FSU researchers: Most fires in Florida go undetected

By: Zachary Boehm

A new study by Florida State University researchers indicates that common satellite imaging technologies have vastly underestimated the number of fires in Florida.

Holmes Nowell
Christopher Holmes, assistant professor in the department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, and Holly Nowell, postdoctoral researcher in EOAS.

Their report, published in collaboration with researchers from the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, challenges well-established beliefs about the nature and frequency of fire in the Sunshine State. While there were more fires than expected, researchers said, strategically prescribed burns throughout the state are proving an effective force against the ravages of wildfire.

The paper appears in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

For scientists studying fire, sophisticated satellites whizzing far above the Earth’s surface have long represented the best tool for monitoring wildfires and prescribed burns — carefully controlled and generally small fires intended to reduce the risk of unmanageable wildfires.

But FSU researchers suggest that fire experts themselves have been getting burned by faulty data, and that broadly accepted estimates of fire area and fire-based air pollutants might be flawed.

“There are well-known challenges in detecting fires from satellites,” said lead investigator Holly Nowell, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science. “Here we show that only 25 percent of burned area in Florida is detected.”

Using comprehensive ground-based fire records from the Florida Forest Service — which regulates and authorizes every request for a prescribed burn in the state — researchers found dramatic discrepancies between fires detected by satellites and fires documented by state managers.

prescribed fire Florida
Austin Dixon of the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy monitors a prescribed burn. Credit: Kevin Robertson

The majority of fires in Florida come in the form of prescribed burns, but because these fires are designed to be brief and contained, they often fall under the radar of satellites soaring overhead.

This is especially true in a state like Florida, where dense cloud cover is common and the warm, wet climate allows vegetation to regrow quickly after a blaze, disguising the scars that fires leave in their wake.

“Like a detective, satellites can catch a fire ‘in the act’ or from the ‘fingerprints’ they leave behind,” said study co-author Christopher Holmes, an assistant professor in EOAS. “In our area, catching an active fire in a thermal image can be hard because the prescribed fires are short, and we have frequent clouds that obscure the view from space.”

The state fire records also revealed a counterintuitive truth: Unlike in western states such as California, where dry conditions frequently produce massive increases in destructive and often uncontrollable fires, Florida actually experiences a decrease in land consumed by fire during drought.

When drought conditions emerge, researchers said, officials are less likely to authorize prescribed burns. And because prescribed burns account for the overwhelming majority of fires in the state, overall fire activity decreases.

This also suggests that prescribed burning programs — which aim to reduce the risk of wildfire in dry conditions — are having a materially positive effect.

“Although we still have occasional destructive wildfires, including the recent tragic Eastpoint fire, our results indicate that prescribed fire policy is helping to reduce wildfire risk,” Holmes said, referencing the June 2018 wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes in Florida’s Big Bend region.

Tall Timbers specialist Tracy Hmielowski uses a drip torch to ignite vegetation as part of a prescribed burn. Credit: Kevin Robertson
While the team’s study reconfirms the utility of prescribed burning, it calls into question prevailing estimates for airborne pollution from fire. If, as the study suggests, only 25 percent of fires in Florida are detected by satellites, then there could be “a rather large bias and a significant potential underestimation of emissions,” Nowell said.

The study’s findings are specific to Florida, but researchers suspect that similar satellite limitations may be skewing fire detection — and, consequently, emission estimates — in neighboring regions and geographically analogous areas like the savannas of Africa or the agricultural belts of Europe and Asia.

“We believe this result easily extends to the rest of the Southeast United States — which burns more area than the rest of the United States combined in a typical year — and other similar regions throughout the world that use small prescribed burns as a land management technique,” Nowell said.

Kevin Robertson, Casey Teske and Kevin Hiers from Tall Timbers contributed to this study. The research was funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.
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Florida officials: Contractors to blame for prescribed burn that destroyed 36 homes, boats

A wildfire mitigation group contracted by the state of Florida is responsible for a weekend prescribed burn that got out of control and destroyed dozens of homes and several boats, officials confirmed Wednesday.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam on Wednesday announced that a burn conducted by Wildland Fire Services Inc. on behalf of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission caused the Sunday wildfire in Eastpoint, Florida over the weekend.

Fanned by high winds, the fire burned more than 800 acres and destroyed 36 homes in the small coastal community on the Florida panhandle.

Drone footage of the aftermath is available here. 

“My heart goes out to those affected by this devastating wildfire, and I thank all of our partners in the response effort to stop the spread of the fire,” Putnam said in a statement Wednesday.

The Florida Forest Service led response efforts to contain and control the wildfire with assistance from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Eastpoint Volunteer Fire Department, and other local fire departments.

The fire burned through the heavily wooded residential area Sunday near the edge of Tate’s Hell State Forest. No one was killed in the blaze itself, though one man who was trying to help during the evacuation suffered an apparent heart attack and died.

For obvious reasons, the news on Wednesday did not sit will with Franklin County residents. Reporters spoke with several in the area.

From the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper:

“I am so furious right now,” said April Dalton, who lives in the neighborhood hit by the wildfire. “There was a loss of life and damage because someone dropped the ball. Children and families are homeless now because someone did not do their job.”

Dalton said she and her husband escaped the blaze after rescuing their dogs, turning their chickens loose and wetting their house down with a hose. Her husband had to be treated for low oxygen and heat illness later.

John Matthew Polous, a shrimper and oysterman, lost 14 boats, his home and pickup trucks, the Associated Press reported.

“They finally admitted to what done it, now let’s see what they are going to do,” Polous, 51, said while walking through the burned remains of his home. “Why was they even burning this time of year back here? That don’t make sense, but they was and there’s nothing nobody can do about it.”

The Florida Forest Service was among those who joined in sharing an online fundraiser aimed at assisting those affected by the fire. More than $67,000 had been contributed by Thursday morning. The state is also planning on offering immediate financial assistance. 

New film released — “Fire: In the Florida Scrub”

Above: Screenshot from the film.

In 2012 when I first heard of Jennifer Brown she was working in the Interpretation Division in Everglades National Park  and her term appointment was about to end. She had just produced for the National Park Service an excellent film about prescribed fire titled “River of Fire”. Now with many other videos about fire under her belt with her company Into Nature Films, she has produced another — “Fire: In the Florida Scrub”. As with some of her other projects, she partnered with the former Fire Management Officer at Everglades National Park, Rick Anderson.

Here is the official description of the film:

Fire is one of the earth’s dominant forces. ‘Surviving Fire: In the Florida Scrub’ features three decades of discovery by Dr. Eric Menges. After watching this powerful short film, you will never look at Florida plants the same away again. This film pays tribute to the special people who dedicate their lives to improving fire management. Join Eric Menges for a 16 minute exploration into the elegant and unexpected ways plants survive fire. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and produced by Into Nature Films in collaboration with Archbold Biological Station.

Like the other “Into Nature Films”, this one is beautifully photographed and very clearly tells the story. It’s impressive how they had video footage to illustrate almost every point brought up in the narration.

Ms. Brown’s other films can be seen at articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Jennifer Brown”.

Fires in Big Cypress National Park have burned over 38,000 acres

Above: Data from the Incident Management Team, May 5, 2018.

Three large wildfires in Big Cypress National Park and Preserve in South Florida have burned a total of 38,808 acres. Along with several other small fires they are being managed as the Avian Complex.

  • Buzzard Fire, 23,914 acres: Raccoon Point 11 miles north of US 41 MM 50. It continues to be active in the northeastern and southwestern portions. The observed fire behavior Saturday was flanking fire with short head fire runs. Scattered areas received small amounts of rain that had zero effect on the fuel conditions. The passing storms brought increased winds that pushed it to the north, increasing the threat to the cabins in the Little Deer area.
  • Flamingo Fire, 4,043 acres: north of I-75, E of SR 29, S of Preserve N boundary. It was active Saturday before receiving about 1/2 inch of rain. A well developed smoke column was visible from Highway 29 and I-75. A steady flanking fire was moving north and northwest with small areas of head fire.
  • Curlew Fire, 1,062 acres: South of US 41, east and north of Loop Road. It is burning in both Big Cypress National Park and Preserve and Everglades National Park. No fire activity was observed Saturday due to additional moisture and limited fuels.
avian complex fire wildfire
Uploaded to InciWeb May 5, 2018, labeled: “Jose Martinez PR crew”.
Map of fires Avian Complex
Map of fires in the Avian Complex. Incident Management Team May 5, 2018.

Florida wildfire season underway; crews working multiple lightning-caused fires

The Greenway Fire burned more than 6,000 acres in Florida as of Sunday, March 25, 2018. Photo: Greater Naples Fire Rescue

Spring has sprung, and so have wildfires in parched parts of Florida.

The Greenway Fire, burned 6,600 acres by Sunday afternoon and was 20 percent contained, according to Greater Naples Fire Rescue. A 17-acre spot fire was complicating efforts, and crews have worked to keep the blaze from reaching southwest Florida communities, including VeronaWalk and Winding Cypress.

“As long as wind conditions do not unexpectedly change, the outlook for these communities looks favorable as of this report,” fire officials said Sunday.

Elsewhere, the 116th Ave SE Fire was listed at 8,000 acres and 45 percent contained Sunday, per the the Caloosahatchee Forestry Center. This fire is moving toward the Flag Pond Fire, which burned 2,600 acres and was 100 percent contained Sunday — at least one occupied RV/home was destroyed, officials said.

Each of the fires was caused by lightning, officials said.

The Florida Forest Service and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office were assisting in the effort, with teams conducting water drops in the area.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam and the Florida Forest Service last week urged Floridians to exercise caution due to significantly heightened wildfire risk throughout the state. Despite recent rainfall, drought conditions throughout the state are expected to continue — the Florida Forest Service has worked more than 700 wildfires across the state since the start of this year 2018.

“Florida’s wildland firefighters have proven time and again that they are prepared to put their lives on the line to keep Floridians safe,” Putnam said. “Floridians can do their part by keeping preventable human-caused wildfires at bay and preparing their families and homes for wildfire.”

Florida Fire Risk for Sunday, via Florida Forest Service website.

2017 Pulaski Award given to Spaceport Integration Team

A memorial was also dedicated to two USFWS firefighters who perished on the Ransom Road Fire in June, 1981.

Memorial Honor Guard FWS
The FWS honor guard places two crossed Pulaski tools at the memorial, a traditional ceremony acknowledging the passing of a wildland firefighter. FWS photo.

In a dual-purpose ceremony November 1 at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Florida (map) a group of land managers received an award and a memorial was dedicated to two deceased wildland firefighters.

In 1981 two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) firefighters were killed on the Ransom Road Fire at the Refuge. Scott Maness and Beau Sauselein were building fireline with a tractor plow when a passing thunderstorm caused a 90-degree wind shift in the wind direction with gusts up to 45 mph. They raised the plow and tried to escape on the tractor but it became high-centered on a stump concealed by palmetto. They dismounted and fled on foot but were overtaken by the fire. The two men shared a fire shelter but both were killed.

Today the Refuge hosted an outdoor ceremony near Cape Canaveral with 140 guests, including former co-workers and family members of Mr. Maness and Mr. Sauselein. The historic tragedy triggered dramatic improvements in the FWS fire program, culminating in a professional collaboration with federal, state, and local partners to support the safe operation of the spaceport while protecting a myriad of resident wildlife species.

FWS photo.

The ceremony opened with the six-person uniformed FWS National Honor Guard presenting colors and symbolically placing firefighting tools at an inscribed granite marker in front of the Refuge headquarters. Designed and built by the Refuge’s fire crew, the new memorial is now a daily reminder to staff of how two men gave their lives, imparting lessons leading to improvements in firefighter safety.

Pulaski award
Spaceport Integration Team representatives with Pulaski Award plaques. Colonel Z. Walter Jackim, Vice Commander, 45th Space Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station; Michael Good, Acting Fire Management Officer, Merritt Island NWR; John Fish, Chief, Florida Forest Service; Mark Schollmeyer Chief, Brevard County Fire Rescue; and Kelvin Manning, Associate Director, Kennedy Space Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. FWS photo.

Following the memorial dedication, FWS Chief of Fire Management Chris Wilcox presented the National Interagency Fire Center 2017 Pulaski Award to the Spaceport Integration Team of FWS, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (45th Space Wing), Florida Forest Service, and Brevard County Fire Rescue. The group award is given by NIFC fire chiefs including the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, National Association of State Foresters, and other fire programs.

About 35 attendees are also participating this week in a field study of the Ransom Road Fire. Modeled after a military leadership “staff ride,” the day-long exercise focuses on the progression of events and decision making that led to the loss of life. As the first formal staff ride at the Refuge, fire leaders hope to repeat the Ransom Road Fire exercise for more fire managers in the future.

ceremonial Pulaski tool
A ceremonial Pulaski tool. FWS photo.