, responders, planners, emergency managers, governments, businesses, news outlets, and other organizations in communities.  We each have a responsibility to think about what RECEIVING FIRE, RESPONDING TO FIRE, and RECOVERING FROM FIRE means to each of these community affiliates — and start heading down the path of preparation. These are ripe for defining within communities and providing suggestions for action.  The definitions and suggestions will be different in every community, and we can organize and assist with these conversations, suggestions, and actionable solutions.

Many best practices have been applied and are underway across the West by all these entities, but the devastating destruction of entire communities over the last decade tells us that there is still much to do at the community level to prepare for wildland fire.  Even today, many communities across the West — and for that matter east of the Mississippi — still do not realize that not only is the wildfire risk high, but there is also high likelihood of loss given the rapidly changing wildland fire environment.  A changing climate (hotter, drier, windier conditions) alone is making “urban firestorms” a more prevalent reality, even in the East and South.

It’s clear that we need efforts toward all three goals of the Cohesive Strategy to make a difference and change the outcomes of wildland fire.  Our vision is a good place to start — “To safely and effectively extinguish fire, when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and collectively, learn to live with wildland fire.” If we as individuals are truly learning to live with wildland fire, we must consider what that looks like in the face of the research and outcomes that Rick Stratton shares and then apply the Cohesive Strategy for better fire outcomes.

Ignoring our responsibility to learn to live with wildland fire is a choice. And we now know what the outcomes of that are.

Canada’s record-breaking wildfires have widespread logging partly to blame

Quebec and Ontario’s environmentally crucial boreal forests had a tough wildfire season in 2023. The provinces had 12.8 million and 1.1 million acres burn, respectively.

The 44 million acres burned by wildfires across Canada have been attributed mainly to abnormal drought and high temperatures,  but a new study is pointing to another possible factor: the planting of millions of acres of immature trees after widespread logging. A recent study published by researchers at Australia’s Griffith University found more than 35 million acres of Canada’s forests have been lost to logging since 1976, including 20 million acres in Quebec and 14 million acres in Ontario.

The “loss” wasn’t caused by deforestation, which is “land that has been cleared of trees and permanently converted to another use” under Canada’s definition. Rather, the forest has been lost to forest degradation, or the conversion of naturally regenerating forest to plantations of planted trees.

“The Canadian Government claims that its forests have been managed according to the principles of sustainable forest management for many years,” the researchers said, “yet this notion of sustainability is tied mainly to maximizing wood production and ensuring the regeneration of commercially desirable tree species following logging,”

Overview of logged forest within the study area for the period ~1976 to 2020.

The decrease in the land area of older, more resilient forests across both Quebec and Ontario — and their subsequent replacement with immature trees — both lowered overall forest biodiversity and increased the prevalence of disturbances (wildfire, insect infestations, disease spread) over time.

“Logging has significantly increased the rate of disturbances in this region,” the report said. “This decrease in older forests when compared with historical natural conditions is accompanied by the resulting decline in structural attributes — such as large live and dead standing trees and coarse woody debris associated with older forests — which negatively affects biodiversity.”

The full study is online [HERE].

Quebec and Ontario’s environmentally crucial boreal forests had a tough wildfire season in 2023. The provinces had 12.8 million and 1.1 million acres burn, respectively.

The 44 million acres burned by wildfires across Canada have been attributed mainly to abnormal drought and high temperatures,  but a new study is pointing to another possible factor: the planting of millions of acres of immature trees after widespread logging. A recent study published by researchers at Australia’s Griffith University found more than 35 million acres of Canada’s forests have been lost to logging since 1976, including 20 million acres in Quebec and 14 million acres in Ontario.