BLM intends to take shortcuts to begin cutting timber after a fire

salvage logging
Skidder and delimber operating on a fuel management research project in the Priest River Experimental Forest in Idaho. Forest Service photo.

The Bureau of Land Management will open a 30-day period during which it will accept public comments on their plans to remove some steps that are required before cutting timber following a fire.

The agency intends to no longer require Environmental Impact Statements or Environmental Assessments on what they call “salvage” operations of less than 5,000 acres — cutting dead or dying trees which can result from insects or wildfires. They would use a Categorial Exemption (CX) to skip some environmental review steps that are usually required.

The BLM’s press release about their plans did not include information about how the public could comment, just that, “[A] a public comment period on the proposed CX closes 30 days after the proposal publishes in the Federal Register. The BLM will provide additional information about when and how to comment when the proposed rule is published. ”

Their press release saw no issues with their planned accelerated timber cutting operations:

The BLM has completed a review of scientific literature and previously analyzed and implemented actions and found no evidence that salvage harvest at the levels proposed would have a negative effect on forest health. To the contrary, removing dead and dying trees can accelerate forest succession and benefit native wildlife species that rely on successional habitat, while reducing the potential for catastrophic wildfires.

An opposing point of view is in a paper written by D.B. Lindenmayer and R.F. Noss, titled “Salvage Logging, Ecosystem Processes, and Biodiversity Conservation.” It was in Conservation Biology, Volume 20, No. 4, August, 2006.

Here is an excerpt:


“Discussion

“Some of the impacts we have outlined may be different from or additional to the effects of traditional forms of logging that are not preceded by large, natural disturbance events. This is because the conditions preceding, during, and after salvage logging may differ from those in areas subject to traditional logging. Moreover, the ecological benefits derived from large-scale disturbances (such as the creation of charred trees and coarse woody debris) can be lost or severely diminished by salvage operations for decades and even centuries (Lindenmayer & Ough 2006). These problems have often been overlooked or poorly understood by conservation biologists, foresters, and other natural resource managers. In some cases salvage impacts may have been so substantial that past interpretations of ecosystem responses to natural disturbance may need to be reexamined. That is, ecosystem processes and biotic responses may have been more influenced by salvage logging than by the initial natural disturbance event. This may be true for hydrological regimes in the northeastern United States following the 1938 hurricane (Foster et al. 1997), aquatic macroinvertebrates in the western United States (Minshall 2003), and arboreal marsupials in the forests of Victoria, Australia, after the 1939 and 1983 wildfires (Lindenmayer et al. 1997).

“Whereas most documented effects of salvage logging are negative from an ecological standpoint, others can be neutral or positive, depending on the response variables measured. Effects are likely to vary over time and among and within vegetation types in response to the type, intensity, and periodicity of natural disturbance and disturbance by salvage logging. Therefore, there can be no generic recipes for salvage logging that can be uncritically applied in all landscapes.

“Perhaps one of the problems associated with the lack of appreciation of the impacts of salvage logging lies in the terminology itself. Dictionary definitions of the term salvage associate it with “recover or save” or “saving of anything from loss or danger” (e.g., Delbridge & Bernard 1989). Although salvage logging removes wood from burned areas, such practices generally do not help regenerate or save ecosystems, communities, or species (but see Radeloff et al. 2000) and often have the opposite effect. Hence, in many respects, the term salvage is inappropriate and misleading from ecological and conservation perspectives. An alternative term might be postdisturbance logging.”

Measuring live fuel moisture with satellites

Satellite Fuel Moisture map
Estimated Live Fuel Moisture Content for the first 15-day periods of June, August, and October of 2019. Grey pixels indicate LFMC estimates were unavailable. LFMC estimates were unavailable when Sentinel-1 or Landsat-8 cloud- and snow-free surface reflectance were unavailable in the 3 months prior to time of estimation or when the land cover class of a pixel was absent from the training data.

BY JOSIE GARTHWAITE

As California and the American West head into fire season amid the coronavirus pandemic, scientists are harnessing artificial intelligence and new satellite data to help predict blazes across the region.

Anticipating where a fire is likely to ignite and how it might spread requires information about how much burnable plant material exists on the landscape and its dryness. Yet this information is surprisingly difficult to gather at the scale and speed necessary to aid wildfire management.

Now, a team of experts in hydrology, remote sensing and environmental engineering have developed a deep-learning model that maps fuel moisture levels in fine detail across 12 western states, from Colorado, Montana, Texas and Wyoming to the Pacific Coast.

The researchers describe their technique in the August 2020 issue of Remote Sensing of Environment. According to the senior author of the paper, Stanford University ecohydrologist Alexandra Konings, the new dataset produced by the model could “massively improve fire studies.”

According to the paper’s lead author, Krishna Rao, a PhD student in Earth system science at Stanford, the model needs more testing to figure into fire management decisions that put lives and homes on the line. But it’s already illuminating previously invisible patterns. Just being able to see forest dryness unfold pixel by pixel over time, he said, can help reveal areas at greatest risk and “chart out candidate locations for prescribed burns.”

The work comes at a time of growing urgency for this kind of insight, as climate change extends and intensifies the wildfire season – and as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic complicates efforts to prevent large fires through controlled burns, prepare for mass evacuations and mobilize first responders.

Getting a read on parched landscapes
Fire agencies today typically gauge the amount of dried-out, flammable vegetation in an area based on samples from a small number of trees. Researchers chop and weigh tree branches, dry them out in an oven and then weigh them again. “You look at how much mass was lost in the oven, and that’s all the water that was in there,” said Konings, an assistant professor of Earth system science in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “That’s obviously really laborious, and you can only do that in a couple of different places, for only some of the species in a landscape.”

The U.S. Forest Service painstakingly collects this plant water content data at hundreds of sites nationwide and adds them to the National Fuel Moisture Database, which has amassed some 200,000 such measurements since the 1970s. Known as live fuel moisture content, the metric is well established as a factor that influences wildfire risk. Yet little is known about how it varies over time from one plant to another – or from one ecosystem to another.

For decades, scientists have estimated fuel moisture content indirectly, from informed but unproven guesses about relationships between temperature, precipitation, water in dead plants and the dryness of living ones. According to Rao, “Now, we are in a position where we can go back and test what we’ve been assuming for so long – the link between weather and live fuel moisture – in different ecosystems of the western United States.”

AI with a human assist
The new model uses what’s called a recurrent neural network, an artificial intelligence system that can learn to recognize patterns in vast mountains of data. The scientists trained their model using field data from the National Fuel Moisture Database, then put it to work estimating fuel moisture from two types of measurements collected by spaceborne sensors. One involves measurements of visible light bouncing off Earth. The other, known as synthetic aperture radar (SAR), measures the return of microwave radar signals, which can penetrate through leafy branches all the way to the ground surface.

Satellite Fuel Moisture diagram
Conceptual model linking Live Fuel Moisture Content to inputs variables. The physical process representation is for illustrative purposes only; the empirical model estimates LFMC directly from the inputs. Thicker arrows from the physical process representation to the output represent relatively greater sensitivity. For example, microwave backscatter, due to microwave attenuation, has relatively higher sensitivity to vegetation water as compared to optical and IR reflection.

“One of our big breakthroughs was to look at a newer set of satellites that are using much longer wavelengths, which allows the observations to be sensitive to water much deeper into the forest canopy and be directly representative of the fuel moisture content,” said Konings, who is also a center fellow, by courtesy, at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

To train and validate the model, the researchers fed it three years of data for 239 sites across the American west starting in 2015, when SAR data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellites became available. They checked its fuel moisture predictions in six common types of land cover, including broadleaf deciduous forests, needleleaf evergreen forests, shrublands, grasslands and sparse vegetation, and found they were most accurate – meaning the AI predictions most closely matched field measurements in the National Fuel Moisture Database – in shrublands.

Rich with aromatic herbs like rosemary and oregano, and often marked by short trees and steep, rocky slopes, shrublands occupy as much as 45 percent of the American West. They’re not only the region’s biggest ecosystem, Rao said, “they are also extremely susceptible to frequent fires since they grow back rapidly.” In California, fires whipped to enormous size by Santa Ana winds burn in a type of shrubland known as chaparral. “This has led fire agencies to monitor them intensively,” he said.

The model’s estimates feed into an interactive map that fire agencies may eventually be able to use to identify patterns and prioritize control measures. For now, the map offers a dive through history, showing fuel moisture content from 2016 to 2019, but the same method could be used to display current estimates. “Creating these maps was the first step in understanding how this new fuel moisture data might affect fire risk and predictions,” Konings said. “Now we’re trying to really pin down the best ways to use it for improved fire prediction.”


Konings is also Assistant Professor, by courtesy, of Geophysics in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. Co-author A. Park Williams is affiliated with Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. Co-author Jacqueline Fortin Flefil, MS ’18, is now an engineer at Xylem, Inc.

The research was supported by Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud Credits for Research, the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship, the UPS Endowment Fund at Stanford, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and the Zegar Family Foundation.

The media is picking up on the fact that fighting wildfires is going to be even more hazardous during the pandemic

A wildland firefighter in Washington state has tested positive for COVID-19

36th Av fire masks wildfire covid-19
Personnel at the 36th Ave. SE Fire about 10 miles east of Naples, Florida posted May 15, 2020 by the Greater Naples Fire Rescue District.

In the last few days I have seen several articles in the media about how the COVID-19 pandemic increases the risk for wildland firefighters.


From the Associated Press, “Official: Busy wildfire season will be impacted by pandemic.”

…The coronavirus pandemic already reduced the amount of training for fire crews, and Franz said Washington can expect less assistance this year from federal agencies and other partners in battling wildfires.

The DNR has already recorded its first case of a firefighter testing positive for the virus, said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. It was a seasonal firefighter in northeastern Washington.

To prevent additional cases, the state will embrace federal guidelines on social distancing and other reforms, said Jack Cates, chief of Spokane County Fire District 9 during a conference call with reporters.

“Fire camps will look a lot different this summer,″ Cates said. “They won’t be mini-cities like you usually see.″

Instead, firefighters will camp in smaller groups to limit contact with others, Cates said. They also will not be eating buffet-style in big kitchens.

Fire bosses also plan to rely more heavily on aerial assets to reduce the number of firefighters needed on the ground, said George Geissler, the Washington state forester.

Still, Geissler predicted that the number of firefighters will be in short supply because of the pandemic.

“It could be a significant impact to us,″ he said.


A piece in the New York Times describes a model the US Forest Service is using. On a fire with “hundreds of people”, their model predicts nearly two dozen will be infected with COVID-19, and there could be a 2 percent fatality rate among those infected. That 2 percent is a revision from the previous figure they were using, which was 6 percent.

The “hundreds of people” number is a little difficult to analyze, but if they meant 300, the prediction is that the fatality rate would be about 0.48 percent among all personnel on the incident. So if there are 1,000 people on the fire, approximately five would die, according to the model. Unacceptable!

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”  (Statistician George Box, from a paper published in 1976)

From the Times article, “US Report Indicates Broad Risk of COVID-19 at Wildfire Camps”:

…The U.S. Forest Service’s draft risk assessment suggests that even in a best-case scenario — with social distancing followed and plenty of tests and protective equipment available — nearly two dozen firefighters could be infected with COVID-19 at a camp with hundreds of people who come in to combat a fire that burns for months.

The worst-case scenario? More than 1,000 infections.
The Forest Service said the document was outdated and being redone, and the newest version wasn’t yet ready to share. The AP obtained the draft from an official who has access to it and didn’t want to be named.

One of the authors of the risk assessment said Tuesday that in the new version, the infection rates remain the same. But while the draft originally said the death rate among infected firefighters could reach as high as 6%, that is being revised sharply downward, to less than 2%, to reflect newer data, said Jude Bayham, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University.


From The Conversation,  “Wildfire smoke worsens coronavirus risk, putting firefighters in extra danger”:

…Italian scientists reported in 2014 that air pollutants can increase the viral load in the lungs and reduce the ability of specialized cells called macrophages to clear out viral invaders.

Researchers in Montana later connected that effect to wood smoke. They found that animals exposed to wood smoke 24 hours before being exposed to a pathogen ended up with more pathogen in their lungs. The researchers showed that wood smoke exposure decreased the macrophages’ ability to combat respiratory infection.

Now, new evidence suggests that long-term exposure to PM2.5 air pollution, which is produced by sources such as wildfirespower plants and vehicles, may make coronavirus particularly deadly.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a nationwide study of county-level data and found that even a small increase in the amount of PM2.5 from one U.S. county to the next was associated with a large increase in the death rate from COVID-19. While small increases in PM2.5 also raise the risk of death from other causes for older adults, the magnitude of the increase for COVID-19 was about 20 times greater. The results were released last week, before the usual peer review process was conducted, to help warn people of the risks.

Taken together, these findings suggest that air pollution, including wood smoke, could increase the risk that wildland firefighters will develop severe COVID-19 symptoms.

That probably doesn’t surprise seasoned firefighters.


From the New Mexico Political Report, “COVID-19 complicates 2020 fire season”:

The article begins by recounting the incident within an incident on the 2017 Frye Fire near Safford, Arizona. A doctor swabbed the throats of 80 firefighters, with 63 (or 78 percent) testing positive for Streptococcus (strep throat). Thankfully strep can usually be cured within days or weeks.

Then the article moves on to this year and COVID-19:

…In New Mexico, the state’s Forestry Division is adapting much like its national counterpart. The Forestry Division, which manages 43 million acres, worked with local and tribal partners to create new guidelines for their staff, said Vernon Muller, resource protection bureau chief with the New Mexico Department of Natural Resources.

Those include self-screenings at the start, middle, and end of every shift, even while on active fire assignments, for any signs of sickness. Only two individuals will ride in an engine while a string of chase vehicles transports the rest of the crew.

Crew buggies will carry a fraction of their capacity. Temperature tests will be taken. Meals will be packaged individually instead of served buffet-style. Already, Muller said, two individuals declined an assignment after their self-assessment questionnaire found they or their family members may have been exposed to coronavirus.

But these choices create tradeoffs. Some say it’s still not possible to keep six feet apart, and crowding the roads with almost twice as many vehicles creates a hazard of its own and doubles the workload when it’s time to sanitize trucks and equipment.

And because firefighters are paid only when on-assignment, passing on an assignment because they suspect exposure to COVID-19 cuts into their paycheck.

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

Researchers say thinning forests or prescribed fire before drought reduced tree loss

Treated areas had 15 percent less mortality

Whaley prescribed fire
A firefighter monitors the Whaley prescribed fire in the Black Hills National Forest, January 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

From the University of California – Davis

Thinning forests and conducting prescribed burns may help preserve trees in future droughts and bark beetle epidemics expected under climate change, suggests a study from the University of California, Davis.

The study, published in the journal Ecological Applications, found that thinning and prescribed fire treatments reduced the number of trees that died during the bark beetle epidemic and drought that killed more than 129 million trees across the Sierra Nevada between 2012-2016.

“By thinning forests, we can reduce water stress and make forests more resilient to drought and climate change,” said the study’s lead author, Christina Restaino, a postdoctoral scholar at UC Davis in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy when the study was conducted.

The study also indicated that current rates of treatment are not sufficient to reduce the impacts of hotter droughts and large-scale bark beetle outbreaks. Expanding the use of managed fire under moderate fire-weather conditions, along with strategic thinning and prescribed burn treatments, may increase resilience across the forest, the researchers said.

“There are currently too many straws in the cup,” said Restiano. “Denser forests use more water. We’re learning that fuel treatments used to reduce fire risk have multiple benefits. Forests that are more open and less dense are stronger in the face of insect outbreaks, too.”

TREATMENT HELPS

For the study, researchers collected plot data in 2017 at 10 pairs of treated and untreated sites stretching from Eldorado National Forest to Sierra National Forest in the central and southern Sierra Nevada. They compared the effects of pre-drought thinning and prescribed burn treatments at those sites for four major species: ponderosa pine, sugar pine, white fir and incense cedar.

Treated areas generally had lower stand densities, bigger tree diameters and more pines, which were historically dominant.

Ponderosa pine experienced the greatest mortality of the species studied (40 percent) during the drought and beetle outbreak. But its mortality was significantly lower in treated stands. In untreated areas, the chance any one tree would die was about 45 percent. In treated stands, that chance went down to 30 percent.

Both ponderosa and sugar pine trees died more in places where their diameters were larger, suggesting insects may prefer larger trees, especially when the trees are stressed. The study demonstrates that removing smaller trees through thinning and prescribed burns can help reduce the stress in larger trees, which restoration efforts prioritize.

BE PROACTIVE

“It’s important to be proactive,” said coauthor Derek Young, a postdoctoral researcher in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. “This is not the kind of thing to start only when the drought starts. It has to be done beforehand.”

The study also notes that forest managers in the Sierra Nevada might consider cultivating a broader variety of species to buffer against insects and disease, as well as shifting from pines to more resilient hardwood species, like oaks and madrone — a transition underway in other semi-arid and Mediterranean climates.

Funding was provided for the study by the USDA Forest Service Forest Health Protection program, the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region, and the US Geological Survey Southwest Climate Science Center.


Ecological Applications, which published the study paid for by the US Forest Service and the USGS, is charging taxpayers $49 if they want a copy.

Wildfire smoke worsens coronavirus risk, putting firefighters in extra danger

Researchers found that wildfire smoke exposure can lead to an increase of other pathogens in lungs.

Norbeck prescribed fire Wind Cave National Park
A firefighter at the end of the day, igniting the Norbeck prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Oct. 20, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

By Luke Montrose, Assistant Professor of Community and Environmental Health, Boise State University

(This article first appeared at The Conversation)

As summer approaches, two forces of nature are on a collision course, and wildland firefighters will be caught in the middle.

New research suggests that the smoke firefighters breathe on the front lines of wildfires is putting them at greater risk from the new coronavirus, with potentially lethal effects.

At the same time, firefighting conditions make precautions such as social distancing and hand-washing difficult, increasing the chance that, once the virus enters a fire camp, it could quickly spread.

As an environmental toxicologist, I have spent the last decade expanding our understanding of how wood smoke exposure impacts human health. Much of my current research is focused on protecting the long-term health of wildland firefighters and the communities they serve.

‘Camp crud’ and the dangers of air pollution

People have long understood that the air they breathe can impact their health, dating back more than 2,000 years to Hippocrates in his treatise on Air, Water, and Places. Today, there is a growing consensus among researchers that air pollution, specifically the very fine particles called PM2.5, influences risk of respiratory illness. These particles are a tiny fraction of the width of a hair and can travel deep into the lungs.

Italian scientists reported in 2014 that air pollutants can increase the viral load in the lungs and reduce the ability of specialized cells called macrophages to clear out viral invaders.

Researchers in Montana later connected that effect to wood smoke. They found that animals exposed to wood smoke 24 hours before being exposed to a pathogen ended up with more pathogen in their lungs. The researchers showed that wood smoke exposure decreased the macrophages’ ability to combat respiratory infection.

Now, new evidence suggests that long-term exposure to PM2.5 air pollution, which is produced by sources such as wildfirespower plants and vehicles, may make coronavirus particularly deadly.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a nationwide study of county-level data and found that even a small increase in the amount of PM2.5 from one U.S. county to the next was associated with a large increase in the death rate from COVID-19. While small increases in PM2.5 also raise the risk of death from other causes for older adults, the magnitude of the increase for COVID-19 was about 20 times greater. The results were released last week, before the usual peer review process was conducted, to help warn people of the risks.

Taken together, these findings suggest that air pollution, including wood smoke, could increase the risk that wildland firefighters will develop severe COVID-19 symptoms.

That probably doesn’t surprise seasoned firefighters.

They’re already familiar with “camp crud,” a combined upper and lower respiratory illness accompanied by cough and fatigue that has become common in firefighting camps.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group, in its guidance on infectious disease, has pointed out that “the close, overlapping living conditions of an incident command post lends itself to rapid spreading of contagious microorganisms, as witnessed by the common outbreaks of ‘camp crud.’ Outbreaks also have a history of spreading from incident to incident as people are reassigned.”

How to protect wildland firefighters

So, what can be done to avoid the spread of COVID-19 among wildland firefighters and prevent them from being vectors in the communities they serve?

In some areas, officials have been delaying firefighter training sessions and brush-clearing operations that would normally be underway now. But while that might protect firefighters from exposure right now, it can be put off for only so long. Wildfires have already broken out in several states, and delaying controlled burns leaves more fuel when fires get out of control.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s guidance on infectious disease encourages planning ahead so personal protective equipment is available and maintaining records of symptoms so illnesses can be tracked and stopped from spreading.

The guidance also calls for better camp hygiene, providing access to medical care, making isolation possible and coordinating cross-agency communication about the public health risks.

Firefighter camps are not typically well outfitted to promote good personal hygiene. Improving those conditions could help prevent a virus’s spread, such as by adding hand-washing stations and possibly mobile shower units. Single-person tents would allow for more effective social distancing.

Camp personnel should also have access to thermometers and coronavirus test kits. Protocols for quarantining and removing infected firefighters from the field should not only be implemented but practiced.

Also missing from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s guidance are policies on traveling to and from training sites, working within communities and traveling from camp. Social distancing may not always be possible, so protective gear, such as face masks, should be made available and their use encouraged.

firefighters crew Whitetail Fire 3-8-2017 Photo by Bill Gabbert
Firefighters on the Whitetail Fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota, March 8, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A recent paper from Belgium suggests that even some of the ways firefighters operate in the field should be reconsidered to protect against the virus’s spread. It shows how droplets released when a person exhales can travel farther than six feet during heavy activity. For firefighters, that could mean walking farther apart and in a V-shaped delta formation, rather than a traditional line, to reach the fire.

It is also important to consider that frontline firefighters are often younger and could be asymptomatic but still able to spread the virus, so their contact with with rural community members, such as volunteer firefighters and ranchers, should be considered.

Finally, a system for cross-state communication should be engaged to facilitate sharing of best practices and lessons learned. It also could help track the movement of firefighters across the region.

The safety of rural western communities depends on the wildland firefighters and their ability to respond to emergencies. Protecting their health helps protect public health, too.

Researchers quantify the trend toward increasing autumn wildfire danger in California

Autumn Days Fire weather index above 95th percentile
Fire Weather Index in California in September, October, and November since the 1980s. From the research paper.

Researchers have quantified some of the factors that have led to an increase in southern California large wildfires during the autumn months in recent decades.

Here are examples of late season fires that occurred in southern California in 2017 and 2018:

The study defines autumn as September through November.

But their analysis goes much farther back than just three years. Among other things, they found that rising temperatures, declining snowpack, and decreasing precipitation in autumn and spring have acted to extend California’s fire season in the shoulder seasons. They also determined that climate change has already doubled the frequency of extreme fire weather days since the 1980s (see the illustration at the top of the article).

The research also found a long-term trend toward more extreme fire weather conditions occurring in both southern and northern California at the same time.

The study was conducted by Michael Goss, Daniel L. Swain, John T. Abatzoglou, Ali Sarhadi, Crystal Kolden, A. Park Williams, and Noah S. Diffenbaugh.