Congress solicits advice on wildland fire research

House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee
House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing, June 29, 2021.

In a hearing Tuesday before the House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee the topic was “The state of federal wildland fire science: examining opportunities for further research and coordination.” And just as promised, many topics were recommended for additional development and research.

There were four witnesses:

      • Dr. Craig B. Clements, San Jose State University
      • Dr. Jessica McCarty, Miami University
      • George Geissler, Washington DNR
      • Fire Chief Erik Litzenberg (Ret), International Association of Fire Chiefs

If you don’t have two and a half hours to watch the video below of the entire hearing, you can watch the prepared five-minute presentations of the four witnesses and get a good idea of the topics that were discussed. They begin at 26:30.

I made a list of the topics that were mentioned as needing more research:

  • Better systems for fire detection and modeling.
  • Systems for tracking the real time location of firefighters and other resources.
  • Increase the budget for the Joint Fire Science Program, which was cut in half during the last four years.
  • Fire weather.
  • Deploy on fires what would be the equivalent of hurricane hunter aircraft for real time monitoring of fires and weather at fires.
  • Treat fire weather the same as other severe weather phenomena.
  • Continuous real time high resolution imagery of fires.
  • Operational community-based coupled fire atmosphere models.
  • Better geospatial and temporal resolution for monitoring fires.
  • Improved and standardized warning system for fires.

If you would like to see another point of view, check out a July 1 interview with Mark Finney by Saul Elbein in The Hill. Mr. Finney is a Research Forester with the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. Early in the piece Mr. Finney said more prescribed fire was needed.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Equilibrium: What do you feel is missing from an approach centered on suppressing big fires?

Finney: The issue is, reactive management rarely works. My analogy is health care — if all health care was emergency rooms and ambulances, you’d have a health care disaster on your hands.

Because there’d be no preventive care. You’d have ambulances everywhere, people getting rushed off. But by the time you have emergency care, it’s too late.

People get engaged in looking for better satellites or mapping or sensors thinking: If we get better at reacting, we’ll solve the problem.

But that’s not true. If nature picks the time, place and conditions to start a fire, and you run around and deal — then you’re a moron. You’re just playing defense. You can’t win any contest by playing defense.

Has society chosen to have fire under the most extreme conditions?

Lolo Peak Fire
Lolo Peak Fire at 6:25 p.m. MDT August 19, 2017 as seen from the Missoula area. Photo by Dick Mangan.

An article by Rob Chaney in the Missoulian quotes a research forester and a Type 1 Incident Commander talking about the characteristics of the wildfires we have been experiencing in recent years. Below is an excerpt:

…“This has been a choice society has made to have fire under the most extreme conditions,” Mark Finney, a research forester for the U.S. Forest Service Fire Sciences Lab, told the Missoula City Club on Monday. “There are alternatives if we choose to use them, instead of waiting for fires to start and then responding to them.”

Greg Poncin, incident commander for both the Lolo Peak and Rice Ridge fires of 2017, added that 12 of the 30 largest fires in the past decade all occurred last year…

Looking into the forces that drive wildfires

Pioneer Fire northeast of Boise, Idaho, August, 2016. USFS photo.

High Country News has an excellent article written by Douglas Fox that looks under the hood, so to speak, at the science that causes wildfires to burn the way they do. There are forces, unknown until the last decade or two, that are major influences on the spread of a fire, such as the 100 mph flamethrower-like jets of flame that may have contributed to the deaths on the 1994 South Canyon fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Mr. Fox writes in illuminating detail about state-of-the-art research being conducted by Janice Coen, David Kingsmill, Craig Clements, Mark Finney, Michael Reeder, and Brian Potter, as well as legacy research done by the the U.S. military in the 1940s that provided data on how to design incendiary bombs to burn down many of the buildings in Hamburg, Germany on July 27, 1943 in order to demoralize the workers in Germany’s critical U-boat industry.

Most of the article is about recent research on wildfires, but here is an excerpt about the military’s work in the 1940s in northwest Utah that facilitated the attack on Hamburg by the British that killed at least 42,000 people.

…The U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service had commissioned Standard Oil Development Company to construct a row of steep-roofed European-style apartment buildings. Erich Mendelsohn, an architect who had fled Nazi Germany, specified every detail: 1 1/4-by-2-inch wood battens, spaced 5 7/8 inches apart, to hold the roof tiles; 1-inch wood flooring underlain by 3 1/2-inch cinderblocks, and so on — all to replicate the dwellings of German industrial workers. The wood was maintained at 10 percent moisture to mimic the German climate. Rooms were outfitted with authentic German curtains, cabinets, dressers, beds and cribs — complete with bedding — laid out in traditional floor plans.

Then, military planes dropped various combinations of charges on the buildings, seeking the most efficient way to penetrate the roofs and lace the structures with flame.

Those experiments offered clues on what factors could cause firestorms. And in the years following World War II, scientists would study Hamburg and other bombing raids to derive basic numbers for predicting when a firestorm might form: the tons of munitions dropped per square mile, the number of fires ignited per square mile, and the minimum area that must burn. They concluded that Hamburg’s unusually hot weather set the stage for the firestorm, by making the atmospheric layers above the city more unstable and thus easier for a smoke plume to punch through. Scientists theorized that this powerful rise had drawn in the winds that whipped the flames into even greater fury.