The National Interagency Fire Center has issued a wildland fire outlook for June through September, 2009. Only three areas are showing above normal fire potential: west-central California, north-central Washington, and the east Minnesota/north Wisconsin area.
I am sure the people who put this outlook together are great at their jobs, but personally I think the most important factor that affects the intensity of a fire season is the weather DURING the fire season. If it is hot, dry, and windy, firefighters are going to be busy.
The National Interagency Fire center has released a “national wildland significant fire potential outlook” for May through August:
During May, above normal significant fire potential is expected across portions of the Southwest, Southern and Eastern Areas. For June through August, significant fire potential is forecast to increase or persist across parts of California, the Northwest, Southwest, and Southern, Areas.
Significant fire potential is expected to decrease in western Texas, eastern New Mexico, and the Great Lakes area. Below normal significant fire potential is expected across portions of the Western Great Basin and Alaska for the June through August period.
I just finished the 2009 version of the “Fireline Safety Refresher Training”. I thought it was pretty good, but leave a comment if you have taken it and have an opinion. Here are some of my thoughts:
I think it’s great that the National Wildfire Coordinating Group “coordinates” this annual nationwide refresher by preparing a DVD, instructor materials, and a student workbook. It’s a good way to be sure we get consistent, quality information out there. Before they did this, some organizations, if they did any annual refresher at all, would just put on “Standards for Survival” or some other canned, repetitive program every year.
The DVD included a talk by Jennifer A. Ziegler, PhD., Department of Communication, Valparaiso University. She is well-known in the wildland fire community for her work on the human factors of fighting fire and has spoken at many wildfire conferences. In fact Wildfire Today quoted her on February 26 when we introduced our series of articles about the 13 Watch Out Situations. On the refresher DVD, Ms. Ziegler gives some excellent information about the genealogy of the 10 Fire Orders.
There was an entire unit devoted to “Fire Operations Doctrine”. Doctrine was developed by the U.S. Forest Service and was unveiled at their Pulaski Conference a few years ago. The video in the refresher training talked about it, but never did define it. The Department of Interior firefighters I was training with were left scratching their heads trying to figure out what it was. But the student workbook did give some basic information about Doctrine. Correct me if I am wrong, but as far as I know, the Department of Interior Agencies have not adopted Doctrine. I have some calls in to try to confirm this.
Here is a passage from the student workbook about Doctrine: “In order to generate effective decision making in fire operations and to cope with the unpredictable nature of fire, commanders’ intent must be lucid and unambiguous, and lines of authority must be clearly articulated and understood. Subordinate commanders must make decisions on their own initiative based on their understanding of their commanders’ intent.”
The DVD had a lengthy video about the Idaho City Hot Shots. It had some great footage of fire, tree felling, and action shots, but other than being entertaining it added little to the training.
A lot of time was spent on weather. I have seen many presentations in fire classes by meteorologists who got far too technical, showing, for example, charts that were undecipherable by firefighters. But in the DVD a TV weatherman (from I believe Channel 6 somewhere) provided great information about “sky watching” and interpreting clouds. He showed some time lapse films that were very interesting. This was a good example of a speaker analyzing his audience and presenting technical information in a manner that could be easily understood…..a quality of a good TV weatherman. Fire instructors should take note. Later in the unit other time lapse films taken in Australia were less useful. We were asked to predict the weather based on the films, which was asking a little too much of the average firefighter.
A section on communicating with aircraft was succinct and very worthwhile.
A case study of a situation on the Indians fire on the Los Padres National Forest in California last year was very thought provoking. On that fire, which burned for many weeks, an engine crew and some members of a hot shot crew that were conducting a burn out were in a sort of burn-over when a massive fire whirl, or fire tornado as I would call it, caused the fire to change direction. One firefighter estimated they were exposed to 80 mph winds blowing burning embers and large tree limbs around. Several firefighters received some serious burns.
We were told that the maximum time allowed for getting into a fire shelter has been reduced to 20 seconds. And I have to admit I did not make it on the first try, missing it by 2 seconds.
JACKSON, WYOMING – Now might be a good time to get into the firefighting business.
If science and history are a guide, the world and particularly the Rocky Mountain West are poised on the cusp of a dangerous increase in the size and frequency of large fires, caused by a warming climate.
“By the end of this century we’re expecting the area in Canada that burns to double,” said Mike Flannigan, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service. “Others say it will be a change of three to five times. It looks pretty gloomy.”
An increasing risk of large fires may not be news to landowners and homeowners who have been scorched by recent blazes. But speakers at a conference here Wednesday put a finer point on the idea, backing it up with reams of charts and boat loads of scientific research outlined in PowerPoint presentations.
El Cariso Hot Shots catch their breath after being chased out of a fire on the San Bernardino National Forest, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Flannigan is one of many researchers who spoke Wednesday at a weeklong conference titled “The ’88 Fires, Yellowstone and Beyond,” co-sponsored by the National Park Service and the International Association of Wildland Fire. Many of Wednesday’s talks focused on climate change and its effects on wildfires.
Based on data already compiled, the West is on the front of a rising curve for more large fires. Research by Anthony Westerling, of the University of California-Merced, showed that fires more than 500 acres in size have increased by 300 percent since 1985 on National Park Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs lands.
Westerling examined how rising temperatures have affected earlier spring runoffs and in many cases led to warmer, drier summers. His studies showed that between 1970 and 2008, there has been a 78-day increase in the fire season. The average burn time for fires has risen from one week to five weeks.
Projecting his data into the future, Westerling sees the average fire year between 2072 and 2099 looking similar in moisture deficit to Yellowstone National Park in 1988, when 794,000 acres burned.
“This is assuming we keep producing as much CO2,” he said. “I can’t get a sense of how you would manage yourself out of this change.”
Fire managers note that they’re already seeing unusual fire behavior.
Steve Frye, of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said, “We are experiencing extreme, aggressive fire behavior in places where we haven’t in the past,” including fires at elevations and in fuel types where fires didn’t used to burn.
Fighting such fires has become more complicated, he said, thanks in large part to the construction of houses near forests, which he called “the single largest challenge and change for fire managers in the last 20 years.”
Meanwhile, firefighting agencies have had to deal with a decline in the number of firefighters and equipment used to battle blazes. Agencies would need twice the resources they now have to keep fires at current levels, something that’s not going to happen. So fire managers have had to adapt.
“We are making better decisions in how we assign our resources,” Frye said. “But we’re also assigning units to protection that could be used elsewhere.”
Flannigan, the Canadian researcher, said the situation north of the border could well apply to the Western United States.
“It’s almost a given that we’ll see more fire activity, more ignitions,” he said. “This is a global problem, and it’s going to require global solutions.”