Our fire deficit

Researchers have determined that we have a “fire deficit” in the western United States. Since the late 1800s, they say, human activities, grazing, climate change, and fire suppression caused a large, abrupt decline in burning similar to the Little Ice Age (which was between 1400 and 1700), leading to a buildup of fuel, or biomass. Large fires in the late 20th and 21st century have begun to address the fire deficit, but it is continuing to grow.

We owe the ecosystem some fire, and the debt collector has come to visit.

Their key findings:

  • Comparing charcoal records and climate data, as expected, showed warm, dry intervals, such as the “Medieval Climate Anomaly” between 1,000 and 700 years ago, which had more burning, and cool, moist intervals, such as the “Little Ice Age” between 500 and 300 years ago, had fewer fires. Short-term peaks in fires were associated with abrupt climate changes — warming or cooling.
  • Wildfires during most of the 20th century were almost as infrequent as they were during the Little Ice Age, about 400 years ago. However, only a century ago, fires were as frequent as they were about 800 years ago, during the warm and dry Medieval Climate Anomaly. “In other words, humans caused fires to shift from their 1,000-year maximum to their 1,000-year minimum in less than 100 years,” Gavin said.
  • Climate and humans acted synergistically — by the end of the 18th century and early 19th century — to increase fire events that were often sparked by agricultural practices, clearing of forests, logging activity and railroading.

The authors of the paper, especially lead author Jennifer R. Marlon, are to be commended for publishing this as Open Access, which means that the results from this taxpayer funded research are freely available to the people who paid for it (unlike other research by the U.S. Forest Service that we wrote about earlier today).

The figure below made my head hurt as I figured it out, never having seen anything like this. It is a portion of a chart in the referenced paper.

Fire Deficit Charts
From the research paper: "Long-term perspective on wildfires in the western USA"

The paper, titled Long-term perspective on wildfires in the western United States can be found HERE, and a summary is HERE. The authors are Jennifer R. Marlon, Patrick J. Bartlein, Daniel G. Gavin, Colin J. Long, R. Scott Anderson, Christy E. Briles, Kendrick J. Brown, Daniele Colombaroli, Douglas J. Hallett, Mitchell J. Power, Elizabeth A. Scharf, and Megan K. Walsh.


Thanks go out to Dick

More research surfaces about pine beetles and fire

Crown fire experiment 2004
International Crown fire experiment in healthy, not beetle-killed trees. Photo U.S. Forest Service

UPDATE at 2:11 p.m. MT, Feb. 16, 2012:

We contacted Nan Christianson, the Assistant Station Director – Communications at the Rocky Mountain Research Station, and asked where they stood on Open Access, and why the study, below, was only available to taxpayers if they paid $31.50 to a private company. Within a few hours they added it to a U.S. Forest Service web site, TreeSearch, where it is available at no charge. It is still listed at the private company for $31.50. We are waiting for more detailed information from the USFS concerning their policy on the Open Access of taxpayer-funded research.


February 15, 2012

At Wildfire Today we have previously written about mountain pine beetle research that used satellite data and computer models to extrapolate findings to fire behavior characteristics. Now there is a new study that measured foliar chemistry, moisture, and flammability in the lab and also draws a conclusion about fire behavior out in the real world.

The latter study, which is published behind a pay wall in the April, 2012 edition of Elsevier’s Forest Ecology and Management, was written by Matt Jolly and others at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. In their study, foliar samples were taken periodically from multiple trees identified as green, recently attacked by mountain pine beetles, and red (dead). The fuel moisture content, chemical composition, and time to ignition of needles from each attack category were quantified. They found that in the lab, decreased moisture content and changes in foliar chemistry increased the flammability of beetle-attacked foliage, and red needles ignited much more quickly than green needles. They further extrapolated that “crown fire potential may be higher in attacked stands as long as foliage is retained on the tree”.

You can read the study, which American taxpayers paid for already, but you will have to pay the for-profit Elsevier corporation $31.50. This is not Open Access, which we have written about before. (The U.S. Forest Service should publish the results of all of their research immediately upon completion at no additional cost to American taxpayers. What is the point of the USFS funding research if the results are kept a virtual secret?)

In an earlier study, University of Wisconsin forest ecologists Monica Turner and Phil Townsend, in collaboration with Yellowstone National Park Vegetation Management Specialist Roy Renkin, examined the beetle and fire connection in the forests near Yellowstone National Park.

Using satellite data they studied burn patterns and fire occurrence data and the relationships to mountain pine beetle attacks.

Here is an excerpt from the NASA article:

Their preliminary analysis indicates that large fires do not appear to occur more often or with greater severity in forest tracts with beetle damage. In fact, in some cases, beetle-killed forest swaths may actually be less likely to burn. What they’re discovering is in line with previous research on the subject.

The results may seem at first counterintuitive, but make sense when considered more carefully. First, while green needles on trees appear to be more lush and harder to burn, they contain high levels of very flammable volatile oils. When the needles die, those flammable oils begin to break down. As a result, depending on the weather conditions, dead needles may not be more likely to catch and sustain a fire than live needles.

Second, when beetles kill a lodgepole pine tree, the needles begin to fall off and decompose on the forest floor relatively quickly. In a sense, the beetles are thinning the forest, and the naked trees left behind are essentially akin to large fire logs. However, just as you can’t start a fire in a fireplace with just large logs and no kindling, wildfires are less likely to ignite and carry in a forest of dead tree trunks and low needle litter.

A third study published in 2011 used computer models to predict fire behavior and how it was affected by beetle attacks. It was titled “Do mountain pine beetle outbreaks change the probability of active crown fire in lodgepole pine forests?” Here is an excerpt from the abstract:

Modeling results suggested that undisturbed, red, and gray-stage stands were unlikely to exhibit transition of surface fires to tree crowns (torching), and that the likelihood of sustaining an active crown fire (crowning) decreased from undisturbed to gray-stage stands. Simulated fire behavior was little affected by beetle disturbance when wind speed was either below 40 km/h or above 60 km/h, but at intermediate wind speeds, probability of crowning in red- and gray-stage stands was lower than in undisturbed stands, and old post-outbreak stands were predicted to have passive crown fires. Results were consistent across a range of fuel moisture scenarios. Our results suggest that mountain pine beetle outbreaks in Greater Yellowstone may reduce the probability of active crown fire in the short term by thinning lodgepole pine canopies.

The paper was written by Martin Simard, William H. Romme, Jacob M. Griffin, and Monica G. Turner. A summary of their findings is HERE.

All three of these studies, while they collected some static data from the field, were executed in laboratories, and not from observed fire behavior in the real world.

So which school of thought do you subscribe to? Do you go with the most intuitive-friendly one and think lower foliar moisture content leads to more crown fires in beetle-kill areas, or  do you buy into the satellite burn data and the computer model data which lean toward more resistance to crown fires in areas affected by beetles?

It may take another International Crown Fire Experiment (see photo above), like was done in Canada between 1995 and 2001, setting actual fires in healthy and beetle-affected stands, to resolve the question.

Fire channelling — a danger to firefighters

The rapid escalation of a small fire due to fire channelling can result in a catastrophic decay in both firefighter and community safety that is counterintuitive.

That is how the authors of a paper wrapped up their findings about a weather phenomenon that can cause a wildfire to spread in unexpected directions. “Fire channelling” can force a fire on the lee side of a ridge to spread 90-degrees from the general wind direction. For example, if a west wind pushes a fire across a north-south ridge, on the lee or east side of the ridge the fire could spread to both the north and the south, counterintuitively.

Fire Channeling fig 11
The white arrow shows the general wind direction. The black area was not imaged by the line-scanner on this run. From the Sharples, McRae, and Wilkes paper funded by the Australian government.

Generally a strong wind has the most effect on the direction of spread of a fire — more so than topography or fuel. If a fire is spreading with a strong west wind, the rate of spread on the flanks, the north and south sides, will be much less than the head of the fire on the east side. Unless — fire channelling is occurring.

Firefighters usually face less risk when they attack a fire on the heel or flanks of a fire. In most cases it can be impossible to safely attack the head of a fast-moving fire in heavy fuels. But this fire channelling phenomenon has the potential to present firefighters with unexpected fire behavior, putting them in a dangerous situation on what they expected to be the flanks of a fire that suddenly converted to heads of the fire.

Fire Channelling
Fire channelling caused by wind-terrain-fire interactions. From the Sharples, McRae, and Wilkes paper funded by the Australian govermnent.

The authors of the paper, which is titled Wind–terrain effects on the propagation of wildfires in rugged terrain: fire channelling, considered several causes of fire channelling, including thermally induced winds, pressure-driven channelling, forced channelling, and downward momentum transport, but they settled on wind–terrain–fire interactions as the most likely mechanism driving the atypical spread. Here is an excerpt providing some details about wind–terrain–fire interactions:

…If a fire happened to spread into a region affected by a separation eddy, then the hot gas from the fire could be entrained within the eddy, with the strong wind shear at the top of the eddy impeding mixing between the synoptic and separated flows. Hence, supposing a fire enters a region of separated flow at the north end of a slope or valley, and treating the air within the eddy as a quasi-isolated system (i.e. a system that involves only limited mixing with the surrounding environment; cf. Byron-Scott 1990), the air within the northern part of the eddy will be at a higher temperature and pressure than the air within the southern part of the eddy. As a consequence, the air within the eddy will tend to move towards the south in response to the thermally induced pressure gradient or simply owing to thermal expansion of the air within the eddy. Based on the available evidence, such an interaction constitutes the most likely mechanism driving the atypical spread.

Access to the research

If you want to read the paper you will have to pay CSIRO Publishing $25, in spite of the fact that the authors appear to be funded by the Australian government. It was written by Jason J. Sharples, Richard H. D. McRae, and Stephen R. Wilkes who are associated with three organizations in Australia, the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, and the ACT Emergency Services Agency.

This is another example of government funded research that taxpayers have to pay for twice. Once when the government-paid employees conduct the research and write the paper, and a second time if a person wants to read it. We have written about this lack of Open Access numerous times before. However, this example is a little murky, in that the government sponsored research was published by CSIRO, a governmental body. But many U.S. wildfire researchers who are government employees publish their papers in the same CSIRO publication, the International Journal of Wildland Fire, behind a pay wall.

Sign the petition

At the U.S. White House web site you can sign a petition to make government funded research available at no additional charge to the public. Let President Obama know that you oppose HR3699, the Research Works Act, which is an attempt to put federally funded scientific information behind pay-walls and confer the ownership of the information to a private entity. You will need to register at the site, giving them a name and a real email address.

Access to federally funded research threatened

Open Access logo
Open Access logo

Two members of congress have introduced legislation that would prohibit taxpayers from freely accessing research that they have already paid for. The Research Works Act, sponsored by Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, and Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, would forbid the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from requiring that their grantees provide copies of the papers they publish in peer-reviewed journals so that the NIH can make them available in the NIH on-line library. If this ill-conceived piece of legislation passes, it could easily spread from the NIH to the rest of the federal government.

We have written about this issue several times before and have provided examples of government funded wildfire research that is not available to taxpayers unless they pay a privately owned publishing company a fee, usually around $25 to $30 dollars for each article.

Thankfully, according to Tim Swedberg, Communications Director of the Joint Fire Science Program which provides a great deal of federal money for wildfire-related research, the JFSP has a written policy about the findings from the research they fund which the authors publish in a journal:

Journal acknowledges that Author retains the right to provide a copy of the final manuscript to JFSP upon acceptance for Journal publication or thereafter, for public archiving in firescience.gov as soon as possible after publication by Journal.

This proposed legislation has generated some interest, as you can see from this list of dozens of articles written on the subject over the last two weeks.

The New York Times has an excellent story on the topic. Here is an excerpt:


…The publishers argue that they add value to the finished product, and that requiring them to provide free access to journal articles within a year of publication denies them their fair compensation. After all, they claim, while the research may be publicly funded, the journals are not.

But in fact, the journals receive billions of dollars in subscription payments derived largely from public funds. The value they say they add lies primarily in peer review, the process through which works are assessed for validity and significance before publication. But while the journals manage that process, it is carried out almost entirely by researchers who volunteer their time. Scientists are expected to participate in peer review as part of their employment, and thus the publicly funded salaries most of them draw through universities or research organizations are yet another way in which taxpayers already subsidize the publishing process.

Rather than rolling back public access, Congress should move to enshrine a simple principle in United States law: if taxpayers paid for it, they own it…

Researchers should cut off commercial journals’ supply of papers by publishing exclusively in one of the many “open-access” journals that are perfectly capable of managing peer review (like those published by the Public Library of Science, which I co-founded). Libraries should cut off their supply of money by canceling subscriptions. And most important, the N.I.H., universities and other public and private agencies that sponsor academic research should make it clear that fulfilling their mission requires that their researchers’ scholarly output be freely available to the public at the moment of publication.

UPDATE January 22, 2012:

HERE is a link to a 3-minute audio recording from KCRW, in which Dr. Michael Wilkes, a Professor of Medicine and Vice Dean for Medical Education at UC Davis, provides his “Second Opinion” about open access to taxpayer-funded research.

Thanks go out to Tim and Lone Ranger

Boycott research on firefighters that is not Open Access

Open Access logo
Open Access logo

We all hate paying for something and then not receiving what we paid for. That is what is happening now to taxpayers who pay for government-funded research and then have no access to the findings.

We have ranted about this before, and documented another example a few days ago when we discovered that it will cost us $41 to obtain a copy of the findings from research conducted by the University of Georgia. Associate Professor Luke Naeher and others found that  lung function decreases for firefighters who work on prescribed fires for multiple days and are exposed to smoke. Further, it showed that respiratory functions slowly declined over a 10-week season.

This is not the only research that has explored the effects of smoke on wildland firefighters, but it may significantly add to the limited body of knowledge we have on the topic. We won’t know, however, unless we pay a second time in order to see their conclusions.

Researchers at some organizations receive pay raises and promotions based partially on the “publish or perish” meme. A system that requires researchers to publish in journals that are not completely open to the public, is antiquated and has no place in 2011 when a paper can be published in seconds on the internet at little or no cost.

Some of the research that has been conducted on firefighters requires a great deal of cooperation from the firefighters, including for example, ingesting core temperature monitors, carrying a drinking water system that monitors every drink they take, and even lubricating and then inserting a rectal thermistor probe attached to wires.

The Boycott

There is no reason for firefighters to go to extreme lengths to help researchers advance the researcher’s career paths unless the firefighters can receive some benefits from the project. So, we are jumping on the idea proposed by Rileymon in a comment on the University of Georgia article:

Maybe it’s time to suggest that firefighter/research subjects boycott new research studies unless the findings are put into the Public Domain?

Here is what we are proposing:

  1. Firefighters, administrators, and land managers should not cooperate with researchers unless they can be assured that findings from the research will be available to the public at no charge immediately following the publication of the findings, or very shortly thereafter.
  2. Researchers should conform to the principles of Open Access.
  3. Scientists who assist in the peer review process for conferences or journals should pledge to only do so only if the accepted publications are made available to the public at no charge via the internet.

More information:


Study: firefighters’ lung function decreases after exposure to smoke

A new study from the University of Georgia found that lung function decreases for firefighters who work on prescribed fires for multiple days and are exposed to smoke. Further, it showed that respiratory functions slowly declined over a 10-week season.

Unfortunately, even though the study was probably funded by taxpayers, you will have to pay a second time see the study’s results. It will cost you $41 to purchase the article that contains the detailed findings uncovered during the research. The University of Georgia decided to pay a private journal to publish the article, rather than placing it on the

Smoke, fire-N-of-Cascade-Rd-2006
Firefighter working in smoke, fire near Hot Springs, SD in 2006. Photo by Bill Gabbert

University’s web site for free. We have written previously about taxpayers not being able to access taxpayer-funded research. Why does the government continue to fund research, if the product of the research is not made available? A call to Luke Naeher, the senior author of the study, was not immediately returned.

Here is a summary of the report, which thankfully, is provided by the University of Georgia at no cost.


December 5, 2011

After monitoring firefighters working at prescribed burns in the southeastern United States, University of Georgia researchers found that lung function decreased with successive days of exposure to smoke and other particulate matter.

“What we found suggested a decline in lung function across work seasons,” said Olorunfemi Adetona, a postdoctoral research associate and lead author of the study published recently in the journal Inhalation Toxicology.

Luke Naeher, senior author and associate professor in the UGA College of Public Health, explained that the study was designed to investigate whether the 26 firefighters experienced a decrease in lung function working at prescribed burns compared with days they spent away from the fires. Previously, researchers had looked only at changes in lung function of wildland firefighters on days with exposure to smoke.

“Over a 10-week season, these workers’ respiratory functions slowly declined,” Naeher said, adding that there is need to investigate the degree to which these declines returned to their baseline after the burn season. Although results of the study show that lung function at the start of two burn seasons in a limited number of nine firefighters in 2003 and 2004 did not vary significantly, more definitive answers relating to the issue of longer term effect of exposure on lung function would require a different study design.

In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service has sought to better understand and improve its occupational exposure limits for firefighters across the country. Most studies have concentrated on burns in Western states where exposure to and composition of wood-smoke particulate matter may vary to some degree when compared with fires in the Southeast, including South Carolina, where the study was done.

Naeher said the study provides some preliminary information regarding the health effects of fine particulate matter exposure that is intermediate between two exposure extremes. On the low extreme lies ambient air levels typical for developed countries, while inhalation of particles by a smoker represents the opposite extreme. Much research in the field has focused on health effects at both extremes. However, the study of exposure at intermediate levels, like that experienced by wildland firefighters, and women and children exposed to indoor air pollution from cook stoves in developing countries is limited. Naeher’s research focuses on these two different populations, and he explains that the study of the body’s response tothese intermediate exposures may now be more urgent. For example, Naeher said, an initiative led by the United Nations Foundation aims to put clean-burning cooking stoves in 100 million homes in developing countries by 2020.


UPDATE: We heard from Luke Naeher on December 14, 2011. He told us that the research was funded by the University of Georgia, and the Department of Energy-Savannah River Operations Office through the U.S. Forest Service. He sent us copies of two research papers that were published in journals owned by Informa, a company with their head office in Switzerland: Personal PM2.5 Exposure Among Wildland Firefighers Working at Prescribed Forest Burns in Southeastern United States, and Lung function changes in wildland firefighters working at prescribed burns. Mr. Naeher said he cannot change the system in place for reporting science in the peer-review literature, but he will always share his published work freely with anybody who asks