Researcher finds that Native Americans ignited more fires than lightning

Data was collected in the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains in California

A California professor’s dissertation has won a prestigious award for her work that determined fires 1,500 years ago in the Sequoia National Forest in Southern California were predominantly ignited by Native Americans rather than by lightning. Until the last 100 years or so most forests in the Western United States had far fewer trees per acre than today. Suppressing fires caused by lightning, arson, and accidents has resulted in overstocked forests that can lead to very large wildfires that threaten lives and property and are very difficult to control.

Prescribed fires can over time lead to stand densities that replicate the pre-Columbian condition, but in modern times the practice has not been widely used in the Western United States at landscape scale.

Professor Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson
Professor Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson. (Photo courtesy of Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson)

“We should be taking Native American practices into account,” said Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson, a Sacramento State assistant professor of geography, whose dissertation on the subject recently won the J. Warren Nystrom award from the American Association of Geographers (AAG).

“After all, they are stakeholders who have been here a heck of a lot longer than we have,” she said. “We should probably be looking at their traditions and incorporating them” into forest management.

Klimaszewski-Patterson uses paleoecology – the study of past ecosystems – as well as environmental archaeology and predictive landscape modeling in her current work, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. She won the Nystrom award after presenting her paper at the AAG’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

Using computer models and pollen and charcoal records to track changes in the forest over time, she has found that forest composition dating back 1,500 years likely was the result of deliberate burning by Native Americans, rather than natural phenomena such as lightning strikes. Those forests featured wide open spaces, resembling parks.

More information about the research.

While U.S. administration wants to defund fire science, Canada ramps it up

Canada wildfire research blueprint

While the Joint Fire Science Program in the United States is slated to be defunded by the Administration in the current budget proposal for FY 2020, Canada intends to ramp up their program.

The Government of Canada has released the Blueprint for Wildland Fire Science in Canada (2019—2029).  Led by the Canadian Forest Service, the Blueprint provides a national consensus view of Canada’s key wildland fire research priorities over the next 10 years. It also makes 15 recommendations intended to guide science investments, attract new collaboration, and align national research efforts.  These recommendations are broadly focused on:

  • Increasing national capacity for wildland fire research through new investments into academic programs, public sector science, and postsecondary networks;
  • Recognizing Indigenous knowledge as an equal and complementary way of knowing wildland fire,  to inform future fire management policies and practices;
  • Creating new knowledge exchange mechanisms to improve the way science and technology is shared, understood, and implemented;
  • Creating new multidisciplinary, multi-partner, collaborative research opportunities; and
  • Improving national governance and coordination of science activities through development of a national research agenda and the creation of a national coordinating committee.

You can download the Canadian Forest Service blueprint document here (8 mb).

April 8 is the last day to sign on to a letter of support for the Joint Fire Science Program in the United States.

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

Wildland fire research funding opportunities

The Great Basin Fire Exchange has accomplished a good deed for the wildland fire research community. They took a painful to read announcement about opportunities for research funding from the Joint Fire Science Program and distilled it into a short and uncomplicated notice.

(The links in the image below don’t work, since it’s a screen shot, but they both go to HERE.)

jfsp funding announcement

A researcher considering applying for funding will still need to go to the JFSP site to get the details. Proposals are due by May 16, 2019.

In FY 2017, 16 of the 22 approved projects were various ways of studying vegetation. Back then we wrote:

It would be refreshing to see more funds put toward projects that would enhance the science, safety, and effectiveness of firefighting.

Judging from the descriptions of the current funding opportunities it appears that the JFSP is moving away from awarding 72 percent of the awards to vegetation studies.

Five emotional and social intelligence skills of outstanding Incident Commanders

Results of a study

Southern California Incident Management Team 3
Southern California Incident Management Team 3

It could be argued that fire suppression skill is not the most critical characteristic of an Incident Commander (IC) on a large fire. Complex emergency incidents involve large numbers of employees working long hours under arduous conditions for an extended period of days while meeting critical deadlines and attempting to achieve difficult objectives under the watchful eyes of local residents, politicians, and the media. Sure, it is very beneficial for an IC to know the basics of how to plan and execute a “big box” strategy of containing a wildfire, but if they do not have advanced levels of emotional and social intelligence they may not be successful in the overall management of the incident. They could stop the fire, but at what cost to Incident Management Team cohesion, interpersonal relationships, property, safety, reputation of the agency within the local community, and the desire of personnel to continue to be a member of the team.

Emotional intelligence is informally defined as the ability to manage your own and other’s emotions. Social intelligence has been described as the ability to manage other’s emotions and build and maintain healthy relationships with others. These concepts have been written about for decades.

Using funding from the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, four researchers attempted to determine which emotional and social intelligence (ESI) skills were possessed by the most effective ICs. Their findings are in a paper published in 2017, “Emotional and Social Intelligence Competencies of Incident Team Commanders Fighting Wildfires“, by Richard E. Boyatzis, Kiko Thiel, Kylie Rochford, and Anne Black.

To begin, they contacted by email all of the Type 1 and Type 2 ICs and Operations Section Chiefs that were active and eligible at the time, asking them to go to a web site and “write in the name of any Incident Commander whom you think is an outstanding leader. You can write in as many or as few names as you feel appropriate.” The 17 ICs that were nominated by multiple people were then labeled “outstanding performers” by the researchers. Then, an additional sample of 17 “average performers” was randomly selected from those who were not nominated as outstanding by anyone. Difficulties in contacting the ICs and their willingness to respond to e-mails and phone calls resulted in a sample of eight outstanding and seven average ICs being interviewed.

The 15 ICs were asked, “Tell me about a time, recently, in which you felt effective as an Incident Commander.” The interviewer attempted to extract as behaviorally detailed a description of the event as possible. After one “effective” incident was obtained, the interviewer asked about an event in which they felt ineffective. This sequence was repeated, yielding a total of four critical incidents per interview. All interviews were recorded and transcribed.

The 60 incidents in the 15 interviews were coded for ESI competencies with criteria that has been used for decades: emotional self-awareness, emotional self-control, adaptability, achievement orientation, positive outlook, empathy, organizational awareness, coach and mentor, inspirational leadership, influence, conflict management, teamwork (social intelligence competencies); and systems thinking and pattern recognition (cognitive competencies).

While it might seem like a sample size of 15 ICs is small, the results showed striking and statistically significant differences between the Outstanding and Average ICs in some categories.

Presence and Frequency of ESI Competencies incident commanders
From the study

Five competencies distinguished the Outstanding ICs:

  • Emotional self-control
  • Adaptability
  • Empathy
  • Coach and mentor, and
  • Inspirational leadership

Five other competencies appeared often enough in both outstanding and average performing groups to be considered necessary for average performance but not sufficient alone for outstanding performance:

  • Achievement orientation
  • Organizational awareness
  • Influence
  • Conflict management, and
  • Teamwork

Below are some excerpts from the study.

Emergent Themes
The inductive portion of the study seeking to address the Research Question 2 (i.e., which was Are there other perspectives or capabilities that differentiate the more effective ICs from less effective ones?) revealed two emergent themes: appreciation of interpersonal dynamics and humanizing versus dehumanizing ways of thinking about others. The outstanding ICs showed an appreciation of the interpersonal dynamics of incident teams by using time in advance of wildfire season to build trust among possible team members. They also used this time to build relationships and educate agency staff and administrators. This theme was coded in five of the eight outstanding ICs compared with only one of the seven average ICs. The presence of this theme was indicated talking explicitly about using of time before wildfire season to build understanding, expertise, and trust within the teams. In one case, the IC created simplified handouts for all team members involved in an incident to highlight the key people involved, their role, experience, and contact details. This was used for their own teams but also widely distributed to those from other agencies, local administrators, and community members.

The second emergent theme—humanizing versus dehumanizing ways of thinking about others—was evidenced by the use (or lack of use) of humanizing language. Examples of humanizing language included references to “family, kids, community.” For example, one IC said, “I’ve got kids out there on the ground . . . ” Another said, “there are families in the line that we have to protect . . . ” Examples of dehumanizing language included language that it turned people into categories, with words like, “stakeholders, employees.” One IC said, “Our personnel are key resources . . . ” After coding the number of humanizing versus dehumanizing words used across the four incidents, we subtracted the dehumanizing word count from the humanizing word count. Seven of the eight outstanding ICs had a positive score, compared with only one of the seven average ICs (six of the seven average ICs had a negative score, while none of the outstanding ICs had a negative score).

Continue reading “Five emotional and social intelligence skills of outstanding Incident Commanders”

Researchers compare smoke emissions from prescribed and wild fires

DC-10 drop North Park Fire
A DC-10 comes out of the smoke dropping retardant on the North Park Fire in Southern California, October 12, 2018. Screen grab from @ABC7Leticia video.

Four researchers, in a study funded by the U.S. Forest Service, evaluated data collected in 25 previous studies to compare exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) created by prescribed fires and wildfires. The authors were Kathleen Navarro, Don Schweizer, John Balmes, and Ricardo Cisneros. Titled, A Review of Community Smoke Exposure from Wildfire Compared to Prescribed Fire in the United States, it is published under Open Access guidelines.

Below are excerpts from the study — the abstract and conclusions. And, information about a March 21 webinar featuring Ms. Navarro about the health effects of vegetation smoke.


Prescribed fire, intentionally ignited low-intensity fires, and managed wildfires-wildfires that are allowed to burn for land management benefit-could be used as a land management tool to create forests that are resilient to wildland fire. This could lead to fewer large catastrophic wildfires in the future. However, we must consider the public health impacts of the smoke that is emitted from wildland and prescribed fire.

The objective of this synthesis is to examine the differences in ambient community-level exposures to particulate matter (PM2.5) from smoke in the United States in relation to two smoke exposure scenarios-wildfire fire and prescribed fire. A systematic search was conducted to identify scientific papers to be included in this review. TheWeb of Science Core Collection and PubMed, for scientific papers, and Google Scholar were used to identify any grey literature or reports to be included in this review. Sixteen studies that examined particulate matter exposure from smoke were identified for this synthesis-nine wildland fire studies and seven prescribed fire studies. PM2.5 concentrations from wildfire smoke were found to be significantly lower than reported PM2.5 concentrations from prescribed fire smoke.

Wildfire studies focused on assessing air quality impacts to communities that were nearby fires and urban centers that were far from wildfires. However, the prescribed fire studies used air monitoring methods that focused on characterizing exposures and emissions directly from, and next to, the burns.

This review highlights a need for a better understanding of wildfire smoke impact over the landscape. It is essential for properly assessing population exposure to smoke from different fire types.


Destructive wildfires have higher rates of biomass consumption and have greater potential to expose more people to smoke than prescribed fires. Naturally ignited fires that are allowed to self-regulate can provide the best scenario for ecosystem health and long-term air quality. Generally, prescribed fire smoke is much more localized, and the smoke plumes tend to stay within the canopy, which absorbs some of the pollutants, reducing smoke exposure. Land managers want to utilize prescribed fire as a land management tool to restore fire-adapted landscapes. Thus, additional work is needed to understand the differences in exposures and public health impacts of smoke of prescribedfire compared to wildfire. One way to do this would be for managers to collaborate with air quality departments (internal to agency or external) to monitor PM2.5concentrations in communities near a prescribed fire.

Consistent monitoring strategies for all wildland fires, whether prescribed or naturally occurring, are needed to allow the most robust comparative analysis. Currently, prescribed fire monitoring is often focused on capturing the area of highest impact or characterizing fire emissions, while wildfire monitoring often relies on urban monitors supplemented by temporary monitoring of communities of concern. A better understanding of smoke impact over the landscape and related impacts is essential for properly assessing population exposure to smoke from different fire types.

(end of excerpt)

In a webinar March 21 at 11 a.m. CDT, Ms. Navarro will describe information from a different smoke study. She will present on a recent Joint Fire Science Program study estimating the lifetime risk of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease from exposure to particulate matter (PM) from smoke. This analysis combined measured PM exposures on wildfires, estimated wildland firefighter breathing rates, and an exposure disease relationship for PM to estimate mortality of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality from lifetime exposure to PM.

Embers, firenados, and modeling wildfires

bonfire new years netherlands
The Hague firefighters on an aerial ladder apply water to the roofs of buildings as embers from a bonfire shower the neighborhood during a New Year celebration, January 1, 2019.

Knowable Magazine has an interesting article by Alexandra Witze on a variety of physics principles that affect wildland fires. She covers the research by Michael Gollner of the University of Maryland on how embers start spot fires, how Janice Coen, an atmospheric scientist who studies wildland fires at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado monitored the start of the Camp Fire as she sat in the back of a room at a conference, and the real time radar signature of the firenado (fire tornado) at the Carr Fire.

Below is an excerpt from a section about embers propagating spot fires.

It turns out that a single ember, or a handful of embers, can’t build up that much heat if it lands on a material such as a deck or a roof. But put one or two dozen embers into Gollner’s device and the heat flux goes up dramatically, he and his colleagues report in the March Fire Safety Journal. “You start to have re-radiation between them,” he says. “It glows, under the wind — it’s just beautiful.”

Just a small pile of embers can generate about 40 times the heat you’d feel from the sun on a hot day. That’s as much heating, and sometimes more, as comes from the fire itself. It’s also enough to ignite most materials, such as the wood of a deck.

So if there are a lot of embers flying ahead of a fire, but those embers land relatively far from one another, they may not build up the radiative heat needed to generate a spot fire. But if the embers pile up, perhaps blown by the wind into a crevice of a deck, they can smolder together and then trigger an ignition, Gollner says. Most homes that burn in the wildland-urban interface ignite from these embers, often hours after the fire front itself has passed.

Understanding the heat flux at these small scales can illuminate why some houses burn while others don’t. During the Tubbs fire, homes on one side of some streets were destroyed while those on the other side had hardly any damage. That may be because the first house that ignited radiated energy to its neighbor, which then burned neighboring homes like dominoes because of the radiative heat. When houses are closely packed together, there’s only so much homeowners can do to mitigate the danger by clearing brush and flammable material around the house.