Smoke warnings don’t arrive soon enough

A new study report from the University of Oregon suggests that public warnings on wildfire smoke air quality often aren’t issued till after smoke has already swept into the area. The report details recommendations on better communications by public institutions about wildfire smoke and health risks — so that local residents have more time to prepare. More than half of wildfire-related tweets by 32 institutional accounts in 2022 were posted at peak levels of smoke when exposure risk was highest.

“On the one side, these institutions are doing a great job of highlighting the risks when the risks are present,” said Catherine Slavik, a postdoctoral researcher at the U of O Center for Science Communication Research. She said she hopes more of these conversations will occur before it’s too late for affected residents to prepare.

smoke alerts by location

KEZI reported that of 1287 analyzed tweets, only one in seven instructed and encouraged preparation such as wearing respirators, staying indoors, or using air purifiers. Only 213 of all the tweets used AQI labels to report on the smoky air and only 64 described risks with numeric data — such as percentage likelihood of a fire spreading or the number of acres burning.

Recommendations for smoke communications include expressing hazard severity, risk, likelihood, and mitigation, including numeric information and AQI levels when describing risks, practicing community engagement, and discussing risks outside of the fire season.

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Remote fire sensors deployed on Hawaiian islands

Fire detection sensors are being set up around Maui and other Hawaiian islands to allow local resources to respond faster when wildfires break out, said Governor Josh Green today.

CNN reports that Maui Mayor Richard Bissen added, “The introduction of an early detection system will give our first responders a critical advantage in protecting our community. With this new technology, detecting fires at the very early phases will save lives.”

According to MauiNow, the remote sensors are en route to Kīhei and Lahaina, and they will use a combination of thermal imaging, gas detection, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms; the wildfire sensors detect concentrations or spikes in particulates or carbon monoxide to identify wildfire ignition — in real time. The sensors transmit data by email or text notifications to pre-set contacts, and the remote units are small enough for installation on utility poles or traffic lights. They can also work in all weather conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“What’s important is we get to the scene as fast as we can, so that we can catch fire in incipient phases,” said Maui Fire Chief Brad Ventura. “Today we share one more tool that’s going to help expedite our responses to our communities.”

About 80 fire sensors are being set up around the islands; the first 20 on Maui are planned for deployment by the first week of April.

These sensors detect heat and also can track anomalies such as airborne smoke particles and gases produced by fires — and can distinguish those from other substances common in the air around Hawai’i — including volcanic ash and ocean salt.

~ Thanks and a tip of the hardhat to Rick for this. 

Yet another blow for PacifiCorp

Guess which utility company in Oregon was ordered in a jury trial to cough up another $42 million for its negligence in starting the 2020 Labor Day fires?

It’s come to feel almost like a late-night comedy routine. Financial damages now total up in the billions of dollars, as PacifiCorp and others have racked up loss after loss in court with people who lost their homes, their properties, friends and family members, and often lifetimes of memories living in scenic river canyons of western Oregon. The utility company was ordered yesterday to pay off 10 more victims of the fires 3½ years ago that were driven by east winds, high temperatures, and flames started by neglected electric equipment owned and (not) maintained by Pacific Power, which is a part of PacifiCorp, which is a part of Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

Oregon's Labor Day fires
Oregon’s 2020 Labor Day fires — Oregon State Fire Marshal photo

As an Associated Press report explains, in June of last year a jury found PacifiCorp liable for negligently refusing to cut power to its 600,000 electric customers, despite repeated warnings from fire and emergency officials. The jury determined that the utility had acted negligently and willfully and should have to pay punitive and other damages — a decision that applied to a class of current and potential litigants including the owners of up to 2,500 properties.

Tuesday’s decision was the third verdict applied to a specific set of plaintiffs. Last month, a jury awarded $85 million to a different group of nine plaintiffs, and the jury that initially found PacifiCorp liable awarded about $90 million to 17 homeowners named as plaintiffs in that case.

Other PacifiCorp lawsuits over the Labor Day 2020 fires are detailed HERE   and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE.  Thousands of other class members are still awaiting trials, though the sides are also expected to engage in mediation that could lead to a settlement.

The U.S. government is also threatening to sue PacifiCorp to recover nearly $1 billion in costs related to the 2020 wildfires in southern Oregon and northern California, though the company is trying to negotiate a settlement. The PacifiCorp website says the company leads in wildfire mitigation, and its system-wide, six-state plan includes in-house emergency management and meteorology and data science teams — and features the installation of over 450 weather stations, grid hardening, fire-risk modeling software, and an “enhanced” vegetation management program.

“The safety of our employees, customers, and communities remains our top priority,” declares PacifiCorp.

Meanwhile in southeast Idaho, renewable energy developer NorthRenew Energy has sold its 300-MW-plus Arco Wind and Solar project in southeast  Idaho to PacifiCorp. This is NorthRenew’s ninth project sale since the company’s inception in 2017.

THIS DAY IN FIRE HISTORY: Weeks Act’s suppression focus sets stage for catastrophic fires

The “most important law in the creation of eastern national forests” was established on this day 113 years ago.

The Weeks Act, signed into law by President William Howard Taft on March 1, 1911, allowed the federal government to purchase private land to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds in the eastern United States. The act nationalized the U.S. Forest Service, as neither federal nor state  governments owned substantial forested lands east of the Mississippi River before the act’s passage.

Speaker of the House Joe CannonAccording to the Forest History Society, in just 10 years Congress had rejected more than 40 bills calling for the establishment of eastern national forests.

Senators and congressmen opposed these measures for various  reasons; some western representatives (and conservation groups) who supported national forests in principle resented the possible loss of funding to their eastern counterparts. Many fiscal conservatives agreed with House Speaker Joe Cannon when he declared “not one cent for scenery.”

Leadership on the issue came from a surprise source. Congressman John Weeks, a Republican from Massachusetts, was a former naval officer and a successful banker. Weeks was elected to the House in 1905, and two years later he was appointed to the House Committee on Agriculture by Speaker Cannon.

Congressman John Wingate Weeks
Congressman John Wingate Weeks

At first Weeks didn’t understand why — he had few farmers in his district, and he had little interest in agricultural issues in Congress. He was concerned, though, about the damage logging had caused in the White Mountains, near where he had grown up and where he now summered with his family. Speaker Cannon told Weeks that if he, as a businessman, could put together a forestry bill that he supported, then Cannon would get it considered in the House. The man who had once declared “not one cent for scenery” had changed his mind.

The Weeks Act not only paved the way for the National Forest System, but also established the nation’s first interagency wildland firefighting effort, an effort that continued and worsened the settler colonial practice of fire suppression through bans of cultural fire usage.

There were multiple reasons for prioritizing USFS fire control for the new forests, according to a system article published on the act’s centennial. A 1902 report described the biggest threats to Appalachian forests as being fires and logging. In 1910, a series of catastrophic wildfires now known as the “Big Blowup” devastated Idaho and Montana, killing more than 100 firefighters and destroying several towns. Forest reserve advocates used these and other fire events to convince Congress to establish an agency that would primarily focus on wildfire suppression.

“Fire lookout towers and trails were built and ‘forest guards’ were hired at a salary of $50 a month,” the USFS article said. “Because the Weeks Act provided matching federal funding for state wildfire management spending, state divisions of forestry also upgraded their fire control organizations.”

What wildland firefighters now affirm as an uninformed suppression effort was worsened through fear-based short-sighted decisionmaking, along with xenophobic attitudes toward the people who had long lived on the land.

The Karuk Tribe in California views the passage of the Weeks Act and the increasing catastrophic fires across the country as having a direct connection.

“The passage of the Weeks Act in 1911 following the Big Burn of 1910 made cultural uses of fire essentially illegal, and for the many decades following, less and less burning occurred while more and more vegetation grew,” the tribe’s website said. “Over a century of policies of fire suppression has  created the conditions for the catastrophic, high-intensity wildfires we are seeing today. Warming temperatures and summer droughts further exacerbate these conditions.”

The USFS wildland firefighting system now largely understands the benefit of managed fire and makes an effort to include tribes in its decisionmaking. There is more work to be done, however, as climate change further exacerbates the cracks in the system that firefighters and managers are trying to mend. For better or for worse, it all started with the Weeks Act.