Soaring Himalayan wildfires don’t have only climate change to blame

Nepal has already seen 5,000 wildfires in 2024, the second-most wildfires recorded in a single year since record-keeping began in 2002. The fires have killed more than 100 people and have for days engulfed Kathmandu in hazardous wildfire smog.

“There is no respite from fires — both forest fires and house fires — continue to wreak havoc across the country in recent days,” the Kathmandu Post reported in April. “Massive fires have been raging across hectares of forest lands in more than a dozen places.”

Smoke from fires in Nepal -- NASA photo
A satellite fire map by NASA shows fire hotspots dotted across the bottom of the Himalayas, with a few creeping up the mountains. Image acquired by one of the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites on March 28, showing the region near Kathmandu engulfed in smoke.

The newfound prevalence of wildfires in the country has spiked researchers’ interest. A study published in the Climate Change scientific journal in 2023 analyzed the aftermath of 2021, Nepal’s worst wildfire year on record with 6,300 wildfires.

“In spring 2021, Nepal underwent a record wildfire season in which active fires were detected at a rate 10 times greater than the 2002–2020 average,” the study reported. “Prior to these major wildfire events, the country experienced a prolonged precipitation deficit and extreme drought during the post-monsoon period.”

Researchers concluded that both climate variability and climate change-induced severe drought played a factor in the country’s explosive wildfire growth. However, an environmental scientist stationed in Kathmandu recently told the Nature scientific journal that the study didn’t tell the full story.

Uttam Babu Shrestha, stationed at Kathmandu’s Global Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, told Nature a large cause of increasing wildfires is the deterioration of Nepal’s relationship with its forests. A 1979 World Bank report warned that the nation was nearing an “ecological disaster” as a result of the country’s widespread deforestation and heavy reliance on agriculture. Nepal’s government listened and decentralized the management of its forests, resulting in the country’s forest cover nearly doubling in three decades. The abolition of the country’s monarchy and transition to a federal system, however, left forest management by the wayside.

“But this new political atmosphere didn’t prioritize the management of community forests like before,” Shrestha said. “With no clear benefits coming out of forests, the locals don’t feel the same ownership.”

A proposal to lessen both wildfire severity and forest management inaction was proposed by the lead researcher of the 2023 study. Binod Pokhrel, a climate scientist at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, found that Nepal’s 282 weather stations could work together to inform community members.

“By using weather station data, we could precisely forecast drought index up to a local ward level,” Pokhrel told Nature. “The lack of management of increasing forest cover can easily lead to another disaster.”

Pokhrel proposed that a smartphone-based fire forecast would reduce the chance of fires getting out of control — and save lives. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development uses a similar idea to update its wildfire-monitoring webpage, but Pokhrel told Nature that the Nepalese government must be involved to safeguard against future disastrous wildfires.

Apple Valley, California is serious about fireworks

About 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles in southern California, the Apple Valley Fire Protection District is educating residents about illegal fireworks, fire danger, and the need for defensible space around structures.
Apple Valley, California
Apple Valley, California

Fire Chief Buddy Peratt said the fuel load of dry vegetation this year increases the risk  of wildland fires, particularly those started by fireworks.

In Apple Valley all fireworks are illegal

“It’s important that people understand that all fireworks, including those classified as ‘safe and sane,’ are illegal in Apple Valley,” Fire Inspector Jennifer Alexy told the Victorville Daily Press.

Apple Valley Fire

She said information about illegal fireworks is important for all residents, especially those who’ve recently moved to Apple Valley. “Sometimes people move here from down the hill or other areas, and they don’t realize that fireworks are illegal,” Alexy said. “They start using fireworks, unaware of the potential danger.”

How citations are issued:  The Apple Valley Fire Protection District uses a “contactless citation process” in which citations are delivered by district personnel directly to the offender in person or by mail. An administrative  citation is $1,000. If a fire official has proof of a renter’s possession or use of fireworks, the district can also cite the property owner.

“We’ll gather the information and send the owner a citation via certified mail,” said Alexy. “We’ll make sure owners are responsible for their tenants.”

Apple Valley fireworks reporting

QR code to report fireworks:  Apple Valley Fire uses a QR code to report the possession, sale, or use of fireworks in town. “If someone calls our office to report fireworks during the weekend,” says Alexy, “we may not get the message until Monday morning. The QR code allows us to get the information right away.”

Every year using fireworks causes numerous injuries, some severe, requiring emergency medical attention. Burns, eye injuries, and other medical traumas are common and often have long-lasting or permanent results.

Fireworks are literally explosively loud, panicking pets and many veterans, and can mean trauma for people with with sensory issues. The debris and chemicals left over from fireworks can harm the environment, pollute the air, and leave behind hazardous waste.

Mt. Rushmore photo © Bill Gabbert

Back in 2000 at least 10 fires were started on and around Mt. Rushmore during fireworks displays. Perchlorate, which is now in the water at the national park after numerous fireworks shows held there, has been linked to fetal and infant brain damage — 11 fireworks shows between 1998 and 2009 contaminated the water at the memorial. The fireworks explosions left perchlorate on the ground, and it worked its way into the water table. In 2016 a  USGS report showed that a maximum perchlorate concentration of 54 micrograms per liter was measured in stream samples at Mt. Rushmore between 2011 and 2015 — about 270 times higher than in samples collected from sites outside the memorial.

Wildfires: During those 11 shows at least 20 documented wildfires were ignited by fireworks in the middle of the wildfire season.

Garbage: The trash dropped by the exploding shells onto the National Monument and the forest can never be completely picked up. Left on the ground are unexploded shells, wadding, plastic, ash, pieces of the devices, and paper —  that can never be totally removed from the very steep, rocky, rugged terrain.

NOTE: Bill Gabbert, who founded this website and ran it for many years, was the fire management officer at the  Mt. Rushmore site during some of that time. 

Smoke temporarily covered nearly all U.S. lakes between 2019 and 2021

As wildfire activity and severity increase globally, so too does the pervasiveness of wildfire smoke.

Researchers in the U.S. are working to find out how growing amounts of wildfire smoke nationwide affect ecosystems including aquatic habitats. A recent study published in the Global Change Biology research journal found that even smoke impacts lake ecology.

“An incredible 98.9 percent of lakes experienced at least 10 smoke-days a year, with 89.6 percent of lakes receiving over 30 lake smoke-days, and lakes in some regions experiencing up to 4 months of cumulative smoke-days,” the study said.

lake smoke

The term “smoke-days” describes the number of days on which any portion of a lake’s boundary intersected with smoke as defined by NOAA’s hazard mapping system daily smoke product. The smoke-days concept has been used previously to demonstrate smoke exposure by ecoregion, but was used specifically for lakes for the first time in this study.

Smoke and ash from wildfires lower the solar radiation that enters lake habitats, affecting organisms in numerous ways from physiology to behavior, according to the research. Particles from the smoke deposited within lake ecosystems can also affect several biological and geological processes, including the availability and cycling of various nutrients.

Less than 0.01 percent of land in North America burned between 2019 and 2021, but the area covered in smoke was 75 percent of the continent’s total land. The year 2021 marked the largest number of high-density lake smoke-days and is the year with the largest portion of the country burned and largest area covered with smoke, while 2020 had the lowest number of high-density smoke-days and the smallest area burned and smallest area covered with smoke.

“Large knowledge gaps impede our ability to predict and manage the responses of lakes to smoke and ash,” the researchers concluded. “Measuring the extent and effects of smoke and ash deposition remains challenging. Larger-scale studies are necessary to disentangle the mediating effects of scale and watershed context on the responses of lakes to smoke and ash deposition.”

Read the entire study here.

BURN BOSS: Charge dismissed

The criminal case against Ricky Snodgrass resulting from a prescribed fire on the Malheur National Forest has ended, according to. a report by OPB, after the court dismissed the charge brought by the Grant County, Oregon District Attorney Jim Carpenter.

Todd McKinley

County Sheriff Todd McKinley arrested Snodgrass, the burn boss on the Starr 6 fire, in the midst of a dispute with adjacent landowners.

A Grant County grand jury back in February indicted Snodgrass, 41, on a misdemeanor charge of reckless burning. In part because Snodgrass and many of the firefighters he was supervising, on a federal agency operation on federal land, were federal employees, the case was moved from the rural Oregon town of John Day to federal court in Pendleton. Defense lawyers asked a judge to dismiss it and Carpenter did not oppose the motion. The judge in the case dismissed it this week.

Mr. Snodgrass was charged because the State — or more precisely, the local sheriff — took issue with the Forest Service’s decision to conduct the prescribed fire,” defense attorneys wrote last month in court documents. “But the State cannot charge Mr. Snodgrass with a crime simply because it disagrees with the Forest Service’s decision.”

The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution means that Snodgrass was  immune from prosecution.

Supremacy Clause

OPB reported that in February of 2024 front of the grand jury, McKinley testified that the arrest got “huge national exposure.”

“I don’t know if you guys want to know how many hundreds of phone calls I got over this,” McKinley testified. “Either I was a pariah, the enemy, or they’re trying to make me a hero out of it.”

👮🏼‍♂️   Seriously, McKinley, no one thinks you are a hero.

Statement issued by Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley)

Regarding the recent dismissal in Federal Court of the arrest of the Burn Boss at the Starr 6 uncontrolled burn in Grant County Oregon on October 19th 2022, I have the following to say: 

The United States Federal Government chose to use the “Supremacy Clause” as their basis for the request of dismissal. 

My interpretation of the use of this clause is such, that the State Law was sufficient for the charges, and the only way to circumvent this was to appeal to the Federal Court. 

I am saddened that our own Government, which was established, “of the People, by the People, for the People”, would to not “do the right thing” and make the damaged party whole, for fear of assuming responsibility for their actions. 

The hope out of all of this, is in the future, that more care will be taken, guidelines followed, and the United States Forest Service will heed their own motto: “Caring for the Land and Serving People”. 

Todd McKinley 

‘Let burn’ narrative put to the test on USFS lands

Fires not fully suppressed but herded around and allowed to burn have allegedly been an unofficial USFS practice since the 1970s. A new study challenges whether that practice is as common as many believe.

The naming convention for the practice has reportedly changed repeatedly. They were originally called “let burn” fires, but forest managers soon dropped the term because a pervasive misunderstanding quickly arose that wildland firefighters were ignoring fires and letting them run amok. Even though other terms like “Natural Wildland Fires” and “Managed Fire” took the “let burn” term’s place, the incorrect view of the practice has persisted, being referenced as recently as in 2021’s Tamarack Fire.

That lightning-caused fire forced the evacuation of nearly 2,000 residents, destroyed 25 structures, and burned 67,000 acres in California and Nevada. Many members of the public blamed the fire’s negative outcomes on the supposed “let burn” practice, despite the policy’s not formally existing.

Tamarack Fire lifts evacuation orders for nearly 2,000 residents

Researchers from the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station wanted to put the “let burn” narrative to the test — by quantifying the damage from consequential lightning-caused fires such as the Tamarack Fire.

The study, published in SpringerOpen Fire Ecology scientific journal, used multiple sources of fire-reporting data to identify numerous USFS fires from 2009 to 2020 using management strategies similar to those used during the Tamarack Fire. Of the 940 wildfires that burned within that time, the researchers found only 32 fires with characteristics similar to the Tamarack, nearly half of which ignited within wilderness areas.

Woodbury Fire Phoenix Roosevelt
The Superstition Wilderness inside the perimeter of the Woodbury Fire, June 22, 2019. InciWeb.

The researchers found that firefighter hazard mitigation was the primary driver on 26 of the 32 wildfires, with only six of the fires managed for “resource objectives” like the reported “let burn” fires. Risks posed to firefighters from terrain, snags, or inaccessibility were by and large what fire managers are concerned about during a wildfire — not how they can let the fire burn for potential ecological gains, or for the oft-alleged “treatment acreage quota.”

ICS-209“Our results suggest that a ‘let burn’ strategy is not a predominant USFS management approach,” the researchers concluded. “A limited palette of strategic reporting categories may be partially responsible for the falsely premised ‘let burn’ narrative.”

Researchers theorized that a large reason for the pervasiveness of the “let burn” misconception is how fire managers fill out ICS-209 forms post-fire. Managers select one of four categories to classify the intent behind their decisions, including “monitoring,” “confine,” “point or zone protection,” or “full suppression.” The subtlety that’s lost on which option is chosen —  any option other than full suppression — may be responsible for the spread of misinformation on the fire’s management.

“These categories may not capture enough of the nuance and complexity of the decision environments in which they are made,” said the Rocky Mountain Research Station. “In turn, this information gap may permit inaccurate explanations to dominate the conversation.”

Western legislators introduce National Prescribed Fire Act of 2024

Oregon, Washington, and California legislators have reintroduced a bill poised to create a national prescribed burn collaborative program and increase the practice nationwide.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden reintroduced the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2024 [PDF] on Tuesday, three years after the act’s first attempt died in committee. Representative Kim Schrier of Washington, Representative David Valadao of California, and Senator Alex Padilla of California joined the act’s push.

The act would invest $300 million in hazardous fuels management and increase prescribed burn plans, preparations, and practices through both the USFS and DOI. The funds are required to be used to develop a prescribed burn strategy for each USFS or BLM region, implement prescribed fires on federal land, and fund an increase in prescribed burn crew staffing.

Prescribed fire, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore near Ogden Dunes in northwest Indiana in 2013. NPS photo.
2013 RxFire at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore near Ogden Dunes, northwest Indiana — NPS photo

It would also put $10 million toward the collaborative prescribed burn program based on the previous USFS Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP). The previous program, one of the first national efforts that encouraged collaborative landscape restoration, ran from 2009 to 2019 and focused on reducing wildfire risk, enhancing watershed health, and benefiting local rural economies. The program reported its results to Congress, saying it successfully restored 5.7 million acres of forest while creating nearly $2 billion in local labor income.

The 2024 act has the support of numerous conservation agencies and fire officials, including The Nature Conservancy, which has been conducting Rx burns in Oregon since 1983.

“Prescribed fire is an essential tool to restore and steward fire-dependent ecosystems, reduce the risk of extreme wildfire to communities, and help many of Oregon’s most iconic natural landscapes adapt in the face of climate change,” said Katie Sauerbrey, Oregon fire program director at The Nature Conservancy. “We are grateful for Senator Wyden’s leadership on the National Prescribed Fire Act — providing a pathway to accelerate the pace and scale of prescribed fire necessary to combat the wildfire crisis in the western United States.”

The bill’s full text is posted [HERE].

Oregon, Washington, and California legislators have reintroduced a bill poised to create a national prescribed burn collaborative program and increase the practice nationwide.