Western Canadian communities and firefighters may catch a welcome break next week with a forecast for precipitation — perhaps a good amount. Over the next week, areas along the Canadian Rockies may receive more than 100 mm (3.9 inches) while the Alberta-Saskatchewan border area may receive 20 mm (less than an inch), with soil moisture predicted to rise throughout the fire-impacted areas. This will likely slow fire spread and smoke volume, though fires at such scale will continue to produce smoke. An overall increase in humidity should lower fire danger.
The western provinces have experienced weeks of active fire behavior and growth, with an intensity comparable to that seen in the 2016 fires that burned Fort McMurray, Alberta and the heat domes and fires of 2021, when fires burned Lytton, British Columbia.
Phys.org reported that some 2,500 firefighters from across Canada backed by 400 military personnel have been deployed across Alberta and that more foreign help has been requested — with crews and incident management teams from the United States, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand.
At one point nearly 30,000 Alberta residents were evacuated from their homes. Hazardous air quality and low visibility due to smoke were reported from British Columbia to Saskatchewan and as far south as Colorado and northern Texas.
The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center Situation Report for May 20 indicated area burned to-date of 2.1 million hectares (nearly 5.2 million acres), with 15 new fires for a total of 226 currently active fires. Of those fires, 90 are identified as out of control. Canada is in its tenth day at its highest preparedness level of 5.
In the Climate Atlas of Canada, an article on “Forest Fires and Climate Change” examines the impacts of climate change on Canadian fires and summarizes studies by Mike Flannigan and other scientists who predict that by 2100, western Canada will see a 50 percent increase in the number of dry, windy days that let fires start and spread, whereas eastern Canada will see an even more dramatic 200 percent to 300 percent increase in this kind of fire weather. And by 2040, fire management costs are expected to double.
Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, explores the impact in more detail on his website. “Fire is the major stand-renewing agent for much of the Canadian forest,” he says, “greatly influencing forest structure and function.”
The research he summarized indicates that the observed increases in area burned in Canada during the last four decades is the result of human-induced climate change. Additionally, he says it appears that temperature is the most important predictor of area burned in Canada with warmer temperatures associated with increased area burned.
Based on a 2005 analysis, Flannigan says current estimates are that an average of over 2 million hectares burn annually in Canada. Just shy of the third week of May, Canada has already recorded 2.1 million hectares burned.
Fire season is already under way in Oregon, with some small fires burning in the southwest part of the state, and state and federal officials are talking about options for funding firefighting efforts.
On May 17, Governor Tina Kotek announced she was adding over $200 million in funding for the state’s wildfire protection system to her budget request to the state legislature. “We need to continue to support things that have worked,” Kotek said in a press conference covered by KEZI-TV. “We need another $207 million to continue our advancements in wildfire protection, in both resilience and protection and response, and I would hope legislators would support that.”
In Washington, D.C., Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden are working on legislation to create national recreation areas across the state. That distinction would require wildfire prevention strategies in the region. “The bill requires the Bureau of Land Management to take preemptive steps to reduce wildfire risks in the new recreation areas,” Wyden said at a Senate committee hearing, “including the construction of new roads to implement fire risk reduction plans and for public safety.”
Fire departments and districts have also received additional funding for firefighters, engines, and risk reduction programs. Much of that funding comes from 2021’s Senate Bill 762.
“Senate Bill 762 was a major investment in in fighting wildfire in Oregon, and it was a huge help for not only the Oregon Department of Forestry but other wildfire agencies in the state,” said Jessica Prakke, PAO with the Oregon Department of Forestry. The legislation provided $220 million to agencies to modernize and improve wildfire preparedness, response, and resiliency. “It was a huge investment in protecting Oregon from wildfire and it has done an immense amount of good across the state,” she said.
She said the funding also expanded the state’s network of wildfire detection cameras. One such camera caught a fire caused by a lightning strike in Lane County. On the night of May 15 a camera alerted ODF staff to smoke in between Sharps Creek and Mosby. A staffer monitoring the cameras dispatched fire crews to the site, and they had the fire under control within three hours. Prakke said there are now nearly 100 cameras at 60 sites across the state. The system also uses a mapping system to help pinpoint smokes for dispatchers and first responders.
Prevention is the key for a successful season, said Prakke. “The best way to stop wildfire is for people to keep wildfire prevention at the top of their mind,” she said. “About 70 percent of all wildfire in Oregon is human-caused, and so the less that we can contribute to wildfire on our parts, the less our resources are strained to fight other causes of wildfire.”
Cal Fire and other agencies are using a network of over 1,000 cameras across California to track wildfires — and now the public can access the network, too. FOX News reports that the University of California San Diego and state fire agencies have partnered to launch a public website for people to view live camera feeds from across the state.
ALERTCalifornia uses a network of more than 1,000 live cameras to track fires. “We’re trying to understand the impacts, the cascading disasters after these events,” said Dr. Neal Driscoll, a professor of geology and geophysics at the UC San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. “I’m a professor. I study earthquakes, I make sensors, and here these sensors lend themselves to other events, such as atmospheric rivers and wildfires.”
As the ALERTCalifornia camera network grows in size and sophistication, UC San Diego researchers are using new technology to study natural disaster patterns in the West. ALERTCalifornia provides state-of-the-art technology supporting data-driven decisions to prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters. Based at the University of California San Diego, ALERTCalifornia is a public safety program focused on fires and other natural disasters featuring a world-class camera network.
“These cameras are on mountaintops that we can access, and so if we get a 911 call from someone reporting smoke, we can — one click away — just get on the computer and see if there is actually any smoke in the area,” said Capt. Brent Pascua, PIO with Cal Fire. “We can use multiple cameras to pinpoint the location and get a better location as well.”
“Five or six years ago they had to send a battalion out or an aircraft to confirm ignition,” says Driscoll. “Now they can turn to our cameras. They can immediately move the camera, and image that area, and confirm ignition.” The high-definition cameras can pan, tilt and zoom, with a view as far as 60 miles on a clear day and 120 miles on a clear night, according to Scripps Institution of Oceanography. New cameras were recently installed in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Madera counties since the new year.
Only fire agencies can control the movement of the cameras, which are placed on tripod platforms that can be removed seasonally with little to no impact on sensitive habitats or tribal lands. The camera network started 20+ years ago in 2000, with numerous improvements to the technology over time. The network was originally created to study earthquakes. Since then, it’s expanded to monitor fires and other natural disasters. Public access to the camera feed was launched last week.
PORTO, Portugal – The opening morning of the Eighth International Wildland Fire Conference featured a range of civil leaders, fire managers, and scientific experts who helped circle the delegates around the dilemma of wildland fire: it is the problem and also (sometimes, but not always) the problem’s solution.
How a problem can be its own solution – the fire conundrum – is part of what drew some 1600 delegates from 90 countries to Porto, Portugal in mid-May.
The week-long conference included technical field trips on May 15 and the official opening May 16, followed by a keynote session labeled simply “The Problem.”
The opening included a videotaped welcome from António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, who cautioned that “We must keep global warming below 1.5 C” and if we’re to do so, he said, we must energize fire management that includes all voices, including indigenous leaders and communities. (And even though we must act to limit climate change, a UN World Meteorological Organization report this week has forecast a 66 percent chance we’ll reach the 1.5°C increase for a year during the next five years.)
The conference chair, Tiago Oliveira, board chairman of Portugal’s wildfire service Agency for Integrated Rural Fire Management (AGIF), opened with guidance: “We need to take out the emotional side of fire and replace it with the rational management of fire.” Yet he also reminded attendees of the emotional reality of wildland fire. “I am a survivor as many of you are and we are here to build a better future. To ask for help as I did in 2017” – when Portugal endured a storm of fires that killed 120 citizens and firefighters. An article in Scientific Reports suggests that the extreme fire season of 2017 may have been a prelude to future conditions and likewise events that are triggered by climate change effects. The immensity and challenge of these fires also led to the creation of AGIF.
“Every day that we are managing fires we are learning,” Oliveira continued. “We come here to build friendships in fire. The more friends we have in the world of forest fires the more successful we will be. And the world needs our contributions. The world needs less bad fire and more good fire.”
Gordy Sachs, chief of All Hazard and International Fire Support for the U.S. Forest Service and chair of the International Liaison Committee that planned the conference, reiterated the conference’s value globally. Statements from prior conferences [held every four years] influenced Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris Agreement on climate, and the 2023 Conference will launch a key transition tool for international cooperation – the Landscape Fire Governance Framework – and will, like prior conferences, make each country and the world safer and more resilient.
Most of the opening, as is typical of international gatherings, offered the sort of civil and governance support that is key to implementing new frameworks. So it was heartening (if also disheartening) to learn from Antonia Cunha, president of Portugal’s North Regional Coordination and Development Commission, that he’s aware and concerned that 26 percent of carbon emissions in 2022 in the region was from forest fires.
Likewise, a commitment from Juan Cabandié, Environment Minister of Argentina, highlighted that his country needs to be more directed at planning and prevention. “We’re the eighth largest country in the world and 70 percent of our land at risk of wildfires,” he said. And to support its goals, Argentina has started its first monitoring system for entire country.
Duarte Cordeira, with Portugal’s Ministry of Environment, also returned the delegates to community. “We know that the best fire management is by the community members. If we want a more resistant forest that can provide economic and sustainable benefits, we cannot have a monoculture. We are increasing our defense with the creation of a protection ring of native forest.” He said already 200 of these native fuel breaks have been planted, with another 470 in the works and a goal of 800 villages. And Cordeira noted the challenge. “Yet 97 percent of rural properties are private,” he said, “so we need to increase subsidy for land consolidation.”
A conference opening offers a frame, and after a break for coffee and Pastéis de Nata, the conference jumped into “The Problem.” More on that soon.
Longtime fire journalist Bill Gabbert left us way too soon last year, and many of us will miss him and his contributions to the world of wildfire for a long time to come.
It was pancreatic cancer that took him, and he had a rough go of it for his last year or so, but then he was one of the fortunate few who go quietly and easily in their sleep.
When the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) accepted Bill’s generous offer to continue the form, format, and platform of his wildfire journalism websites, we were hoping for many conversations with him, with more time to absorb his advice and knowledge.
Those conversations were far too few, though, and the time far too short. But we are now pleased to announce the BILL GABBERT FELLOWSHIP in Wildfire Reporting, which will fund and mentor and publish the sort of innovative wildfire reporting that Bill exemplified.
An initial donation from a longtime supporter of Wildfire Today helped launch the program. Building on an auspicious start, the IAWF is now accepting donations to honor Bill’s work by developing and supporting a funded program to encourage innovators in wildfire journalism.
To remember Bill and support his legacy into the future, just use the red “Donate Online” link at iawfonline.org/donate – unless you specify otherwise, all donations to IAWF this year will support the BILL GABBERT FELLOWSHIP.
Later this year, officers will announce an application process to screen people and projects that feature reporting by fire-savvy writers and innovative media projects for Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation, with some articles jointly produced with Wildfire magazine.
In the next few posts — by Chuck Bushey and Wade Ward — we share a few memories from Bill’s friends and colleagues. Let us know if you have more.
Meriwether William “Bill” Gabbert II of Senatobia, Mississippi died peacefully on January 14, 2023 at age 75 from cancer.
Nobody that I know ever called him Meriwether. He shared that name with Meriwether Lewis, half of the renowned Lewis & Clark Expedition, and Meriwether is the name of the canyon mouth adjacent to Mann Gulch above the Gates of the Mountain Wilderness on Montana’s Missouri River.
Bill and his siblings grew up in the same small rural town south of Memphis where he was born in 1947. After high school he went on to Mississippi State University for Agriculture and Applied Science (commonly called Mississippi State University) in the central Mississippi community of Starkville. I can imagine that the change from Senatobia, population about 3200 persons, to the much larger community of Starkville (about 11,400 people at the time) and entering into studies at the university must have been a major eye-opening change for Bill.
After navigating university life, Bill graduated with his B.S. degree in Forestry. As we all do upon graduating, it was time for him to make decisions on which direction to head next with a budding career. Bill decided to join up with the U.S. Forest Service to further his forestry interests and education, so he headed West to California and soon added wildland fire to his forestry toolbox. In actuality he probably didn’t have much of a choice about entering into wildland fire; at that time during the 1970s all USFS employees were “firefighters” in some capacity. It was a requirement that everyone understood; this was an organization that had been born into fire. Bill obviously took quickly to the challenge, joining up with his first fire crew, the El Cariso Hotshots, in California. This crew was one of the very first hotshot crews, established just after World War II on the Trabuco District of the Cleveland National Forest.
Bill truly enjoyed his seasons with the hotshots and he frequently mentioned in later years his memories from these days. Those memories weren’t all fun – they included the fatalities the crew suffered during the 1959 Decker Fire and the 1966 Loop Fire – the latter was still a fresh and sore memory when Bill joined the crew.
Fire crews of all types are wonderful places to develop lifelong friendships as people move through the fire seasons. This was also a time during which Bill quickly learned the ins and outs of the structure and politics within the wildland fire community, knowledge that would serve him well later in life. He ended up with 20 years of service in the U.S. Forest Service, and then transferred to the National Park Service (NPS) for another 13 years. He eventually retired as the Fire Management Officer for the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota; he was responsible for fire management on seven National Parks in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska. But he wasn’t even close to being finished with his fire career — he was just changing direction.
It was while Bill was with the NPS that I first got to know him. Bill was the Planning Section Chief on Rick Gale’s Type 1 Team based out of West Yellowstone, Montana during the 1988 Yellowstone Campaign. Our paths crossed whenever I would visit the fire camp there where I had established a USFS Northern Region (R1) satellite “Fire Behavior Service Center.” Yellowstone for that fire season was part of the R1 fire suppression responsibilities – what we all thought would be a “once-in-a-career” fire season.
Bill was obviously a very detail-oriented individual, a necessary and valued trait in that key position.
He and I met up again when he joined the IAWF as a new Board Member in 2004. He remained in that position for a year before assuming responsibilities as the IAWF’s brand new Executive Director (ED). Bill was a firm believer in the mission of IAWF– to promote communication within the global wildland fire community. He was the ideal detail-focused person to take on the director role, quickly organizing all of the disparate directions the association was growing into. Bill made it clear from the beginning that the ED role was not going to be a long-term job for him, and after a year under my term as IAWF President in 2008 he submitted his resignation.
At this time social media and blogging for many of us were still relatively new internet experiences. Bill had the idea of using these newish technologies in communication to further his ideas (and ours) regarding wildland fire communications. He quickly had Wildfire Today up and running – an online news site of wildland fire – with news stories spanning the globe but definitely U.S.-centric. His news updates and features and images and opinion pieces spread, and in 2012 he spun off a companion website which he called Fire Aviation, because this was a topic in wildland fire news that was growing in breadth and importance.
From the beginning these sites were a labor of love for Bill Gabbert, and a few of his passions quickly came to the forefront in his journalism, including what he called “students of fire.” He also focused on smoke impacts on firefighter health, political considerations of the jobs in fire, and perhaps most important, firefighter safety. He developed a wide-ranging global audience relatively quickly, and now and then he’d add on other expert authors and editors to round out and support both sites. He befriended and kept up with fire photographers and writers and editors — and agency leaders — not only in our relatively close wildland fire community, but internationally. He also made many friends in the fire-interested peripheral “public” – the tens of thousands out there who are interested in and connected with fire, such as family members, media, researchers, international fire personnel, and the large group of people who are just curious about the topic and how it influences our lives.
Bill Gabbert wrote on these topics almost daily, in a style that was easily understandable for readers who commonly get lost in or don’t care to digest the typical U.S. bureaucratic fire news.
Bill knew where to go and who to talk with to find the details he wanted, the core of the issue no matter the issue – he understood what was being said and could interpret or translate (without pulling any punches) for his readers. He had no qualms about writing on controversial fire topics, such as when Donald Trump and other politicians wanted to launch 4th of July fireworks from the heads of the Presidential sculptures at Mount Rushmore. This was just one of the Parks that had been Bill’s responsibility, and it’s a location with loads of highly flammable vegetation, at risk for trash and debris from fireworks with a history of both.
I wouldn’t call these efforts “work” for Bill. He loved doing it and being busy and involved “in the thick” of the wildland fire business, long after his official career retirement. These pursuits and activities of his also afforded him the opportunity to indulge in some of his other passions – including photography, motorcycle riding, and meeting up now and then with fire friends, which occasionally included a dark beer or two. His knowledge and networking skills also opened doors for him as a “retired” fire guy to occasionally work on short teams for hurricanes and other disaster response assignments, as well as traveling to international wildland fire events.
A few years after he had his sites up and running he and I had a discussion about the future of the successful work he had accomplished. It was a light conversation on succession, a topic that all organizations must have. I thought Wildfire Today would eventually be an excellent addition to the collection of communication organs that IAWF had developed. Bill had all sorts of new ideas he wanted to try out with the site, so he wasn’t at that point yet really interested, and truthfully IAWF wasn’t really ready yet either.
But the idea stuck in the back of our minds over the years. When Bill learned last year that he was terminally ill, he and IAWF began some talks about how a merger might be managed. I’m pleased to say Bill was happy that the IAWF Board agreed to take on the responsibility of moving Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation into the future — and it is an honor for IAWF to serve in this role. I’m sure he will be whispering in our ears as we advance the work he began and passionately served, as wildland fire news and communications become more vital around the world.