Smoke reduced life expectancy across Washington

Most of Washington State’s hazardous air pollution comes from wildfire smoke, burdening already over-burdened populations in the state and lowering the average number of years people in those communities are expected to live.

A new report from the state’s Department of Ecology looked into air pollution across Washington and found that the largest contributor to air pollution in over-burdened communities was from wildfire smoke. The DOE is working to improve air quality in 16 places, representing numerous communities, neighborhoods, and towns across Washington that are overburdened and highly impacted by criteria air pollution.

Targeted areas in Washington

The federal Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for six common air pollutants. The DOE monitors these pollutants and acts if levels become unhealthy. These  pollutants are:

During the cold season, the largest contributor to air pollution was usually smoke from wood-burning stoves or furnaces.

Residents of the studied overburdened communities, on average, live 2.4 years shorter lives than the state average and also have higher numbers of deaths from cardiovascular disease.

Satellite photo, Bolt Creek (on the north) and Cedar Creek fires Sept. 10, 2022. Processed by Pierre Markuse.
Satellite photo, Bolt Creek (north) and Cedar Creek fires Sept. 2022. Processed by Pierre Markuse.

“Long-term exposure to air pollution may contribute to development of disease — for example, asthma development in children or chronic cardiovascular conditions in adults,” the department’s report says. “Further, short-term exposure to air pollution is associated with exacerbations in existing conditions such as asthma or COPD.”

The overburdened communities included:

        • Spokane and Spokane Valley
        • Tri-Cities to Wallula
        • East Yakima
        • Lower Yakima Valley
        • Moxee Valley
        • George and West Grant County
        • Mattawa
        • Ellensburg
        • Wenatchee and East Wenatchee
        • Everett
        • North Seattle and Shoreline
        • South Seattle
        • South King County
        • Northeast Puyallup
        • South and East Tacoma
        • Vancouver

The report also warns that life expectancies in these communities may drop even further as the frequency of wildfire smoke events has been rising. The worry is in line with USDA research that points to wildfire seasons in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho that are projected to last longer with increased wildfire frequency, size, and total acres burned as a result of climate change.

“In Northwest forests, a warming climate coupled with more frequent wildfires will lead to a shift away from shade-tolerant, thin-barked, or fire-intolerant species such as western hemlock, subalpine fir, and Engelmann spruce,” the report said. “With warmer and drier conditions and more frequent disturbance, some locations will likely shift from forest to shrubland or grassland.”

Is that risk map current? Depends on the state.

Colorado’s wildfire risk map was so inaccurate that state officials just about ignored it — for many years. The map was outdated, especially in western Colorado, where 3+ million acres of forest was covered in beetle-killed pines.

Carolina Manriquez, a lead forester with the state’s forest service, said they were supposed to use the state risk map, but they knew it was not accurate and therefore couldn’t rely on it. As the E&E News recently reported, an infusion of $480,000 in state funds resulted in a new Colorado map with updates including pine beetle damage and densely populated mountain towns.

Colorado wildfire risk viewer
Colorado wildfire risk viewer

Including 2017 and 2020, when annual wildfires burned more than 10 million acres, the last decade has marked some of the worst fire seasons in history. The risk is compounded by both climate change and growing wildland/urban interface areas, particularly in the West. Some states — including Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Texas — have moved toward ensuring their fire risk information and maps are updated and more accurate, displaying areas of highest risk and most in need of prevention and mitigation.

Colorado fire risk mapping
Colorado fire risk mapping

“There is a slowly growing push among different states to do this,” said Joe Scott, founder of Pyrologix in Missoula. The firm provides utility wildfire risk assessment, catastrophe modeling, fuels treatment prioritization and management, and exposure analysis.

To improve wildfire risk maps, many states are partnering with firms such as Pyrologix that can build public-access display of fire risk data and conditions. Using satellite imagery, census information, and other data, advanced tools can  determine locations and ranges of ignition probability and fire intensity, along with threatened resource types. Gregory Dillon, director of the USFS fire modeling institute, says the state-specific maps are not a duplication of federal fire maps, but rather a more refined product.

The Kansas Forest Service unveiled in September its new wildfire risk explorer, a digital interactive map that provides a detailed look at statewide fire risk. The effort began in 2018 after several major wildfires including the 2017 Starbuck Fire, which burned some 500,000 acres and destroyed or damaged more than $50 million worth of livestock, fencing, and other resources.

“A lot of state-led efforts are trying to communicate to  communities and residents about the risk to private property or municipalities,” said Jolie Pollet, wildfire risk reduction program coordinator at the Department of the Interior.

That’s slightly different from federal mapping efforts focused on protecting federal lands, Pollet said. State-focused mapping can assess evacuation routes, encourage homeowners to reduce their  risk, and improve prepared applications for federal grants. State improvements such as those in Kansas also help forestry and fire officials allocate limited resources to focus on the highest priority areas.

Nearly double the usual winter wildfires, triple the acreage burned in northern India

India’s Forest Service has reported 1,006 wildfire alerts to the northern state of Uttarakhand since November 1, according to the Times of India. That number is up from the 556 wildfire alerts the service reported during the same time last year.

The increase is part of a worrying and destructive cycle that has escalated in the area for the past six years. Uttarakhand has had triple the acres burned by wildfires since 2017, worsened by its first-ever repeated occurrence of winter wildfires, or wildfires outside of the state’s usual fire season of February 15 to June 15.

“The unusual shift in the fire season may be linked to different reasons including climate change, the lockdown, or too much human intervention in the forests,” Arti Chaudhary, the head of Silviculture and Forest Resource Management Division at the Forest Research Institute, told the Times. “A five-year study across 15 states of the country that witness forest fires, including Uttarakhand, has been initiated to thoroughly understand the actual reasons behind this shift, as it has been recorded all over the country.”

The winter wildfires also contributed to the state’s above-average wildfire carbon emissions in 2021. Uttarakhand’s wildfires emitted an estimated 0.2 megatonnes of carbon in March 2021 alone, breaking a record set in 2003, according to Copernicus Climate Change Service scientist Mark Parrington.

Northern India’s skies took on a hazy hue in November caused in part by the unusual wildfire shift, NASA satellites show. The haze is reportedly a seasonal occurrence caused by urban pollution entering the atmosphere when seasonal weather patterns trap air pollution near the ground, but smoke from the unseasonal wildfires made the air quality even worse.

“The World Health Organization considers 15 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) to be a safe limit,” said NASA. “But ground-based air quality monitors routinely measured levels that exceeded 300 and, at times, 500 micrograms per cubic meter in November.”

northern India, NASA image
Northern India, NASA image

Caldor Fire shooters won’t go to trial

A judge ruled last week that there is insufficient evidence to take to trial the men arrested for allegedly starting the 2021 Caldor Fire, which burned more than 221,000 acres south of Lake Tahoe, California.

David Scott Smith, 66, and his son Travis “Shane” Smith, 32, were arrested and charged with reckless arson in December 2021, months after the start of the fire. The two were accused of violating section 452 of the California Penal Code, commonly referred to as “reckless arson,” which causes inhabited properties to burn and results in great bodily injury to multiple victims. This charge can be filed against someone who unintentionally starts a fire. Both David and Travis were held on a $1 million bail, the district attorney’s office said. Both pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Travis and David Smith, suspects in Caldor Fire ignition.
Travis and David Smith, suspects in Caldor Fire ignition.

One firefighter was severely burned while assigned to the fire. Richard Gerety III of Patterson was on a four-person engine crew from West Stanislaus Fire when he fell into burning material. It was his tenth day on the fire. He suffered third-degree burns on his arms and hands and second-degree burns to his legs, said his wife, Jennifer Gerety.

Capital Public Radio reported that prosecutors said the two men started the fire “when a projectile discharged from a firearm and struck an object.” But El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Vicki Ashworth has ruled there was not enough evidence to move the case to trial. “As to reckless burning charges, the court found there was insufficient evidence to meet the legal requirements that the behavior was reckless,” said the El Dorado County District Attorney’s office.

The Caldor Fire burned for 67 days in El Dorado, Alpine, and Amador counties, destroying more than 1,000 structures and forcing 53,000 people from their homes. It was the second fire to burn across the crest of the Sierra Nevada in state history, the first being the Dixie Fire earlier in the summer of 2021.

The pair still face gun-related charges, Shane Smith for possession of a machine gun, and David Smith for possession of a silencer. They will be arraigned in February.

According to a CBS News report, the relevant law specifically states that a defendant’s behavior must be “reckless as defined in Penal Code section 450, requiring that an individual knows their actions present a substantial and unjustifiable risk but consciously disregards that risk.” Prosecutors said they showed evidence that David and Thomas Smith drove out of a location where the Caldor Fire started, and they were shooting a gun on a day with dry conditions.

The USFS determined a bullet strike was the probable cause of the fire. Travis Smith will be arraigned on February 2 for possession of a machine gun, and David is scheduled to be in court the same day for arraignment on a charge of possessing a silencer.

Photos tell story of Maui wildfires’ destruction, aftermath and recovery

It’s been nearly five months since wildfires devastated Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Since then, images of the destruction have captivated the nation.

Honolulu Civil Beat has compiled collections of photos from each month of the aftermath, cataloging the desperation and the assistance that has flooded the area since the wildfires were controlled.

“We have thousands of images in our growing media database, of Lahaina and Upcountry, the victims and the landscape that were left in ash and ruin,” wrote for the Civil Beat. “In the past nearly five months, we’ve photographed numerous community gatherings, resource fairs, public officials in various settings from press conferences to legislative hearings. We’ve picked a smattering that we think represents the story that is continuing to unfold and we’ll publish these galleries at the end of each month.”

See the Maui fires in the photo series here:

Will firefighters EVER get the pay cap removed?

A bill in the U.S. Senate to remove overtime pay caps for wildland firefighters, according to a report by Arizona Public Radio, might remove that cap, after many years of arguing whether fire crews receive  overtime pay when they work overtime hours. Federal crews in both the DOI and the USDA face annual limits on the number of hours of overtime they can work — but they often exceed those limits, and it’s become more of an issue as fire seasons become longer with bigger fires.

Riva Duncan, the vice president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, explains that the group has endorsed this legislation. “However, we’ve also highlighted the gaps it does not address,” she says. “While we support lifting this pay cap, the reality is it affects only a few of those at the highest levels (GS-13 and above) engaged in fire management. I spent several years as a Forest Fire Chief and Deputy (GS-12 and GS-13) on high complexity national forests with long, complex fire seasons, and I never hit the cap. But I do know this affects many ICs who are GS-13 or higher — on IMTs as well as NIMO personnel — and it also affects some agency administrators. We believe those folks deserve to be paid for the work they’re doing and the sacrifices they make.”

Duncan explains that this legislation does not lift the biweekly pay cap for hazardous work that’s not officially deemed “emergency,” which  thousands of wildland firefighters and support personnel engage in. “This includes prescribed fire, blowdown cleanup (operating chainsaws in extremely dangerous conditions), and other day-to-day hazardous work such as falling dead trees in campgrounds. Employees earn hazardous duty pay on wildland fires, and on some all-hazard incidents such as hurricanes, but this pay is not authorized by policy for ‘non-emergency’ work.  It is important to acknowledge that while these changes can be accomplished through legislative solutions, it is well within the administrative power of the USFS, OPM, OMB, and the DOI agencies to provide these commonsense solutions for the actual boots on the ground. We challenge the agencies to find the courage to work together on this critical reform, just as firefighters find the courage to do their jobs every day.”
Smith River Complex
2023 Smith River Complex, inciweb photo

According to bill sponsor Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act would ensure firefighters receive the overtime time pay they’re owed. The USFS says up to 500 supervisors either stop working or work on without pay when they reach the pay cap each year.

Back in November, Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to permanently raise caps on overtime pay for federal firefighters. The bill would increase the pay caps to compensate federal wildland firefighters for their service. The legislation is cosponsored by Senators Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

“As increasingly devastating wildfire seasons scorch our forests and endanger communities across the West, our federal wildland firefighting force deserves our full support,” said Senator Padilla. “The overtime pay caps force firefighters to make an impossible choice: walk off the line or work for free. This legislation is a necessary step to make sure they get fair compensation.”

One of the 2020 fires overran the ICP established to fight one of western Oregon's many wildfires.

In mid-November the House passed an amendment to extend a temporary pay increase of $20,000 (annually per firefighter) through next year, which was approved by President Biden. Another bill to make a pay hike permanent remains stalled, though, and NPR’s Morning Edition reported that this latest budget deal averting a federal  shutdown will also — for now — avert a massive pay cut for federal firefighters.

“Federal wildland firefighters perform dangerous, back-breaking jobs protecting our communities. Yet after they reach pay caps, they receive no overtime pay for the additional hours they work,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren. “This commonsense legislation will strengthen the  workforce and ensure firefighters receive the overtime pay they deserve.” In mid-November, Government Executive reported that the House and then the Senate — and yet again, at the last minute — passed short-term resolutions to avoid a government shutdown and pay employees on time.

But most agencies are funded only through February 2 and some — Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Energy, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development (plus construction projects for Defense) will remain at fiscal 2023 funding levels until January 19.

Gray Fire 08/19/23
Gray Fire 08/19/2023 — WSDOT photo

Despite risking their lives and traveling cross-country for months at a time to fight wildfires, many of the 11,000+ federal firefighters live paycheck to paycheck, working overtime hours without overtime pay. This inequity has contributed in a major way to a firefighter workforce shortage — in both recruitment and retention. Something like 20 percent of Forest Service permanent firefighter positions are vacant, and the federal government cannot — or won’t choose to — compete with pay rates  offered by state and local agencies.

Three years ago, Bill Gabbert wrote that Diane Feinstein had introduced the Wildland Firefighter Pay Act, a bill that would raise the maximum limit on overtime pay for federal firefighters. The limit at that time affected higher level employees at the GS-12 and above level, along with  some GS-11s depending on whether they were exempt from provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Under those provisions, if they worked  hundreds of hours of overtime they might reach the cap, after which they earn no more money. In some cases later in the fire season, employees who spent a long season fighting fires were told they’d earned too much and were forced to pay some of it back.

Chris Pietsch shot of Erickson Aircrane on western Oregon's 2023 Bedrock Fire.
Chris Pietsch with the Register-Guard in Eugene caught this superb shot of an Aircrane working the Bedrock Fire, 2023 in Oregon.

Proposed legislation in 2021 would have eliminated the annual and pay period limits and created a new limit that set the maximum annual pay including overtime at Level II of the Executive Schedule, which in 2020 was $197,300.

The USFS estimated then that up to 500 senior-level firefighters either stop participating or do not request pay for hours worked once they reach the cap. This has a huge effect on wildfire response capabilities.