Extreme wildfires may increase 14 percent by 2030, United Nations warns

Airport Fire near Bishop, Calif.
Airport Fire near Bishop, California Feb. 16, 2022. CAL FIRE photo.

Climate change and land-use change are projected to make wildfires more frequent and intense, with a global increase of extreme fires of up to 14 percent by 2030, 30 percent by the end of 2050, and 50 percent by the end of the century, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal.

The study calls for a radical change in government spending on wildfires, shifting their investments from reaction and response to prevention and preparedness.

In the report, wildfire is defined as “an unusual or extraordinary free-burning vegetation fire which may be started maliciously, accidently, or through natural means, that negatively influences social, economic, or environmental values”.

The study, Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires (117 MB), finds an elevated risk even for the Arctic and other regions previously unaffected by wildfires in recent centuries. The publication calls on governments to adopt a new “Fire Ready Formula”, with two-thirds of spending devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery, with one third left for response. Currently, direct responses to wildfires typically receive over half of related expenditures, while planning receives less than one per cent.

To prevent fires, the authors call for a combination of data and science-based monitoring systems with indigenous knowledge and for a stronger regional and international cooperation.

“Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place. Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported”, said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director. “We have to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires by being better prepared: invest more in fire risk reduction, work with local communities, and strengthen global commitment to fight climate change”.

Wildfires disproportionately affect the world’s poorest nations. With an impact that extends for days, weeks and even years after the flames subside:

· People’s health is directly affected by inhaling wildfire smoke, causing respiratory and cardiovascular impacts and increased health effects for the most vulnerable;

· The economic costs of rebuilding after areas are struck by wildfires can be beyond the means of low-income countries;

· Watersheds are degraded by wildfires’ pollutants; they also can lead to soil erosion causing more problems for waterways;

· Wastes left behind are often highly contaminated and require appropriate disposal.

Wildfires and climate change are mutually exacerbating. Wildfires are made worse by climate change through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightning, and strong winds, which causes hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons. At the same time, climate change is made worse by wildfires, mostly by ravaging sensitive and carbon-rich ecosystems like peatlands and rainforests. This turns landscapes into tinderboxes, making it harder to halt rising temperatures.

Wildlife and its natural habitats are rarely spared from wildfires, pushing some animal and plant species closer to extinction. A recent example is the Australian 2020 bushfires, which are estimated to have wiped out billions of domesticated and wild animals.

The report said the restoration of ecosystems is an important avenue to mitigate the risk of wildfires before they occur and to build back better in their aftermath. Wetlands restoration and the reintroduction of species such as beavers, peatlands restoration, building at a distance from vegetation, and preserving open space buffers are some examples of the essential investments into prevention, preparedness and recovery.

Wildfire factors influencing health
Wildfire smoke contains fine particulate matter and potentially toxic combustion products (the latter can be particularly harmful at the wildlandurban interface where waste and rubbish, materials used in buildings and vehicles are often burnt; Hallema et al. 2019). From the report.

The report concludes with a call for stronger international standards for the safety and health of firefighters and for minimizing the risks that they face before, during and after operations. This includes raising awareness of the risks of smoke inhalation, minimising the potential for life-threatening entrapments, and providing firefighters with access to adequate hydration, nutrition, rest, and recovery between shifts. Women firefighters face various challenges ranging from gender discrimination and sexual harassment to ill-designed equipment and protective clothing that puts them at greater risk of injury.

Human Health Exposure wildfire smoke health effects
Smoke particulate exposure pathways and impacts. Smoke exposure is most commonly measured from land-based air pollutant monitors, followed by satellite-based imagery models, with fewer studies measuring personal exposure to smoke (Liu et al. 2015). From the report.

Smoke associated with deforestation fires in the Brazilian Amazon has been found to be responsible for the premature death of almost 3,000 people annually (95 percent percentile confidence interval: 1,065–4,714), demonstrating the regional scale of fire impacts (Reddington et al. 2015).

Our take

The report predicts a global increase of extreme fires of up to 14 percent by 2030 and 30 percent by the end of 2050. The statistics for the United States from the National Interagency Fire Center since the 1980s indicates that the total acres burned and the average size of wildfires has been far exceeding those rates of increase. The data, which does not include Alaska since those fires are managed far differently from the rest of the US, shows during the forty-year period approximately a 400 percent increase in the average size by decade, and more than a 300 percent growth in the total acres burned each year. The statistics for the US are for all fires, not just those that “negatively influence social, economic, or environmental values.”

Average size of US wildfires by decade

Another factor that may influence the size of fires in the US is that some wildfires are not totally suppressed and can be herded around to attempt to protect private land, structures, and certain resources. They may burn for months, and occasionally grow far beyond what was expected. The use of a limited suppression strategy can be to allow fire to be reintroduced to replicate natural conditions and reduce fuels. Or in recent years it could be due to extreme fire activity in the Western US and a shortage of firefighting resources as a result of difficulties in hiring, retention and recruitment.

Total wildfire acres

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick and Tom.

A study evaluated the cultural safety of indigenous wildland firefighters in Canada

From a recently completed study in Canada:

Funded by Natural Resources Canada, a project provided preliminary data on cultural safety and occupational health and safety that is necessary to improve the understanding of Indigenous perspectives on wildland firefighting and wildland fire operations across what is now called Canada.

Wildland firefighting is a unique occupation. For decades, Indigenous (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) firefighters and fire operations staff have been engaged in wildland fire suppression activities, formally and informally. They are increasingly being called upon by their communities and the broader wildfire management agency community in Canada to engage and deploy in various wildfire suppression and related duties. In the past decade, we have seen an increase in wildfire activity and the number of communities put at risk or impacted by high-intensity wildfire events. Due to the nature of this work, Indigenous Peoples engaged in wildland fire suppression activities routinely work in hazardous situations and stressful environments – impacting their physical, mental, and spiritual/cultural well-being.

Giving Voice to Cultural Safety of Indigenous Wildland Firefighters in Canada was a multidisciplinary, collaborative team-based project.

From January – July 2021, the Turtle Island Consulting Services Inc. (TICS Inc.) Project Team explored the following set of questions:

  • What are Indigenous wildland firefighters’ and wildland fire operations staff’s experiences regarding accident/injury rates, sickness presenteeism/absenteeism, chronic illness, close calls, racism/ discrimination/harassment?
  • What is currently working on the fireline and fire operation centres to promote cultural safety of Indigenous wildland firefighting personnel?
  • What are the priority needs/issues and recommendations for enhancing cultural safety for Indigenous wildland firefighting personnel?

The TICS Inc. Project Team developed an online survey and virtual circles were conducted specifically for individuals who self-identified as Indigenous and worked in wildland firefighting and/or fire operations for at least one fire season in Canada. These participant selection criteria supported the sharing of Indigenous Peoples’ voices in culturally safe spaces to help (i) increase the understanding of their jobs, (ii) enhance overall satisfaction from a cross-cultural perspective during this important work, and (iii) aid in making the future of wildland firefighting more enjoyable, safer, and culturally inviting.

For more information about Project findings, please view the following reports.

The Executive Summary is immediately below. Farther down you can click to download it or view it online .

[pdf-embedder url=”https://wildfiretoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Summary-Giving-Voice-to-Cultural-Safety-of-Indigenous-Wildland-updated-Oct-2021.pdf” title=”Giving Voice to Cultural Safety of Indigenous Wildland Firefighters in Canada”]

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Marty.

A 9-year USFS aerial firefighting study left many questions unanswered

After 9 years and more than $11 million

Air Tanker 02 Drops on the Creek Fire
Air Tanker 02 Drops on the Creek Fire on Camp Pendelton Marine Base, December 24, 2020. CAL FIRE image.

-This article was first published on Fire Aviation-

In fiscal year 2018 the U.S. Forest Service spent more than half a billion dollars, $507,000,000, on air tankers, helicopters and other firefighting aircraft.

The agency’s spending on aircraft contracts, support, and fire suppression operations has gone on for decades with little meaningful oversight. The Forest Service has been repeatedly asked to justify the expense by the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General, and Senators and Representatives in committee hearings — “How do you know air tankers are effective?”

A report by the GAO in August, 2013 said, “None of the agencies’ studies and strategy documents contained information on aircraft performance and effectiveness in supporting firefighting operations, which limits the agencies’ understanding of the strengths and limitations of each type of firefighting aircraft and their abilities to identify the number and type of aircraft they need,”

The Inspector General’s investigation concluded, “[The Forest Service] has not used aviation firefighting performance measures that directly demonstrate cost-impact…”

In 2012 the Forest Service began the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) study to address those concerns. After nine years and an annual cost of $1.3 million plus overtime for the field data collectors, a report about the study was quietly released August 20, 2020 during the peak of an exceptionally busy wildland fire season.

The AFUE had very ambitious goals initially when Tom Harbour was the Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service.

“AFUE was initially intended to eventually help answer questions about the size and composition of aviation assets needed by the USFS,” Mr. Harbour told Fire Aviation recently.

From the agency’s AFUE website:

The desired outcome is to support training, mission selection and execution, and overall aerial fleet planning to enhance effectiveness and cost-effectiveness, potentially reducing aviation and fire suppression costs by answering a general, but complex question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?”

The data in the study was collected by four crews, or modules, of three to four single resource qualified firefighters, each with 10 to 25 years of firefighting experience. The modules mapped aerial drop activity and recorded incident objectives, outcomes, and conditions for aerial suppression actions that supported tactical and strategic incident objectives. The module coordinator coordinated crew movements.

AFUE personnel applied analysis protocols to data after observing 27,611 drops from 2015 to 2018 at incident locations throughout the USA in 18 States and across all nine Forest Service regions.

Other studies

This was not the first time that a study took on the task of determining the aircraft mix needed to assist wildland firefighters in the United States or to evaluate aerially applied fire retardant. The Inspector General’s report listed seven, most of which are on the Wildfire Today Documents page.

Additional studies not mentioned in the Inspector General’s report:

Size of USFS Large Air Tanker Fleet
Number of USFS Large Air Tankers on Exclusive Use contracts at the beginning of each year.

Which fires were analyzed in the AFUE study?

The fires at which data was collected were primarily large that escaped initial attack, since it takes time to mobilize the modules. Smaller fires that were stopped by ground and air resources are likely underrepresented; that is, fires on which aircraft were most effective may not show up in the data. Fires burning during high or extreme fire danger that grew large because of the burning conditions may be overrepresented. As conditions become extreme, firefighting aircraft are less effective.

From the study:

[T]he sample may be biased towards incidents with substantial aircraft activity and especially those with any airtanker activity. Because AFUE was launched primarily to evaluate large and very large airtankers, choices were consistently made to observe fires with airtanker activity. Recognizing that many fires that receive any airtanker drops typically only receive a few drops, the sample could be underrepresenting fires with limited airtanker activity. Further, many aerial firefighting drops occur on remote fires that make direct observation challenging.

What were the findings of the AFUE?

Much of the AFUE report is based on two performance measures that the study used to determine the effectiveness of an aircraft, Interaction Percentage (IP) and Probability of Success (POS). IP, a term apparently invented, is defined as the proportion of drops that interacted with fire. POS is the number of effective drops divided by the total number of drops with known and interacting outcomes.

Interaction Percentages firefighting aircraft AFUE
Interaction Percentages, from AFUE

The interaction percentage data compares apples and oranges. Helicopters and scoopers primarily drop water, while fixed wing tankers that are not scoopers almost always drop long term fire retardant. Since water is a very short term fire retarding agent, it is usually dropped directly on the flaming front. If it were dropped out ahead of the fire, much of it would run off the fuel, soak into the ground, or evaporate before the fire reached that location.

Long term fire retardant dropped by air tankers is usually placed ahead of the fire. It might be dozens of feet away, or when pretreating a ridgeline, protecting a point, or securing a planned indirect fireline it could be thousands of feet away from the flaming front. Retardant, much more viscous than water, adheres to the vegetation more so than water, retains moisture for a while, and can even interfere with the process of combustion after it dries.

Therefore, comparing the interactions of water dropping and retardant dropping aircraft is not a reasonable exercise. Water droppers should always be very close to 100 percent on the interaction scale, while retardant droppers will have lower numbers, in part because some of the drops are done to support indirect firelines or ignition operations that did not interact with the main fire.

Helicopter 3PA, an AS350B (N833PA)
Helicopter 3PA, an AS350B (N833PA) on the Elephant Butte Fire southwest of Denver, July 13, 2020. Photo by skippyscage.com.

The chart which shows small Type 3 helicopters having 100 percent interaction does not mean that dropping 100 gallons of water is going to have a larger overall fire-slowing result than a 75 percent interaction DC-10 very large air tanker dropping 94 times as much liquid.

The interaction rates of single engine, large, and very large air tankers all range from about 74 percent to 80 percent. And in the helicopter category, it is about 87 percent to 100, with the small 100-gallon Type 3 having the highest number. The largest Type 1 helicopters carry 2,500 to 3,000 gallons; their interaction percentage is about 10 points higher than the average retardant dropping air tanker.

Drop Outcomes, AFUE
Drop Outcomes, AFUE

The study also rates the aircraft on the probability of success, only taking into account drops that actually interacted with the fire. When used on a large fire the helicopters averaged about 0.73 and the retardant dropping air tankers, about 0.72. If excluding the small Type 3 helicopters which are not often used to drop water on large fires, the helicopter average increases to about 0.84

What did the AFUE study recommend?

Continue reading “A 9-year USFS aerial firefighting study left many questions unanswered”

DHS studies emerging technology for wildfire response

The project team evaluated over 60 systems

DHS study wildfire technologyIn December of 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator requested the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology research new and emerging technology that could be applied to wildland fire incident response, given the loss of life that occurred in California during the fall of 2017 in Santa Rosa and Ventura.

The project team identified three overarching conclusions that represent consistent themes captured throughout the course of the table top exercises and expert engagements.

  1. Time Criticality of WUI Fire Incidents: WUI fire incidents require immediate protective and response actions to save lives. The conflagration created when a wildland fire enters populated areas is unpredictable and can rapidly devastate these areas, threatening lives. Interventions and solutions that improve decision making and response in the initial minutes of a WUI fire are vital.
  2. Available Technology Solutions Exist: There exist available technologies (both government and commercial), which—if implemented—could immediately help emergency responders reduce the number of lives lost during WUI fire incidents. In particular, these technologies could immediately support ignition detection, fire tracking, public information and warning, evacuation, and responder safety. Improving capabilities in other elements of the WUI response (i.e. preparedness and critical infrastructure) may require investing in adaptable or developable solutions that are not immediately available.
  3. Public Education and Preparedness Measures are Vital: Public education and preparedness are essential to reducing the number of lives lost to WUI fire incidents. There is no solution more effective than preventing an ignition in the first place and ensuring the at-risk communities are prepared at the grassroots level to face wildland fire dangers.

The principal conclusions of this project are distilled into a set of seven key findings. They describe lines of effort addressing priority capability gaps that, if implemented, could substantially improve immediate life-saving efforts during WUI fire incidents. The key findings listed below are considered equally important to this objective and are not listed in any priority order.

  1. Implement and scale the use of state-of-the-art remote sensing assets to provide state and local stakeholders real-time, accurate, low-cost ignition detection and tracking information— especially fire perimeter using a mix of in situ, aerial, and space-based systems.
  2. Improve the ability of available and adaptable public alert and warning technologies to deliver more targeted and effective message across the whole community, particularly to individuals with disabilities and others with Access and Functional Needs (AFN).
  3. Improve use of key public and private social media and internet resources and capabilities to appropriately share data and adapt existing applications to enable more efficient and effective evacuation—e.g., expand and accelerate public-private partnerships through Integrated Public Alert and Warnings System (IPAWS) to include WUI incident-related evacuations, warning, and alerting.
  4. Support broader use of existing fire modeling and forecasting tools for pre-incident planning; while also advancing efforts to create high-confidence, timely WUI fire-specific models that can be used to inform response tactics during extreme conditions.
  5. Increase infrastructure resilience, especially critical infrastructure lifelines and support functions for wildland fire response—e.g., improve the resilience, interoperability, and reliability of communications, power utilities, digital links, and data center infrastructure.
  6. Integrate private, open, and crowdsourced data, resources, and capabilities to improve public safety situational awareness of WUI fire ignition detection and tracking.
  7. Support wide-scale adoption of interoperable, low-cost blue-force tracking technologies that feed near real-time situational awareness across key stakeholders, missions, and operations.

The project team evaluated over 60 existing systems, products, or solutions. Here is an example of how 10 were ranked for how well they addressed requirements.

technology address wildfire management safety

technology address wildfire management safety
Top ten solutions based on how many requirements that solution addresses.

In addition, the team evaluated the solutions for feasibility, affordability, usability, impact, and technology alignment.

The entire 131-page report can be downloaded. 2.8 MB

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

Workforce capacity in the U.S. Forest Service

forest service workforce capacity study

The National Association of Forest Service Retirees (NAFSR) conducted an analysis of the capacity of the Forest Service’s workforce. They looked at the existing characteristics of the agency and conducted lengthy interviews with 33 employees in all nine regions.

Topics covered in the interviews:

  • Leadership, culture, and direction,
  • Workforce capacity,
  • Consolidation and zoning,
  • On the ground management, and,
  • Partnerships.

The recommendations of the NAFSR:

  1. Hire employees with skill sets necessary to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration.
  2. Totally revamp the hiring process, streamlining procedures, removing all roadblocks and restoring connections with field units.
  3. Eliminate unnecessary administrative burdens.
  4. Increase funding to hire new employees, contract work and enter into partnerships.
  5. Delegate authority to field units.
  6. Implement all actions previously suggested by NAFSR, including administrative reforms and the 2021 budget initiative.

You can download the cover letter (.docx file) the group sent to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, as well as the 11-page report (.pdf file). The documents are intended to be shared with anyone who has an interest.

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

Senate committee discusses Forest Service budget issues with the Chief

5% reduction in USFS budget, fuel reduction funds, air tanker study, CFLRP, and LWCF

CL 415 on Colby Fire
CL-415 on the Colby Fire near Glendora, California, January, 2014. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

In addition to grilling the Chief of the Forest Service about hostile workplaces, several other issues were covered in a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

A video recording of the hearing is available at the Committee’s website. It begins at 19:48.

At 56:30 in the video Washington Senator Maria Cantwell asked Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen about the $545 million that was appropriated for fuel management in the recent omnibus legislation but was not mentioned in the administration’s proposed budget for FY 2020 which begins October 1. The Senator asked for assurances that the funds would still be available and would be used for that purpose. The Chief would not commit to the funds still being available, saying, “We will use whatever resources are given to the agency”.

The Chief reminded the Senator that the White House directed the Forest Service to cut its overall budget by five percent.

Senator Cantwell also mentioned very briefly at 59:00 in the video the availability of CL-415 water scooping air tankers but the issue was not discussed. The Forest Service, even though funds are available and a vendor offered the aircraft at a greatly reduced rate this year in a meeting with Chief Christiansen and Fire Director Shawna Legarza (according to our sources), the agency does not plan to have any scoopers on exclusive use contracts for the second year in a row. Historically the FS does not hold scoopers in high esteem even though they are used extensively in Canada and Europe. The 2012 Rand Study, which the agency attempted to keep secret (and did so successfully for two years), recommended a heavy emphasis on water-scooping air tankers and fewer conventional air tankers, which would have been a monumental shift in the paradigm.

Senator Murkowski said (at 1:39:30 in the video) that during a hearing a year ago the committee was told that results from the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) study would be released “soon”. The study, launched in 2012, is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft when they are used on wildfires, in order to better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft. In FY 2017 for example, the most recent year with exact numbers available, the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation; $507,000,000. If ever completed and the results implemented, the study could make it possible to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet — to use the best, most efficient tools for the job.

However, to date no detailed reports have been released from the AFUE.

The Senator asked about the results of the study, now entering its eighth year. The data is being collected by four “observation modules,” each comprised of three qualified firefighters and a dedicated aircraft, to collect ground and aerial data at wildfires throughout the nation during fire season. In addition to the 12 firefighters, 3 analysts/managers evaluate the data. Christine Schuldheisz, a spokesperson for the USFS, has said the annual cost of the project is approximately $1,300,000.

Chief Christiansen, referring to the lack of any detailed results being released, said, “I absolutely share your concern and your question….. I am low on patience as well, Senator. This is a complex and labor intensive endeavor.”

Senator Murkowski: “But should it really require seven years to get a report like this?”

Chief Christiansen: “To have enough, when you have to take these assessment teams and have to be on the fire scene and to get enough data to get what the trend line is, it does take some time.”

The Chief then referred to a very small amount of preliminary data that was released in a two-page document in March which in a vague manner referred to the probability of success of direct vs. indirect attack by aircraft. This was was reported by Fire Aviation April 8, 2019.

Senator Murkowski asked the Chief to have more details from the AFUE study when the Committee holds their annual fire outlook hearing in about a month.

Since after seven years the Forest Service has not released any significant data about the study, a person has to wonder what have they found that is so embarrassing, controversial, or perhaps critical of specific models of aircraft, retardant products, or vendors?

Some people think the Forest Service will never release the full results of the AFUE study.

The Committee might have to subpoena the data.

Later in the hearing (at 1:43:30) Colorado Senator Sen. Cory Gardner referred to the study, saying in his rapid-fire speaking style: “There is a technical term I want to use to describe the length of time it is taking to get that study done, and it is Bunk! I’m sorry, it’s just a bunch of Bunk that it has taken seven years to get this done. We fought a world war in four years, we built the Pentagon in 16 months, we can’t do a study in 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 4 years, maybe 5 years? It has taken seven years to do this? In the meantime we have western states that have had significant and catastrophic fires. I understand it’s important to get the information right. But doggonnit, someone needs to get a fire lit underneath them to get something done on this study.”

New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich expressed concern that the Administration intends for both the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (part of the Forest Service) and the Land and Water Conservation Fund (under the Department of the Interior) to be unfunded beginning in October. Again, the Chief mentioned that the White House directed the Forest Service to cut its overall budget by five percent.

Referring to the fact that the “fire fix” has reduced the necessity for the Forest Service to borrow funds from unrelated accounts to pay for fire suppression, Senator Heinrich said, “We’re giving you the tools, you’re not using the tools we are giving you.”