Earlier, warmer spring ramps up Eastern Area fire season

The Jimmy’s Waterhole Fire in New Jersey was declared 100% contained on Thursday by the New Jersey Department of Forestry, having burned some 3900 acres, nearly half the state’s annual average in two days.

This and other regional fires prompts a visit to the Eastern Area Fire Environment Outlook to explore the conditions that led to the late April fire bust. On Friday’s Morning Briefing, the Eastern Area Coordination Center had nearly 40 percent of reporting units in Very High to Extreme Fire Danger, with the largest fires in New Jersey, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Rhode Island. In the past week, the region recorded 349 fires for 12,600 acres.

While spring is often active in the east — as forest fuels dry out between winter snow and rains and prior to green up —  the last week was drier throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as in the Great Plains and Southwest. Look south and you can spot the focused and incredible “purple” deluge in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and to the north there’s an unusual heart-shaped moisture pattern in Michigan.

7-Day Percent of Normal Precipitation through April 14, 2023.

Spring in much of the East and Midwest was also warmer than normal

U.S. temperature Anomaly for April 1-14, 2023.
U.S. temperature Anomaly for April 1-14, 2023.

… resulting in a 10-20 day earlier start to spring in the South and East, per the National Phenology Network. At least one location in New Jersey was tracked at 27 days early.

National Phenology Map
Spring is 10-20 days early, as seen in the National Phenology Network map for April 15, 2023.

Fire activity in the region has been moving northeast toward Maine with the bubble of heat, including a fire point seemingly in the Atlantic — though a closer look at the Fire Weather Dashboard (with fire points activated) places the the fire on Martha’s Vineyard.

Fire Weather Dashboard, focused on the Northeast, for April 15, 2023.
Fire Weather Dashboard, focused on the Northeast, for April 15, 2023.

Soon, though, the spring fire season will be taking a hiatus, with green up, increasing humidity and even fog on the way. By Monday, moisture is expected in the East, with most predictive service areas transitioning to “Little or no risk.”

County commissioner in Glenwood Springs wants “climate” removed from wildfire agreement

Garfield County in west-central Colorado signed off this week on the new multi-agency Roaring Fork Wildfire Collaborative, but not without a little creative editing. The Post Independent reported that county commissioners signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) joining 17 other local governments, fire districts, and state and federal agencies in the formation of the wildfire collaborative.

“The Roaring Fork Valley presents especially complex boundaries with the sheer number of agencies involved,” said Larry Sandoval with the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office. He said the completion of this MOU is a major step toward effective collaboration in fire prevention and management.

The request for edits to the MOU originated with Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky. “A lot of the emphasis is coming from Pitkin and Eagle counties and the Forest Service to do more forest management,” he said, “which from my perspective is more than just prescribed burns.” Jankovsky wanted the MOU to include equal mention of logging, thinning, and other “more aggressive” forest management methods. “I find it ironic that this group talks about climate change, yet they look at forest management as burning the forest, which has the same effect as if we have a forest fire, just to a much smaller degree,” Jankovsky explained.

A third-generation native Coloradan, Jankovsky is serving his third term as Garfield County Commissioner. He is the public lands planning lead for the Board of County Commissioners and the former general manager of Sunlight Mountain Resort in Glenwood Springs. He asked that the word “climate” be removed from one sentence in the MOU where it stated that active management “… includes the use of the best available climate science that will help stakeholders understand how a changing climate will impact our landscapes and ecosystems, while also looking for opportunities to improve understanding through local research.” Jankovsky wanted the line to read “best available science” and not “best available climate science.”

Fire photo by Colorado State Forest Service
Fire photo by Colorado State Forest Service

Because fires have no boundaries and don’t recognize jurisdiction lines, the valley-wide collaborative is meant to have everyone on the same page. The 18 local, county, state, and federal agencies involved in wildfire management formalized their working relationship through the Roaring Fork Valley Wildfire Collaborative; the Gunnison Times reported that talk of the collaborative started early 2022, when residents in the Roaring Fork River drainage discussed their interest in better fuels treatment. With several big fires in recent memory — the 2018 Lake Christine Fire, the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire, and the 2021 Sylvan Lake Fire — valley stakeholders began discussing solutions. The collaborative’s goals include improving communication and identifying critical areas of fuels reduction and vegetation treatment.

Signatories to the MOU are Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, and Marble. County signatories are Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, and Gunnison counties. Additional collaborators include Aspen Fire, Roaring Fork Fire and Rescue, Carbondale Fire, Glenwood Springs Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, and the BLM.

The 2002 Hayman Fire was the largest wildfire in Colorado state history for nearly 20 years, until the Pine Gulch Fire surpassed it in August 2020. The Cameron Peak Fire became the largest wildfire in Colorado history seven weeks later at 206,667 acres. With multiple record-breaking fires, the 2020 Colorado wildfire season became the largest in state history after burning 665,454 acres.

Large-scale wildfires are becoming increasingly common in the U.S. as climate change accelerates; since 2000 an annual average of 70,072 wildfires have burned an annual average of 7 million acres across the country. According to research by the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University, that’s more than double the annual average of 3.3 million acres burned in the 1990s, when a greater number of fires occurred annually. A 2016 study found that climate change had doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western U.S., and a 2021 study supported by NOAA concluded that climate change has been the main driver of the increase in fire weather each season.

In Europe war and increasing wildfires stress military and firefighters

Erickson Air-Cranes in Greece
At least nine Erickson Air-Cranes photographed together for the first time. October, 2021 in Greece. Photo by Dimitris Klagos. (According to a report from Erickson, there may have been 10 Air-Cranes at the site.)

Climate change, increasing wildfires, and Russia’s war in Ukraine are combining to put unusual stresses on governments, especially in Europe. When wildfires become numerous or very large, threatening large numbers of residents, many countries will mobilize military units. They may use helicopters to drop water or transport firefighters or trucks to assist with logistics. The United States has eight Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that can be quickly loaded into military C-130s to drop retardant on fires. Soldiers on the ground can be transformed from warfighters to firefighters.

This year was the hottest summer on record in Europe. It followed what what is now the second hottest summer on the continent. During the worst drought in centuries wildfires burned about 50 percent more acres than the previous record set in 2017.

The Washington Post has an article about how the war is affecting countries in Europe, in this case Slovenia, that need to both fight wildfires as the climate changes and bolster the military as international tensions mount.

“There will be these disasters of fires or floods. It will be more and more common,” Defense Minister Marjan Šarec said in an interview. “We must spend our money for everything that is needed. Because safety has no price.”

“It’s not a dilemma of cannons or butter,” said Šarec, who has also been a volunteer firefighter. “As a serious country we must do both.”

But military leaders say the dual-headed challenge can sometimes be significant, and even contradictory.

“Our training is going on in a military way. Exercises. How to use military equipment, how to fight, how to protect. How to defend,” said Glavaš, the head of Slovenia’s military command. “When you stop this training and you go to civilian tasks you need to focus your mind from fighting to something else. It’s very hard sometimes.”

He said that fighting fires “definitely” had an impact on combat readiness.

Currently the European Union coordinates and funds the deployment of 12 fixed wing firefighting airplanes and one helicopter pooled by EU countries. Fire Aviation reported in July that the EU plans to purchase additional air tankers.

The European Commission issued a press release on  Oct. 5, 2022 confirming they are proposing to spend €170 million from the EU budget to reinforce its rescEU ground and aerial assets  in the summer of 2023. The rescEU transitional fleet would then have a total of 22 planes, 4 helicopters as well as more pre-positioned ground teams. Beginning in 2025, the fleet would be further reinforced through an accelerated procurement of airplanes and helicopters.

The Washington Post reported that Slovenian defense leaders decided this month to cancel a $343 million purchase of armored troop carriers as they contemplate buying more aircraft that could be used to fight fires.

Gérald Moussa Darmanin, France’s Minister of the Interior, said recently, “We want to increase the number of Canadair [water scooping air tankers] in our own fleet from twelve to sixteen. But the problem is not to buy them, it is to produce them. Today there are no longer any factories that do so.”

The CL-415 water scooping air tanker has been out of production for years, but De Havilland, which now owns the rights to the aircraft, announced on September 21 the planned construction of a huge aircraft manufacturing facility east of Calgary, Alberta. They expect to employ 1,500 workers to produce at least three lines of aircraft — DHC-515 (a modernized variant of the CL-415), DHC-6 Twin Otter, and Dash 8-400 (Q400).

An announcement from De Havilland said, “European customers have signed letters of intent to purchase the first 22 aircraft pending the positive outcome of government-to-government negotiations through the Government of Canada’s contracting agency, the Canadian Commercial Corporation. De Havilland Canada expects first deliveries of the DHC-515 [water scooping air tanker] by the middle of the decade, with deliveries of additional aircraft to begin at the end of the decade, providing other customers the opportunity to renew existing fleets or proceed with new acquisition opportunities at that time.”

In the near term it does not seem likely that European countries are going to be able to find and purchase dozens of purpose-built air tankers to meet their needs.

Before this year many of the firefighting aircraft typically used in Western Europe and the Middle East during the summer were contracted from Russia. With the war and sanctions that source has virtually dried up.

The Helicopter Investor reported that in April the Portuguese government expelled a team of Russian mechanics working on three of their Russian made Kamov helicopters, and shut down the hangar in Ponte de Sor where the maintenance crew was working. In 2006 the government spent €348 million to buy six Kamov Ka-32A helicopters which could transport personnel and drop water, but over the last 10 years have had difficulty keeping them airworthy. In January none of the six were operational.

The Portuguese Air Force has signed an agreement to purchase six Blackhawk helicopters outfitted for fighting wildfires. The aircraft will be supplied by Arista Aviation Services, a US-based firm which specializes in modernizing surplus US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. Delivery of the first two is scheduled for the first quarter of 2023.

For a number of years Erickson Inc. has contracted their firefighting Air-Crane helicopters to European governments. In 2021 Columbia Helicopters had Columbia Model 234 Chinook’s on contract in Turkey. Single engine air tankers regularly make the migration between South America and Europe as the fire season switches hemispheres.

California forests hit hard by wildfires in the last decade

About 25 percent of the states’ forestland burned in the last 10 years — more than triple the previous decade

BAe-146 drops Winding Fire
BAe-146 drops on the Winding Fire in Northern California June 18, 2022. InciWeb.

By Jim Schmidt

Of the 32.1 million acres of forestland in California, approximately 2.1 million acres (6.6%) burned in wildfires in the 2002-2011 time period. In the following decade (2012-2021), that figure more than tripled to 7.9 million acres (24.7%).

National Forests in California were particularly hard hit.  10.1% of 12.7 million acres of forestland managed by the USDA Forest Service in California burned in 2002 – 2011 time period.  In the 2012 – 2021 decade that figure increased to 38.8%. Excluding areas that re-burned in the last 10 years, 44.5% of the forestland in California National Forests has burned in the last 20 years.  In contrast, only 22.6% of National Park forestland in the state has burned in the same time period. About 14 million acres of forestland in California are in private hands.  17.0 % of private forestland has burned since 2001.

Forestland acres burned California last two decades
Forestland acres burned by wildfires in California by owner class, 2002 – 2021. Jim Schmidt

The following maps display the forestland areas and the areas that have burned in California in the last two decades. Fires were concentrated in Southern California in the 2002-2011 time period and in Northern California in the last 10 years.

Map, California forestland and wildfires, 2002 - 2011
California forestland and wildfires, 2002 – 2011. Jim Schmidt
Map, California forestland and wildfires, 2012 - 2021
California forestland and wildfires, 2012 – 2021. Jim Schmidt

The article was edited September 7 with revised figures to account for areas that reburned, which account for about 5% of the forestland burned on National Forests in the last 20 years.

Jim Schmidt retired from the Stanislaus National Forest where he worked as a GIS specialist.

Researchers find the current Western drought is worst in 1,200 years

It is intensified by climate change

low water level drought Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
The public launch ramp at Antelope Point in late March, 2021 at Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. NPS photo.

New research published this month shows that the current drought in the Western United States is the worst seen in data going back to the year 800. Scientists developed estimates of precipitation during previous centuries using tree-ring reconstruction and found 2000–2021 was the driest 22-year period in the last 1,200 years.

Precipitation, temperature, and vapor pressure anomaly, 2000 to 2021
Observed climate anomalies. Anomalies in water-year (WY: October–September) (a) precipitation total, (b) temperature, and (c) vapour-pressure deficit (VPD). Maps on left show the average WY anomaly during 2000–2021. Yellow box: Southwestern North America (SWNA) study region. Anomalies are relative to 1950–1999. Time series on right show regionally averaged WY anomalies in SWNA (black) annually and as (red) 22-year running means visualized on the final year in each 22-year period. Geographic boundaries in maps were accessed through Matlab 2020a. From the paper.

Since the year 2000, southwestern North America (SWNA) has been unusually dry due to low precipitation totals and heat, punctuated most recently by exceptional drought in 2021. From 2000 to 2021, mean water-year (October– September) SWNA precipitation was 8.3 percent below the 1950–1999 average and temperature was 0.91 °C above average.

In summer of 2021, water levels at Lakes Mead and Powell, both on the Colorado River, reached their lowest levels on record, triggering unprecedented restrictions on Colorado River usage, in part because the 2-year naturalized flow out of Colorado River’s upper basin in water-years 2020–2021 was likely the lowest since at least 1906. Despite an active North American monsoon in 2021, the United States Drought Monitor classified more than 68 percent of the western United States as under extreme or exceptional drought for nearly all of July–October, 2021.

Soil moisture, 800 to 2021
Extended drought events. Summer soil moisture anomalies, expressed as standard deviations from the 800–2021 mean (σ), during the longest 8 extended drought events during the 800–2021 study period. The pink background bounds the years of each extended drought event. The horizontal dotted black line represents the 800–2021 mean. For the first 7 droughts shown, soil moisture anomalies come from our tree-ring reconstruction. For the final drought (2000–2021), anomalies come from our observation-based record. From the paper.

The researchers concluded that anthropogenic climate change accounts for 42 percent of the SWNA soil moisture anomaly in 2000–2021 and 19 percent in 2021.

Drought can have a very significant effect on wildland fire behavior. It affects vapor pressure deficit (VPD), soil moisture, relative humidity, and moisture in live and dead vegetation, or fuels. VPD is an absolute measure of the moisture deficit of the atmosphere and is more closely related to water stress on vegetation than relative humidity.

Soil moisture is a particularly important integrator of drought. Of all 22-year periods since 800, only two (1130–1151 and 1276–1297) contained more years with negative soil moisture anomalies than the 18 observed during 2000–2021.

The authors wrote that the 22-year long current drought is highly likely to continue through a 23rd year.

Percent of US with extreme or exceptional drought, 2000 to 2022
Extreme and exceptional drought in the western United States (US). Weekly percentage of western continental United States (west of 103°W) classified by the United States Drought Monitor (USDM) as under extreme or exceptional drought from January 1, 2000 to December 28, 2021. Calculations were made form weekly shapefiles of USDM drought classifications, available at https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/DmData/GISData.aspx as of January 9, 2022. The USDM is developed by the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). From the paper.

The research was conducted by A. Park Williams, Benjamin I. Cook, and Jason E. Smerdon.

Extreme wildfires may increase 14 percent by 2030, United Nations warns

Airport Fire near Bishop, Calif.
Airport Fire near Bishop, California Feb. 16, 2022. CAL FIRE photo.

Climate change and land-use change are projected to make wildfires more frequent and intense, with a global increase of extreme fires of up to 14 percent by 2030, 30 percent by the end of 2050, and 50 percent by the end of the century, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal.

The study calls for a radical change in government spending on wildfires, shifting their investments from reaction and response to prevention and preparedness.

In the report, wildfire is defined as “an unusual or extraordinary free-burning vegetation fire which may be started maliciously, accidently, or through natural means, that negatively influences social, economic, or environmental values”.

The study, Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires (117 MB), finds an elevated risk even for the Arctic and other regions previously unaffected by wildfires in recent centuries. The publication calls on governments to adopt a new “Fire Ready Formula”, with two-thirds of spending devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery, with one third left for response. Currently, direct responses to wildfires typically receive over half of related expenditures, while planning receives less than one per cent.

To prevent fires, the authors call for a combination of data and science-based monitoring systems with indigenous knowledge and for a stronger regional and international cooperation.

“Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place. Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported”, said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director. “We have to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires by being better prepared: invest more in fire risk reduction, work with local communities, and strengthen global commitment to fight climate change”.

Wildfires disproportionately affect the world’s poorest nations. With an impact that extends for days, weeks and even years after the flames subside:

· People’s health is directly affected by inhaling wildfire smoke, causing respiratory and cardiovascular impacts and increased health effects for the most vulnerable;

· The economic costs of rebuilding after areas are struck by wildfires can be beyond the means of low-income countries;

· Watersheds are degraded by wildfires’ pollutants; they also can lead to soil erosion causing more problems for waterways;

· Wastes left behind are often highly contaminated and require appropriate disposal.

Wildfires and climate change are mutually exacerbating. Wildfires are made worse by climate change through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightning, and strong winds, which causes hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons. At the same time, climate change is made worse by wildfires, mostly by ravaging sensitive and carbon-rich ecosystems like peatlands and rainforests. This turns landscapes into tinderboxes, making it harder to halt rising temperatures.

Wildlife and its natural habitats are rarely spared from wildfires, pushing some animal and plant species closer to extinction. A recent example is the Australian 2020 bushfires, which are estimated to have wiped out billions of domesticated and wild animals.

The report said the restoration of ecosystems is an important avenue to mitigate the risk of wildfires before they occur and to build back better in their aftermath. Wetlands restoration and the reintroduction of species such as beavers, peatlands restoration, building at a distance from vegetation, and preserving open space buffers are some examples of the essential investments into prevention, preparedness and recovery.

Wildfire factors influencing health
Wildfire smoke contains fine particulate matter and potentially toxic combustion products (the latter can be particularly harmful at the wildlandurban interface where waste and rubbish, materials used in buildings and vehicles are often burnt; Hallema et al. 2019). From the report.

The report concludes with a call for stronger international standards for the safety and health of firefighters and for minimizing the risks that they face before, during and after operations. This includes raising awareness of the risks of smoke inhalation, minimising the potential for life-threatening entrapments, and providing firefighters with access to adequate hydration, nutrition, rest, and recovery between shifts. Women firefighters face various challenges ranging from gender discrimination and sexual harassment to ill-designed equipment and protective clothing that puts them at greater risk of injury.

Human Health Exposure wildfire smoke health effects
Smoke particulate exposure pathways and impacts. Smoke exposure is most commonly measured from land-based air pollutant monitors, followed by satellite-based imagery models, with fewer studies measuring personal exposure to smoke (Liu et al. 2015). From the report.

Smoke associated with deforestation fires in the Brazilian Amazon has been found to be responsible for the premature death of almost 3,000 people annually (95 percent percentile confidence interval: 1,065–4,714), demonstrating the regional scale of fire impacts (Reddington et al. 2015).

Our take

The report predicts a global increase of extreme fires of up to 14 percent by 2030 and 30 percent by the end of 2050. The statistics for the United States from the National Interagency Fire Center since the 1980s indicates that the total acres burned and the average size of wildfires has been far exceeding those rates of increase. The data, which does not include Alaska since those fires are managed far differently from the rest of the US, shows during the forty-year period approximately a 400 percent increase in the average size by decade, and more than a 300 percent growth in the total acres burned each year. The statistics for the US are for all fires, not just those that “negatively influence social, economic, or environmental values.”

Average size of US wildfires by decade

Another factor that may influence the size of fires in the US is that some wildfires are not totally suppressed and can be herded around to attempt to protect private land, structures, and certain resources. They may burn for months, and occasionally grow far beyond what was expected. The use of a limited suppression strategy can be to allow fire to be reintroduced to replicate natural conditions and reduce fuels. Or in recent years it could be due to extreme fire activity in the Western US and a shortage of firefighting resources as a result of difficulties in hiring, retention and recruitment.

Total wildfire acres

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick and Tom.