NIOSH is studying the health effects of fighting wildfires

firefighters health study
Screenshot from the firefighters health study video below.

This is the second year of a multi-year study that is following six crews and taking health data from them on fires as well as at the beginning and end of the fire seasons.

The video provides a brief overview of this new approach to examine the potential health effects that wildland firefighters may experience working on wildland fires. This effort is a collaboration between the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH), the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service. As you will see in the video, a NIOSH team actually goes into the field on a wildfire in Idaho to test members of the Sawtooth Interagency Hotshot Crew on potential impacts to their overall health, including effects to their hearts, lungs, kidneys, and hearing. As results of this effort are made available, the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center will share them.

Update on the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment

fire Manning Creek burn
Manning Creek burn on June 20, 2019. (Photo by Roger Ottmar)

The Fire and Smoke Model Experiment (FASMEE) is a large, multi-agency effort funded by the Joint Fire Science Program and the U.S. Forest Service to identify and collect critical fuel, fire behavior, and other measurements that will be used to advance scientific understanding as well as operational and research modeling capabilities associated with wildland fire. The goal is to allow managers to increase the use of wildfire and prescribed fire.

On June 20, 2019, FASMEE completed data collection on Manning Creek, the first of two large, operational stand-replacement burns in a dense mixed conifer-aspen forest as part of FASMEE’s Phase 2 Southwest Campaign (Phase 1 was a planning phase and other campaigns are possible). The burn was conducted by the Richfield Ranger District located on the Fishlake National Forest in Utah. Over 40 scientists participated using ground sampling methods, drones carrying state of the art imagery and air quality sampling instrumentation, fire hardened video and still cameras, and LiDAR to collect a suite of data including fuel loading, fuel consumption, fire behavior, plume dynamics, and smoke data. Readers can view video and photographic imagery captured during the Manning Creek fire at https://fasmee.net/study-sites/manning-creek

Richfield Ranger District personnel will conduct a second stand replacement research fire this fall near Annabella Reservoir with over 120 scientists participating. In addition to the suite of instruments and sampling techniques deployed during the first research burn, two fixed wing aircraft including NASA/NOAA’s FIREX-AQ DC8 will be sampling plume smoke and heat release. Additional LiDAR and radar units have been acquired to better identify plume dynamics, with cameras and thermocouples added within the fire perimeter to capture data on soil heating and aspen regeneration.

fire Manning Creek burn
Manning Creek burn on June 20, 2019. (Photo by Brett Butler)
drone fire Manning Creek burn
A wildland firefighter flies a drone over the Manning Creek burn on June 20, 2019. (Photo by Adam Watts)

 

Research: selecting the optimum escape route at a wildland fire

Escape Route Index: A Spatially-Explicit Measure of Wildland Firefighter Egress Capacity

Escape Route Index

Above: a figure from the research

Previously we covered research that is underway to help wildland firefighters determine the best escape routes from a dangerous fire. A paper published in 2017 looked at the use of LiDAR to analyze the effects of slope, vegetation density, and ground surface roughness on travel rates for wildland firefighters’ escape routes. And earlier this year we reported on research that studied crowd-sourced fitness data to estimate rates of foot travel on slopes and how it could be integrated into recommendations for escape routes.

Below are excerpts from a research paper that was published July 8, 2019, written by Michael J. Campbell, Wesley G. Page, Philip E. Dennison, and Bret W. Butler. It is titled, Escape Route Index: A Spatially-Explicit Measure of Wildland Firefighter Egress Capacity. Link to the entire document.

From the Abstract

A previously published, crowd-sourced relationship between slope and travel rate was used to account for terrain, while vegetation was accounted for by using land cover to adjust travel rates based on factors from the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS). Land cover was found to have a stronger impact on ERI values than slope. We also modeled Escape Route Index (ERI) values for several recent wildland firefighter entrapments to assess the degree to which landscape conditions may have contributed to these events, finding that ERI values were generally low from the crews’ evacuation starting points.

From the Conclusions

In this paper, we have introduced a new metric for assessing and mapping egress capacity, or the degree to which one can evacuate from a given location, on a broad, spatial scale based on existing landscape conditions. ERI is not a single metric, but a suite of four spatially-explicit metrics that define the relative travel impedance caused by terrain and land cover faced by a fire crew, should that fire crew need to evacuate. The intent is that this modeling technique will be employed to aid in wildland firefighter safety operations prior to engaging a fire, acting as a decision support tool. Given that the metric relies on US nationwide, publicly-available datasets, the goal is that ERI metrics would be mapped in advance of fire suppression and used to direct fire crews toward potential control locations with higher capacity for evacuation, thus reducing the potential for injurious or even fatal entrapments.

ERI does not map escape routes, per se, it highlights areas that have a greater or lesser capacity for providing efficient escape routes. Areas with high ERI values will likely have an abundance of open, easily-traversable terrain, through which many potential escape routes may exist requiring little alteration of the land cover. Conversely, areas with low ERI values possess some combination of rugged terrain and dense vegetation, thus making the designation of suitable escape routes difficult or even impossible.

Researchers study and film the depths and heights of a forest fire

The scientists captured video that is mesmerizing

Forest Service fire research
Screenshot from the USFS video below filmed in the fire.

By: Gail Keirn, Rocky Mountain Research Station-Fort Collins, Colorado; Matt Burks, Pacific Northwest Research Station-Corvallis, Oregon; John Zapell, Fishlake National Forest-Richfield, Utah
July 29th, 2019

Forest fires often reach or exceed temperatures of 2,000° Fahrenheit—that’s equivalent to one-fifth the temperature of the surface of the sun. What is the impact of such high temperatures on the soil and plants of our forests? And how do the intensity and heat of a wildfire impact its behavior, smoke and the surrounding weather?

Answering these questions is challenging since it is hard to predict when and where fires will occur. Therefore, USDA Forest Service scientists and others with the interagency Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment, or FASMEE, teamed up with the Fishlake National Forest Richfield Ranger District to study a prescribed fire from start to finish.

After months of planning and preparation, Fishlake National Forest fire crews ignited more than 2,000 acres of Utah forest in an effort to consume living upper canopy vegetation and initiate growth of new vegetation. This June 2019 prescribed fire was designed to restore aspen ecosystems by removing conifer trees and stimulating the regrowth of aspen.

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest Research Station and Rocky Mountain Research Station, as well as other FASMEE participants, saw the fire as a unique opportunity for study. Prior to the fire, Forest Service research experts took measurements of the forest vegetation and fuel loads. They also set up special fire-proof equipment to record and measure the heat of the fire throughout the project. Embedded below is a video recorded during the burn.

Forest Service fire research
Researchers prepare for the start of a prescribed fire at Fishlake National Forest. More than 40 scientists from multiple agencies participated in the effort, gathering a variety of data on the fire itself and its impacts. USDA Forest Service photo.

During the fire, scientists used LiDAR, radar, aircraft and satellite imagery, weather and atmospheric measurements, and ground monitoring to study the fuel (dead materials) consumed, fire behavior and the fire’s impact on living vegetation. Scientists will continue to monitor the area to determine how vegetation recovers after fire.

“More than 40 scientists from multiple agencies participated in the effort, gathering a variety of data on the fire itself and its impacts,” said Pacific Northwest research forester Roger Ottmar, one of the lead scientists for the project. “The data is invaluable to our efforts to predict fire behavior, smoke impacts and the short- and long-term effects of extreme fires.”

Over the next several months, scientists will gather more data as the landscape recovers, comparing burn severity maps generated from remote sensors with observed plant regrowth. Other data from the fire is already being used to validate and improve models that predict fire and smoke severity, as well as to improve firefighter safety standards and guidelines.

Building upon this success, experts are planning a similar project for later this fall to continue studying and learning about fire.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Researchers evaluate connection between California wildfires and human-caused climate change

A group of seven scientists published a paper last month that looks at the connection between California wildfires and human-caused climate change, titled Observed Impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Wildfire in California. One of their main conclusions was that climate warming dries the atmosphere which in turn dries fuels, promoting forest fires in the summer.

Here is the abstract:

“Recent fire seasons have fueled intense speculation regarding the effect of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire in western North America and especially in California. During 1972–2018, California experienced a fivefold increase in annual burned area, mainly due to more than an eightfold increase in summer forest‐fire extent. Increased summer forest‐fire area very likely occurred due to increased atmospheric aridity caused by warming. Since the early 1970s, warm‐season days warmed by approximately 1.4 °C as part of a centennial warming trend, significantly increasing the atmospheric vapor pressure deficit (VPD). These trends are consistent with anthropogenic trends simulated by climate models. The response of summer forest‐fire area to VPD is exponential, meaning that warming has grown increasingly impactful.

“Robust interannual relationships between VPD and summer forest‐fire area strongly suggest that nearly all of the increase in summer forest‐fire area during 1972–2018 was driven by increased VPD. Climate change effects on summer wildfire were less evident in nonforested lands. In fall, wind events and delayed onset of winter precipitation are the dominant promoters of wildfire. While these variables did not change much over the past century, background warming and consequent fuel drying is increasingly enhancing the potential for large fall wildfires. Among the many processes important to California’s diverse fire regimes, warming‐driven fuel drying is the clearest link between anthropogenic climate change and increased California wildfire activity to date.”

An illustration from the paper:

Climate change California wildfires
Seasonal and annual burned areas in California for 1972–2018. (a) Total burned area in the four regions of focus: (b) North Coast, (c) Sierra Nevada, (d) Central Coast, and (e) South Coast. Annual burned area is decomposed into that which occurred in January–April (green), May–September (red), and October–December (orange). Significant (p < 0.05) trends are shown as bold black curves.

Below is an excerpt from the paper:

“In this study we evaluated the various possible links between anthropogenic climate change and observed changes in California wildfire activity across seasons, regions, and land cover types since the early 1970s. The clearest link between California wildfire and anthropogenic climate change thus far has been via warming‐driven increases in atmospheric aridity, which works to dry fuels and promote summer forest fire, particularly in the North Coast and Sierra Nevada regions. Warming has been far less influential on summer wildfire in nonforest areas. In fall, the drivers of wildfire are particularly complex, but warming does appear to enhance the probability of large fall wildfires such as those in 2017 and 2018, and this effect is likely to grow in the coming decades.

“Importantly, the effects of anthropogenic warming on California wildfire thus far have arisen from what may someday be viewed as a relatively small amount of warming. According to climate models, anthropogenic warming since the late 1800s has increased the atmospheric vapor‐pressure deficit by approximately 10%, and this increase is projected to double by the 2060s. Given the exponential response of California burned area to aridity, the influence of anthropogenic warming on wildfire activity over the next few decades will likely be larger than the observed influence thus far where fuel abundance is not limiting.”

Citation:
Observed Impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Wildfire in California.
A. Park Williams John T. Abatzoglou Alexander Gershunov Janin Guzman‐Morales Daniel A. Bishop Jennifer K. Balch Dennis P. Lettenmaier
First published: 15 July 2019 https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EF001210

Planning evacuations using dynamic fire vulnerability mapping

satellite photo Camp Fire Paradise California
Camp Fire as seen from NASA Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 at 10:45 PST November 8, 2018. The photo, enhanced with infrared imagery, was taken about 4 hours and 15 minutes after the fire started.

In the last three years examples of wildfires in North America that have caused massive evacuations, fatalities, and structures destroyed include:

City officials in Paradise had an evacuation plan in place and had even conducted a drill, but the plan assumed a specific fire situation that would allow time for sections of the city to evacuate, one area at at time. The Camp Fire, driven by strong winds, hit the community so quickly that the entire city had to evacuate immediately, causing the limited and low volume evacuation routes to become clogged. A situation like that with very little advance notice would overwhelm many cities, especially if the availability and capacity of routes can’t come close to handling the traffic.

Managers can use computer models to predict the spread of fires, and there are also models that can estimate how much time it would take to evacuate people in vehicles or on foot. But these models have not been integrated to determine how changes in fire behavior would affect evacuation capability and plans.

A linked fire behavior and evacuation model could have variable inputs for weather, fuels, and topography as well as an assortment of evacuation alternatives that could inform planners about existing and proposed designs.

An integrated modeling system or simulator for dynamic fire vulnerability mapping does not exist, but researchers have laid out specifications and a framework for building one. Their recommendations are detailed in a paper published in Safety Science titled, “An open physics framework for modelling wildland-urban interface fire evacuations.”

dynamic fire vulnerability mapping
Illustration from the researchers. Click to enlarge.

Below is the abstract from their paper:

“Fire evacuations at wildland-urban interfaces (WUI) pose a serious challenge to the emergency services, and are a global issue affecting thousands of communities around the world. This paper presents a multi-physics framework for the simulation of evacuation in WUI wildfire incidents, including three main modelling layers: wildfire, pedestrians, and traffic. Currently, these layers have been mostly modelled in isolation and there is no comprehensive model which accounts for their integration. The key features needed for system integration are identified, namely: consistent level of refinement of each layer (i.e. spatial and temporal scales) and their application (e.g. evacuation planning or emergency response), and complete data exchange. Timelines of WUI fire events are analysed using an approach similar to building fire engineering (available vs. required safe egress times for WUI fires, i.e. WASET/WRSET). The proposed framework allows for a paradigm shift from current wildfire risk assessment and mapping tools towards dynamic fire vulnerability mapping. This is the assessment of spatial and temporal vulnerabilities based on the wildfire threat evolution along with variables related to the infrastructure, population and network characteristics. This framework allows for the integration of the three main modelling layers affecting WUI fire evacuation and aims at improving the safety of WUI communities by minimising the consequences of wildfire evacuations.”

Authors of the paper: Enrico Ronchi, Steven M.V. Gwynne, Guillermo Rein, Paolo Intini, and Rahul Wadhwani.