SPOTFIRE! ~ The FUSEE Blog
It takes just one little ember to spark a Spotfire! Like fireline scouts, FUSEE’s crew of bloggers size up emerging incidents and issues, report back vital information, and mark the route for others to follow. Here you will find news and views you can use to promote safe, ethical, ecological fire management. We hope interested readers and investigative reporters will follow up on our blog posts to get the whole story of wildland fire.
FUSEE sees a Wildfire Triad that inalienably links Safety with Ethics and Ecology. If expedient policy decisions cause unsafe outcomes for wildland firefighters, then most probably ethics and ecosystems become damaged. When captured processes yield unethical results then, no doubt, safety becomes compromised and wildland ecology becomes harmed. When wildland management strictures trammel ecosystems, then you can bet firefighter safety withers and our legacy of wildland ethics atrophies. Scientific analyses remain the best chronicles of this triad. In this series, we explore crucial articles, analyses, and reports that demonstrate the best in wildland fire research.
A relatively recent paper from wildfire scientists succinctly sets down many of the concepts that FUSEE has advocated over the years. The paper is “Insights from wildfire science: A resource for fire policy discussions” by Schoennagel et al. January 2016. It robustly compiles elements that comprise safe, ethical, and ecological wildfire management. They take their “‘social contract’ as scientists seriously … and seek to contribute information in support of a policy process that helps promote resilient communities and landscapes facing more fire in the future.” It’s a short and wonderful paper to read. Three of their insights pertain to their paradigm: Learning to live with wildfire.
(1) Global Warming will increase the frequency and severity of wildfires, and expand the area burned.
(2) WUI residents should use fire-resistant building materials, appropriate landscaping, and do routine yard maintenance within about 200 feet of homes to create defensible spaces.
(3) Ethically and safely managing prescribed and naturally ignited fires can reduce future wildfire threats and increase ecological benefits. Four of their insights contradict some “common-sense” beliefs.
(4) Fuel treatments distant from the WUI will not aid in its protection nor reduce acreage burned.
(5) Not all forests need restoration.
(6) Not all high-severity fires are bad, most have ecological benefits.
(7) Insect outbreaks do not make fires worse.
Who could argue with this? I can think of four categories of opponents. The first tiny, but most vocal, group consists of those thwarted in a bureaucratic inertia of wildland management and unrequited goals. Professional allegiances, or a feeling that their status, careers, and sense of self-worth may be threatened, perhaps causes them to quibble with some fine-grained implications of these insights. Paul W. Hirt’s “A Conspiracy of Optimism” best describes the ardor and consequences coiling in this inertia. Second, a large group comprises those with sort of a tribal affiliation. They resist any facts and arguments against their self-righteous, vengeful vision of human dominion over nature. They also refuse to recognize scams and subsidies in furtherance of extracting resources and taming the wildlands. Next, a smaller third group consists of those actually employed in extracting resources and taming the wildlands. This group also includes some of those in the fire-industrial complex who find personal meaning in steadfastly standing on firelines or contracting out huge machines for fire suppression. The fourth group swells to the largest but most benign. They fear and resent wildfire and become heartbroken when they see the effects of wildfire on the viewscape. They haven’t yet understood that their heartache has kinship with those of parents when they watch their youngest trudge off to school or when they talk to a son or daughter about becoming betrothed. And they can’t yet realize what tidings shall come. (464 words) Below, we offer a summary of “Insights from wildfire science.” Insights from wildfire science: A resource for fire policy discussions. Federal agencies annually now spend $2 to $3 billion fighting fires. Societal costs may be 30 times more than direct firefighting costs. Because the future brings more fire, we must promote resilient communities and landscapes. We will need to learn how to adapt to more wildfire.
- Fire size and frequency will increase under a warmer and drier climate.
Global Warming’s influence on fuel moisture, wind, and higher temperatures will iteratively increase annual area burned. Analyses of tree-ring and lake-sediment indicate increased area burned during past warm periods. The effects of fire suppression and logging remain small compared to the role of Climate Change.
- Fuel reduction on federal lands will do little to reduce acreage burned and homes lost.
The paper states that, “We will never be able to treat enough land to alter the trend of increasing acreage burned.” We must prioritize federal fuel treatments around communities and reduce fuels on private land to abate home loss and protect communities.
- Not all forests need restoration.
“Not all western forests need restoration to remedy effects of past fire suppression. Climate change may render restoration less important than adaptation and mitigation, since future environmental conditions may not resemble those of the past.” In moist and cool high-elevation forests, “naturally high tree densities have changed little from their pre-suppression-era condition.” High severity wildfires remain ecologically necessary here. In ponderosa pine forests, where logging and fire suppression increased tree density and continuous fuel loads, wildfires shifted from past frequent low-severity to present-day high-severity. Here, thinning and prescribed fire can help restore low tree density, reduce fuel continuity, lower fire severity, and enhance important ecosystem services.
- High severity fires often have ecological benefits.
“Severe fire is not necessarily ecologically catastrophic, but rather a natural mechanism of renewal and diversity.”
- Insect outbreaks do not necessarily make fires worse.
Data show that “bark beetles have little influence on the occurrence or severity of forest fires in the 10 to 15 years after trees’ death.” Forests that co-evolved with insect outbreak recover well without management intervention. High-elevation and high-latitude forests, where most outbreaks occur, routinely experience high-severity wildfires, so bark beetle activity rarely increases fire severity.
- Land-use planning can reduce wildfire risk.
Most firefighting risks and costs directly relate to protecting communities. However, most fire policy and management tries to tame fire risk in distant landscapes. Better policies should encourage WUI residents to use fire-resistant building materials, appropriate landscaping, and do routine yard maintenance within about 200 feet of homes to create defensible spaces.
- Managing fires to burn safely can reduce risk and increase ecological benefit.
“Natural or prescribed fire today can help prevent worse fires tomorrow—flames consume debris and live fuel, often limiting the places where new fires can burn.” Ethically and safely monitoring and managing fires under moderate conditions can restore landscapes, aid vegetation recovery, and may reduce the risk of large severe fires during extreme conditions. Conclusion: Learning to live with wildfire. Wildfire will continue to increase in frequency and extent as the climate warms. To protect people, property, and promote resilient communities that face more wildfire in the future, the most effective changes in wildlands and wildfire management will be near homes and on private property. Managing prescribed and naturally ignited fires will reduce future wildfire threats and increase ecological benefits. (1026 words)
The FUSEE street team, Madeline Cowen and myself, have been hard at work here in the north of Scotland, at the venerable Findhorn Foundation intentional spiritual community. We are here for the Climate Change and Consciousness conference, and we are a bit more than halfway through. Record-breaking Earth Day temperatures were followed immediately by a twelve square mile wildfire, threatening a nearby wind farm. A pall of smoke hung over Findhorn on Tuesday, and fire was on everyone’s mind, if not their lips. Our mission, aside from adding our voice to the chorus, was to bring more balance to the discussion of wildfires, as nearly every presenter used the language or visuals of wildfire destruction in their presentations to paint the dystopian future of runaway climate change.
On Saturday and Sunday we heard from Bill McKibben from 350.org, as well as Vandana Shiva, the tireless warrior from India, opposed to Monsanto and their franken-seeds, as well as her clear call for renewing the soil holistically, rather than with nutrients, herbicides and pesticides derived from petroleum products. In addition to Monsanto, Shiva took aim at Bill Gates, as an example of our modern corporate heads who “move like gods” among our weakening heads of state.
On Sunday we heard from Christina Figures, the Costa Rican diplomat, who pulled together the 2015 Paris Agreement which was widely hailed as a remarkable achievement. When asked what she thought about politicians globally pulling away from climate issues, including President Trump taking the U.S of the agreement, she reminded us that this was a small group of world leaders, and with solar power costs now lower than most fossil fuel electrical power generation costs, decarbonization is inevitable. With many U.S. states and cities affirming their commitment to the Paris accord, hers was a powerful message of just how insignificant Trump’s actions are. It’s simply a pity that the U.S. won’t prosper from the coming changes in how power is produced. We could have been in the forefront of solar panel development and sales, but we have conceded that ground to China — protecting the gas, oil and coal companies is a continuation of “fossilized” thinking, as Vandana Shiva put it.
On Monday morning, we heard from other luminaries in the climate movement, like Charles Eistenstein, who promotes a more holistic living planet worldview, and who has, on occasion, taken exception to McKibben’s goal focused on a single metric, ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. But both seemed more in alignment than ever before, with the new broadened focus of the Extinction Rebellion, that has been concurrently shutting down streets in London and elsewhere. Focusing on mass extinctions, including possibly that of humankind, the Extinction Rebellion fits more with Eisenstein’s priorities found in his new book, Climate: A New Story. In order of priority, he called for:
1. Preservation of intact ecosystems, which aligns well with FUSEE’s aim or keeping fire intact as an ecosystem process where possible
2. Restoration of degraded ecosystems, also in alignment of reintroduction of fire through prescribed burning or natural fire management
3. Stop dumping toxins in our waterways and oceans… and a “distant fourth,”
4. Stop greenhouse emissions.
After all, some of the first extinctions of the new Anthropocene age, in which we live, were fire-dependent species. This began in North America, as fire was systematically excluded after the beginning of the 20th century. Eisenstein implores us to “ask what the earth wants?” As we here at FUSEE know well, in many remaining wild places, the earth wants fire. In these places a fire excluded is simply a fire deferred, with the subsequent fire likely to be more severe.
On Monday afternoon, I had a chance to be interviewed by the conference’s live Facebook team, along with Sally Ibbotson, a local Qigong master and Findhorn resident, and one of the event’s most popular keynote speakers, Angaangaq Angakkorsiaq, an indigenous elder from Greenland who was selected as a “runner” for his people to be an emissary when his people observed, as early as 1963, that the “Big Ice” was melting. His mother sent him to the white man’s world to “melt the ice in their hearts.” His message was strong and clear. “It is too late. Why did you not listen?“ Nicknamed, “Uncle,” this man was one of the warmest and most sincere I’ve ever met. From our interview onward, he met me with a hug and smile.
Tuesday’s focus was on the large youth contingent, and like the indigenous message, some bits were difficult to hear, but their demands and fears were made crystal clear. We heard from Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, teen environmental hip-hop artist and co-plaintiff in the Juliana vs. U.S.A. climate case, slowly making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Tuesday’s live online interview featured, Maggie Filor from Australia, whose home burned down when she was eight years old, along with two other young climate activists.
In all, the scope and breadth of the conference has been staggering, especially for those exposed to the urgency and scope of the problem for the first time. Workshops have been offered from a wide variety of presenters. From Jem Bendell, whose 36-page essay on his way out the door of academia gained him more notoriety than an entire career of writing and teaching trying to save capitalism, to the guy that literally wrote the book on intergenerational climate activism.
Over and over, the question was asked or considered, Is this a “fight” or a “struggle?” In a spiritual community of peace, like Findhorn, where many feel change begins from within, the use of aggressive language is problematic. But all the speakers seemed in agreement that we, as in all species, are in a fight for survival….a fight against wealth and power. At FUSEE we discourage the militarism and aggression that fuels the “war” on wildfire, but that arises from the dualistic worldview in which humanity stands apart from nature. If there was any message delivered by this conference more than that we are in a struggle, it was that the cause arises from this errant worldview. Every speaker stepped up and said, in one way or another, we are one with nature, but our need to express dominance has clouded our connection, attempting to replace what was lost with shallow materialism.
This conference seemed to be very timely with the increased awareness of climate catastrophe from all of the lived experience of those experiencing fires, floods, drought and hurricanes. The movement has been electrified by the emergence of sixteen-year-old climate activist, Greta Thunberg, who has continued to thoroughly crush the adults in the room at the U.N. and Whitehall. Add to that the growing student walkouts, like the one I joined surging through the streets of Galway, Ireland, right before St. Patrick’s Day. All-in-all it seems we have nudged open Overton’s window on climate and the building of broad coalitions is now underway – and if not, I’m quite certain the youth will pick up stones and shatter Mr. Overton’s window altogether.
Stay tuned for our final installment as we wrap up the conference at the end of the week. MB
Firebrands inundated us in a biting darting wind-driven torrent. We covered our faces with bandanas the best we could. Cinders rapidly burnt through our fire clothes since the Nomex had been washed out ten years ago. Any exposed flesh reported stinging, piercing pain. As the ember blizzard ignited some low lying brush and grass in our safety zone, many of us thought about deploying our fire shelters just to stave off the misery from the cataract of firebrands that sluiced upon us as if it came from, well …, a firehose. We didn’t get into our fire shelters because we stalwarted one another and enforced the code. We enforced our code of staying there and enduring and being tough. It was our code of pride, our firefighters’ fierce fearless feck. (Also, we didn’t want to get yelled at by overhead who would no doubt scream, “those expensive fire shelters aren’t for coddling wimps who aren’t tough enough!”) Soon the firebrand pulse subsided. We survived. We could breathe, beat out our pant cuffs that caught fire, and rub the painful scorches that burnt through our Nomex shirts. Multiple times I survived such blinding blizzards of embers. We always enforced that code of steadfastly abiding the flaming onfall. And each time we were there to put out the little nearby flames. Looking back on those incidences, I’ve decided that enforcing that code of stoically enduring firebrand onslaughts were some of the dumbest things I’ve ever done. And I can assure you that I’ve done plenty of dumb things.
However, enforcing other fire codes that aren’t so dumb and remain the keys to reducing home ignitions and making responses to fires a whole lot safer. Cities don’t burn down like they used to due to modern firefighter quick response to fires, influential propaganda about fire safety, and structure code enforcement. Over the last 150 years, cities often directed firefighters to inspect and enforce fire codes. And by and large, it has worked. The more firefighters inspected and enforced, the less they went out on actual fires.
Maturing and evolving standards in building codes have greatly diminished structure fires. These include codes for (1) manufacture of materials for construction, appliances, and electrical wiring, switches, and outlets; (2) proper construction and installation; (3) general clean-up and maintenance of buildings open to the public; and (4) maintenance of emergency exits. Professional inspectors for local governments and insurance companies have pretty much replaced firefighters assigned to inspect. In some places you can still see firefighters wielding clip boards and poking at exit signs.
Because old cities have many wooden structures, effort went to setting up systems to quickly respond to fire emergencies. Rather than trying to save a doomed structure, firefighters focused on containing the fire and stopping its spread so it wouldn’t develop into a major conflagration or even into a firestorm. In the majority of these old-timey urban firestorms, the fire spread by firebrands. The raging inferno of one structure sent wind-driven sparks that ignited other structures until the fire consumed whole city blocks. While radiant or convective heat can spread fires in closely pack urban areas, most spot fires and dangerous spreads come from wafting firebrands. The inverse square law means that you can comfortably stand pretty close to a hundred-foot flame length, which every wildland firefighter knows who has ever stood near a torching subalpine fir.
Several sorts of urban structural and building codes for materials, construction, and exit maintenance have analogies in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Construction materials for WUI structures to resist firebrands are on the market such as fire-resistant siding, metal or fire resistant shingle roofs that can absorb a lot of heat. Research continues to evolve and mature to resolve home ignition zone (HIZ) problems unique to WUI conditions. But Climate Change has induced wildland fires to increasingly invade urban zones. We can’t “treat” enough of the wildlands to dampen the trend toward more megafires. However, we must prioritize fuel treatments around communities and engender incentives for reducing fuels on private lands to safeguard communities and reduce home loss.
Blasts of information and a plethora of programs constantly hector homeowners to properly landscape, trim trees, prune bushes, rake yards, sweep tree debris from roofs, and remove flammable items away from houses. Excellent advice. But due to the vicissitudes of wind, even the most conscientious homeowner, constantly observant in their Firewise efforts, may see their home burn down if their neighbors fail to be as vigilant. We have seen a multitude of incidences of tall trees, fairly unscathed, standing next to homes reduced to cinders. Why did one home survive in a scene that looks like the Dresden bombing?
Analyses suggest that firebrands shower houses, igniting small fires where embers invade roof vents or enkindle bits of flammable debris. Without people present to stamp out tender flames, burgeoning fire eventually consumes the whole house. Recent research and modern modeling have fiercely focused on the complicit culprits of roof eaves and wooden patio porches (design, materials, and maintenance). Cohen’s research shows that even crown fires usually cannot radiate sufficiently to sustain ignition of house wooden siding.
What could summon the best strategies to integrate wildfire, even domesticated wildfire, into a fire-hardy, fire-permeable WUI and a resilient fire-scape beyond? Hefting the necessary work of code enforcement in the WUI could quell many of these problems. Usually, local codes and ordinances already exist that demand action. Academics call operations in the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ), the 50 m nearby houses, “fuel treatments” or “hazard abatement.” Homeowners may call it landscaping and yard maintenance. Taxpayers shouldn’t pay for it anymore than taxpayers should pay for clean-up of unhygienic and dangerous rubbish on small private properties. Say, why do we pay for clean-up of corporate hazardous waste sites?
However, local, state, and federal government can further facilitate information dispersal through excellent programs such as Fire Adapted Communities, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, and FIREWISE. Government can also incentivise insurance companies to become more proactive. Insurance companies could offer WUI dwellers fuel treatment premium discounts and easily monitor insuree performance. Enforcing the code on WUI structures and property, even by relatively cheap but effective satellite Google Earth View or drone surveillance, will boon benefits. Better eave vents can be cheaply and easily retrofitted. Perhaps simple genius can redesign eaves to be better in aerodynamically repelling firebrands.
After residents have evacuated, how important is it to have firefighters present in the HIZ to protect WUI homes from firebrand ignition? Some insurance companies already fund private firefighting contractors to protect insurees’ homes during wildfire events. How these programs evolve will be important. They could become valued components among government and private efforts. Alternatively, without rigorous monitoring, they could become another “disaster capitalism” boondoggle.
Heartbreaking urban fire fatalities still occur when fire safety and exit codes have been ignored. We are beginning to see the same in WUI evacuations, such as Australia’s 2009 Black Saturday wildfire and our recent Camp Fire at Paradise, California. Should we explore establishing programs similar to Australia’s “Leave Early or Stay and Defend?” This concept promotes early evacuations to prevent evacuees from becoming trapped on fire-vulnerable roads during egress from WUI. The “stay and defend” part recognizes that most destroyed WUI houses burn down after the initial wildfire pulse subsides but the house has a small ignition point (wooden steps, porches, eves, and vents) that could be easily extinguished if someone stayed present. However, the program paused after the deadly 2009 Australian Black Saturday bushfire that killed 130 home defenders and panic-fleers. Perhaps we can evaluate such a program after the WUI becomes truly fire-permeable or has reliable, fire-resistant community stockades. If embraced by the community and endorsed by fire agencies, certain well-trained volunteers may stay at the HIZ in protective (and perhaps certified) structures (homes, basements, or sheds) to be able to come out when it is safe, evaluate and triage the community’s situation, and put out small ignitions.
Too little effort has focused on the sufficiency of WUI egress during critical times of wildfire panicked evacuations. This is where wildland firefighters can do more than wield clipboards and poke at exit signs. They can thin and prescribe burn WUI egress routes. WUI residents usually like the effects of routinely prescribed burns when it presents a favored savanna woodland viewscape. This will further make them heroes to local WUI residents in times when wildfires are not burning. And hopefully they won’t stand in the midst of painful firebrand showers imagining how tough they are.
Restoring Resilience with Low Severity Fire
Can WUI (wildland-urban interface) get pedicured and hair styled without increasing widespread demand for smelling-salts? And who pays for such a make-over? Shall homeowners solely pick up the tab or should government subsidize this hygienic style change that benefits fire-prone communities?
There’s no question it’s necessary. Scientific evidence overwhelmingly concludes that the most cost-effective actions to protect WUI means fuel treatment on private land within 50 meters of houses. A small minority dispute whether mandatorily regulations should be required. The rub remains: who foots the bill? Compared to the economic value of one ’s real estate accruement, it’s cheap. The cost of this socially-demanded grooming remains trivial and it doesn’t have to occur so often as a haircut.
So what tools should groom WUI? Perhaps three choices exist: constant thinning and disposal of fuel; initial one time thinning followed by periodic prescribed fire; and using only periodic prescribed fire until the WUI resumes a fire-hardy, fire-permeable landscape. Constant thinning remains the most constantly annoying and most expensive. Using only periodic prescribed fire can be the cheapest. An initial thinning with periodic prescribed burning allows the most control over producing those aesthetically pleasing, dreamy, park-like savannah woodland vistas that seemed to have embedded in the collective unconscious psychics of our Bonobo-chimpanzee ancestors as they developed opposable thumbs, bipedalism, and their steadfast commitment to the tribal twilight battle between empathy and authoritarianism.
Some of the best evidence for the effectiveness of WUI fuel treatments comes from Jack Cohen’s research. He focuses on areas within the WUI that prevalently produce house ignitions. Cohen calls these Home Ignition Zones (HIZ). He found that a relatively small part of home ignition is from radiant or convection heat from local burning trees. Many home loss results from an initial house burning down producing flaming debris that causes other houses to ignite. Ignitions within the HIZ usually remain independent of even extreme fires in wildlands. Cohen suggests that fuel treatments within even small areas of the HIZ will be the most cost-effective. But ingress and egress must also be protected. Otherwise, people could be trapped in lethal conditions. This means there must be also fire management in nearby lands. Once we have worked over the HIZ and it’s adequately maintained, then we can expand treatments.
Have such practices had demonstrable results? Yes! When Safford et al. 2009 looked at results from the Angora Fire in Lake Tahoe Basin, California, they found that fuel treatments predicted to reduce wildfire intensity and severity generally performed as designed. As the Angora Fire burnt through fuel treated areas, fire behavior substantially changed. Crown fire dwindled to surface fire within 50 meters of encountering a fuel treatment.
Lyderson et al. 2017 looked at the 2013 Rim Fire and found that both fuel treatments and previous low-to-moderate wildfires reduced the prevalence of high severity fire. Areas that previously burned at high severity tended to have a greater proportion of higher severity in the Rim Fire. Areas treated with prescribed fire, especially combined with thinning, had the lowest proportions of high severity. Their results show that fuel treatments and low to moderate severity wildfire can reduce fire severity in a subsequent wildfire.
Elizabeth Reinhart and Nicole Vaillant suggest current implementation of fuel treatments has not focused on areas that would reduce fire hazard nor is it at a scale that approximates historic disturbances. Because restoration may not be needed in every forest, strategies to reduce fire hazard and achieve ecological benefits should: 1) place fuel hazards-reducing treatments to protect high-value resources and assets; 2) increase fuel treatments in wildlands that evolved with frequent low-severity fires and decrease them in forests that evolved with stand-replacing fires; and 3) design treatments to spawn milieu that allow natural wildfires to burn under favored conditions and fulfill ecological roles. We can’t treat enough of the wildlands to dampen the trend toward more megafires. However, we must prioritize fuel treatments around communities and engender incentives for reducing fuels on private lands to safeguard communities and reduce home loss.
What could summon the best strategies to integrate low-severity fire, even domesticated fire, into a fire-hardy, fire-permeable WUI and a resilient fire-scape beyond? Many WUI denizens remain in denial, fail to take action, or even front a fierce NIMBY face towards fuel treatments on or nearby their private property. Ironically, they can remain meekly mute as their valued viewsheds become shredded by road-cuts and McMansions that narcissistically dominate local hilltops. But Global Warming has placed a big flaming bag of dog pooh on WUI’s front porch and knocked on the door. WUI residents risk having their insurance revoked and their assets reduced to ashes and cinders.
Academics call operations in the HIZ, the 50 m nearby houses, “fuel treatments” or “hazard abatement.” Homeowners may call it landscaping and yard maintenance. Taxpayers shouldn’t pay for it any more than taxpayers should pay for clean-up of unhygienic and dangerous rubbish on private property. Usually, local codes and ordinances already exist that demand action. Government can further facilitate information dispersal through excellent programs such as Fire Adapted Communities, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, and FIREWISE. They can incentivize insurance companies to become more proactive. Insurance companies could offer WUI dwellers fuel treatment premium discounts and easily monitor insuree performance using Google Earth.
Some insurance companies already fund private firefighting contractors to protect insurees’ homes during wildfire events. How these programs evolve will be important. They could become valued components among government and private efforts. Alternatively, without rigorous monitoring, they could become another “disaster capitalism” boondoggle.
Also, should we explore establishing programs similar to Australia’s “Leave Early or Stay and Defend?” This concept promotes early evacuations to prevent evacuees from becoming trapped on fire-vulnerable roads during egress from WUI. The “stay and defend” part recognizes that most destroyed WUI houses burn down after the initial wildfire pulse subsides but the house has a small ignition point (wooden steps, porches, eves, and vents) that could be easily extinguished if someone stayed present. However, the program paused after the deadly 2009 Australian Black Saturday bushfire that killed 130 home defenders and panic-fleers. Perhaps we can evaluate such a program after the WUI becomes truly fire-permeable or has reliable, fire-resistant community stockades.
Accelerating Global Warming increases the frequency, intensity, distribution, abundance, duration, and severity of wildfire. Already destructive windstorms have created great landscapes of forest debris providing abundant fuel for wildfire. As heat-waves decrease fuel moisture, we expect more lightning storms. We have reaped these firewhirls and the WUI cannot protect us.
Global warming creates vicious cyclical feedback loops. Surging deluges, floods, and landslides generate disturbances that provide portals for fire-prone invasive species. Insects and disease, augmented by droughts and higher temperatures, will intensify forest decline. Dying forests and microbes will release stored CO2, normally sequestered for centuries, from forest debris and soil. Worse, forests and soil will diminish their roles as Carbon Sinks that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Also, forests decline functioning for flood control, transpiration-moisture rainfall, and nutrient creation and recycling.
However, wildfires still provide their ecological role now and they will with Global Warming. They enhance many ecosystem functions and services that humans depend on such as wildlife and habitats. Wildfires stimulate forest growth by generating clearings for young plants and provide immediate nutrient release from forest debris. They project distant fertilization, through mineral-rich carbon-compound particulates in smoke. They increase species diversity and patchiness. They can maintain seral clines, such as pines, and they replace stands of over-mature climax species with younger more productive species. Over time, wildfires may decrease CO2 emissions compared to relentless microbial decomposition. Wildfires hold vast amounts of carbon on site through heat and pyrolysis that render woody materials resistant to CO2 emission by microbial rot.
Solutions to increasing wildfire severity should focus on priorities that enhance safety, ethics, and ecology for firefighters, communities, and ecosystems. Safety for wildland firefighters means never putting them in harm’s way when low fuel moisture and advancing winds signal danger. Safety also means using proven methods to make communities more fire-permeable and ecosystems more fire-hardy. Prescribed fires make communities and ecosystems safe. A creative and experienced Burn Boss can craft a safe, fire-permeable landscape near communities and reduce fuel abundance and distribution. Remote lightning-ignited fires can safely restore fire-hardy ecosystems when properly managed and augmented. Because local conditions, resources, constituents, and insurance policies vary, appropriately safe responses must be region-dependent. Safe fire suppression may only be appropriate near communities and critical habitats that are not yet fire-permeable. Otherwise, fire managers should safely monitor, shepherd, and augment wildfire.
Ecological solutions to the problem of increased wildfire severity remain the best way to enhance ethical and safe wildland fire management. Healthy, safe, and fire-hardy ecosystems display abundant plant and wildlife diversity, sustainable nutrient cycling, and ecological services such as flood control, clean water, and carbon sinks for CO2 sequestration. Ecologically- savvy techniques can hold carbon on site. Land managers can initiate controlled burns during inversions, rain, or high humidity to maximize pyrolysis and carbonization of woody materials to make them unavailable to microbial decomposition. Controlled burns can maintain fire-permeable sites that favor low intensity wildfires. Ecological management can favor resilience, diversity, and improve soil and plant carbon sequestration. Managers can reseed with fire-hardy plant species or even augment air-dropped fire retardant with nutrients or fungal spores that favor carbon sequestration. Fire managers should develop an elite corps of ecologically shrewd Fire Rangers that achieve fire-permeable ecosystems by augmenting, monitoring and shepherding natural ignitions and controlled burns.
Approaching the holidays, phantoms of fairy tales danced through my head in my dreams at night. Though sometimes those dreams turned to horror with the faces of Sonny Purdue and Ryan Zinke attached to crazy meth-addicted hillbilly caricatures, sort of like the characters of Squidbillies. And of course, they were just part of the zany Trump clown car teetering from one crisis to another, spilling blood, hydraulic fluid, and incompetent agency heads all the way down the hill behind the wreckage. read more…
Wildfire haunts the WUI. Dreaded and imminent, the inevitability of wildfires’ invasion sparks fears conjoined to the terror of homes burning. Long before they burn down, a lot of WUI houses will experience catastrophic financial meltdown. And this implicates actors beyond the usual suspects of insurance and bank mortgages, both becoming unaffordable and unavailable. read more…
Burn My Shorts, a series of short stories and parables about fire, now has its own page! You can also just click on the arrow by the Blog menu item to find it. One of FUSEE’s staff writers, Letter Burn, otherwise known as Parts Permillion, author and maintainer of the Charrtoons website, will be teaming up with Catalonian Fire Artist, Josep “Pep” Serra Tarragon, about every other week to deliver the latest “fire-adapted” tale. read more…
The California Wildland Fire Coordinating Group (CWCG) is the interagency body in California that helps arrange and manage agreements, develop standards and stand-up eleven IMTs each fire season to manage increasingly deadly and destructive wildfires. These teams have a set number of members in the four functional areas:Operations, Plans, Logistics, and Finance. Each team member has specialized training and experience to hold that position (sometimes Command is considered the fifth functional area). Aside from the four Section Chiefs and the the Incident Commander (IC), the Command and General Staff (C & G) is rounded out by the Safety, Liason and Public Information Officers, as well as a Deputy IC. There are usually more than one Operation and Plans Section Chief (e.g. Day Ops, Night Ops, Planning Ops, Day Plans, Night Plans) and one or more Deputy ICs. All told, there is a core C&G of about a dozen folks. All the rest of the personnel fill out the myriad of unique specialty positions within the four functional areas so that a fully-staffed team, both Type 1 and Type 2, represents fourty-four people. CWCG currently manages four Type 1 and seven Type 2 IMTs.
Stephen Pyne, a FUSEE collaborator and ally, as well as distinguished fire historian, was joined last Friday by Alexandra von Meier, and urban electrical grid specialist, to discuss the devastation witnessed during the past two seasons of California wildfires and how this might be avoided in the future. Their discussion was moderated by Ira Flatow, on Science Friday, a radio show heard on public radio stations across the country and distributed by WNYC Studios.
In the following video recorded on the Hirz Fire, FUSEE Board Member, Mike Beasley, along with the Incident Meteorologist and Air Resource Advisor describe the nature and importance of inversions. First, a balloon is launched to capture an atmospheric sounding. Inversions are an indicator of atmospheric stability. With atmospheric stability smoke and clouds tend to form in layers that resist mixing, often inhibiting fire behavior below the inversion. The opposite condition, atmospheric instability, is when air wants to rise in a column, as in a towering cumulus cloud, a cumulonimbus cloud associated with a thunderstorm, or a towering pyrocumulus column above a large fire. An unstable atmosphere is most often associated with critical or extreme fire behavior.
News is spreading across the country about the sexual assault of a wildland firefighter by an inmate working inside a fire basecamp in Utah. This horrifying incident has shocked the nation—indeed, the news story has been picked up by newspapers and radio stations across the country. It is truly shocking that inmates were able to mix freely with crews within basecamp, apparently unsupervised by their guards or other camp security staff, and placed in work stations where firefighters, especially women, would be most vulnerable to harassment and assault.
After a long shift on the line, coming back to basecamp exhausted and needing to take care of one’s basic needs of food and hygiene before catching a few hours of precious sleep—who would even be thinking about potential threats to one’s personal safety inside firecamp!
Firefighter safety is the number one priority of every wildland fire incident. While most people think about this in terms of the risks and hazards firefighters face out on the firelines, we need to be aware of the risks and hazards that crews face off the fireline. Crews don’t get hazard pay inside firecamp, but perhaps they should.
Like most other crimes of violence, the media is focusing on the perpetrator, portraying him as some kind of beastly animal for his deviant behavior, and this will be even easier to do because the perpetrator is an inmate already labeled as a deviant. But this is not just an issue about the lack of proper supervision of inmate crews, and while inmates should certainly be closely supervised and/or segregated from fire crews and other staff, this kind of incident is not rare and will not be prevented by eliminating the use of inmate crews.
In focusing on the perpetrator of this crime, this lets the institution evade any blame for its breakdown in security for firefighters, and for its systematic inability to effectively prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Incidents of sexual assault make the news, but they are part of the wider spectrum of sexual harassment and gender discrimination that rarely gets reported by the newmedia, yet are systemic within the wildland fire community. The Association for Fire Ecology (AFE) and the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) have been taking several initiatives to educate the wildland fire community and advocate for agencies to confront the systemic ongoing problem of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Unfortunately, their efforts did not make it into the news stories. Fortunately, their advocacy for greater firefighter safety including personal safety from harassment and assault will hopefully be carried forward at the IAWF’s upcoming Fire Safety Summit and AFE’s upcoming International Fire Ecology and Management Congress.
This shocking, horrifying incident should be another wakeup call that risks to firefighter safety happen both on and off the fireline, from the fire environment—and from the fire community itself. Firefighter safety truly begins at “home.”
The Mendocino Complex has taken its place in the record books–but probably not for long–as the largest wildfire in California state history. While the River Fire is 100% contained at this time, it is possible that the Ranch Fire may eventually burn over a majority of entire Mendocino National Forest before it stops its advance.
One thing that leaps out with a casual glance at the current fire map is the extensive use of dozers in primary and contingency firelines. Several of these dozerlines a.k.a. “catlines” come right up to and possibly encroach into the Snow Mountain Wilderness. In fact, the California Regional Forester gave permission for dozers to enter the wilderness with the blessing of the Mendocino Forest Supervisor.
A noble but futile attempt at direct attack with dozers on the northern portion of the fire failed to stop the fire earlier. The fire breached the dozerlines and eventually spread into the wilderness area. This fireline was constructed despite the visiting Risk Management Assessment Team (RMAT) informing the agency leaders that it had a low probability of success.
No matter, the Forest Service leadership felt that they had a duty to try something, anything, anyway to stop the fire spread. But now we have several miles of useless dozerlines scarring the landscape for a long, long time. A costly maneuver for mere posturing to the public that the agency was doing everything it could to attack the fire.
This sad spectacle is an example of what some local forest conservationists are calling “overaggressive attack syndrome,” and it raises a couple of key questions:
Question #1: Why did the agency leadership attempt to stop the fire from entering the wilderness area?
Was it merely an attempt to limit the fire size and/or speed up containment time? Or was it to avoid having the fire impact the wilderness area?
If it was the former objective–limiting the fire size or duration as a means of reducing taxpayer costs or firefighter exposure–well, it did not work, and the RMAT had warned the leadership that it most likely would not work. So the expense of putting those dozers to work was an unacceptable waste of money. And the exposure of firefighters to risk in a futile attempt at direct attack on the fire is even more unacceptable. This season has already had the tragic death of a dozer operator on the Ferguson Fire (harkening back to the loss of another dozer operator on the 2016 Soberanes Fire) and two near-misses of dozer operators on the Carr Fire, and a firefighter was recently killed on the Mendocino Complex. Firefighter fatalities are the highest cost of suppression, and risk assessments must always prioritize those potential losses above all.
If it was the latter objective–keeping fire out of the wilderness–then what the #@&% were they thinking?! Sparing the wilderness from impacts of fire? Fire helps enhance both wildness and naturalness, and these are some of the defining qualities and highest values of designated wilderness areas. In short, fire keeps the wild in wilderness! On the contrary, dozerlines intruding into wilderness are the worst kind of trammeling imaginable. Again, an unnecessary, inappropriate, and unacceptable use of dozers in this plan.
Question #2: Why did the leadership ignore the RMAT’s input?
Again, the RMAT crew warned the leadership that going direct attack with dozers to try to stop the fire from entering the wilderness had a very low probability of success. This marks the second time that the RMAT’s recommendations were ignored by incident leaders and area administrators, and then the RMAT were later proven right.
Admittedly, RMATs are a novelty at this time and it will take some time for IMTs to get comfortable with them and fully utilize their analyses. But, it also seems that, like Resource Advisors who offer advice on ways to limit the impacts of suppression actions on natural and cultural resource values, the RMATs have yet to gain respect by Incident Commanders and are not seen as “equals” in the hierarchy of fire administration. Type 1 ICs are all about containing and controlling fires, and all this stuff about resource damage or risk assessments is a bunch of pointy-headed bleeding-heart liberal hogwash that doesn’t belong in a paramilitary organization devoted to aggressively attacking fires.
The day must come when RAs and RMATs and LTANs are fully integrated and equally respected members of IMTs, especially on large-size/long-duration wildfire incidents. We need to manage fire in wildlands intelligently with firefighter safety and fire ecology and taxpayer expenditures at the forefront of developing operational strategies and tactics. Throwing whatever wherever whenever at wildfires to try to limit their size or duration as the end-all be-all is obsolete and is bankrupting the system. And now that we’re headed into the traditional peak of fire season with PL-5 and all resources tapped out, we’re seeing the consequences of the overaggressive attack syndrome waged on other earlier fires that might have been managed for “other than full suppression” and spared those resources.
So, the Ranch Fire of the Mendocino Complex continues its steady spread onward, leaving the cut-and-runover catlines literally in the dust.
A quick glance at the publicly available infrared data taken last night reveals three key areas of concern. While much of the west flank of the fire has been secure for some time now, protecting the residents of Mariposa Pines, Jerseydale, Midpines, and most of the the Triangle Road area, the north, south, and east flanks remain challenging for the 3,344 firefighters engaged in that containment effort. Below the fold, we will quickly take a look at those three critical operations in the order of their apparent importance, based on last night’s IR imagery. read more…
The incredible speed and ferocity of the Carr Fire spreading into Redding, California has dramatically reinforced the need for citizens to access accurate information about wildfires in their area without the delays of waiting for official agency press releases to be picked up by the next newspaper edition or television news broadcast.
Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (FUSEE) released their new report, FireWatch: A Citizen’s Guide to Wildfire Suppression Monitoring, that provides easy step-by-step instructions for accessing a number of different internet sites that track wildfires. Many of these internet sites offer the same maps and essential information that are used by fire managers and firefighting crews. read more…
It seems that the Ferguson Fire is destined to enter Yosemite National Park, and by God, the Type I Incident Commanders have vowed to stop the wildfire in its tracks, no matter what! They are currently planning to convert the southern entrance Hiway 41 (known locally as the “Wawona Road”) into a fireline that will contain that flank of the Ferguson Fire. This is one of the most traveled roads in the Park, leading to the ranger compound in Wawona, the community of Yosemite West, and access to the famed Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias as well as Yosemite Valley. read more…
Climate chaos strikes, again, this time deep into the heart of Redding, California, the regional hub and commercial center for Northern California. The Carr Fire started near the cross of Hwy. 299 and the Carr Powerhouse Road on Monday, July 23rd. read more…
The Ferguson Fire has been burning for nearly two weeks and has captured most of the attention of the national news media. Tragically, one firefighter was killed on the second day of the fire when the bulldozer he was operating rolled down a steep slope. Miraculously, no homes have been lost as of July 25th. The Ferguson is going to burn a large area over a long time. read more…
The year was 1961. President Robert F. Kennedy was President of the United States. The Central Valley Project had been built and the growing San Joaquin Valley agribusiness gave way to traditional ranchland in the oak savanna of the Sierra foothills southwest of Yosemite National Park. The Harlow Fire started on July 10th. The following day it exploded, burning over 20,000 acres in two hours, vaporizing the communities of Ahwahnee and Nipinnawasee, and killing an elderly couple. Supposedly, that run on the Harlow Fire was one of the fastest ever recorded. The communities would never recover. It chased ranchers in their ranch trucks and would eventually burn into Oakhurst, scorching over 43,000 acres. This event is etched into the cultural memory of the people that live here and into the institutional memory of the organization tasked with protecting this “state responsibility area” or SRA, Cal Fire, or as it was known back in the day, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Fast forward to 2018, the present, less than two weeks ago. On Friday, the 13th ,of July, deep in the Merced River Canyon at the confluence with the South Fork of the Merced…another fire started. read more…
Tragically, a CalFire dozer operator was killed this morning in a rollover accident on the new emergent Ferguson Fire on the Sierra National Forest. The Ferguson Fire started yesterday evening near the bottom of the Merced River Canyon near the junction with the South Fork of the Merced River, and is forcing evacuations throughout the river canyon. Hot temperatures today spurred the fire growth to over 1000 acres. The Central Sierra Type 2 IMT is taking the Fire and the Incident Command Post (ICP) has been established at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds. Yours truly, will be joining the effort as Fire Behavior Analyst, briefly abandoning my own team, with the understanding I be released if NorcaL Team 1 gets assigned. The fire may burn into Yosemite National Park, and could be a threat to Yosemite West, El Portal, or even Wawona, in the days to come. The area around Cedar Lodge has been evacuated. read more…
I’ve spent most of my career working in fire management, reaching back to the 1970s when we knew very little about the behavior of wildfires and often took a seat-of-the-pants approach.
Now we have solid science and skilled fire professionals to guide our response to wildfires, but unfortunately that knowledge and experience has not yet been put to full use. In our hyper partisan age, the issue of fire management is becoming as politicized as timber management was in the 1980s.
We now have solid science and decades of experience managing western wildfires. But in our hyper-partisan age, the issue of fire management is becoming as politicized as timber management was in the 80’s and 90’s. In an attempt to contribute to a fact based debate, I present a brief summary of respected, published findings on wildfire management.
The fire management status quo is not working
Good morning. I’m pleased to present FUSEE’s first in a series of podcasts. In this installment, we interview Dr. David Calkin about the Risk Management Assistance Teams (RMATs) – his involvement, the team’s purpose, and what to expect from them during the upcoming fire season. Dave is a Research Forester for the U.S. Forest Service at the Rocky Mountain Research Station, He lives and works in Missoula, Montana, and is currently focused on risk management in wildland firefighting.
As an outgrowth of the Forest Service’s Life First initiative, the RMAT role was articulated in an agency presentation by Becki Heath, Acting Associate Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry, in Reno this spring at the Cohesive Strategy workshop, sponsored by the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF)…
⇒ RMAT role was to bolster the Line Officer’s ability to examine alternative strategies that better consider:
- inherent tradeoffs of exposure
- risk to highly valued assets
- opportunities for fire benefits
⇒ They tested an effort to address Line Officer’s needs for:
- decision-making tools
- enhanced analytics and alignment with response strategies
⇒ Intent was to enhance capacity, apply decision support tools with risk expertise, and improve theeffectiveness and efficiency of our fire management response.
Hey, dear readers. Your stalwart voice for ecological fire management here, HunterX. I was just up on the mesa top in Canyonlands National Park gazing into the Maze, and I wondered what Heyduke, Edward Abbey’s fictional proto-enviro, would make of humanity’s pickle today. Likely he would have had to take a road trip somewhere, tossing beer cans as he went, and would ultimately have concluded it was an apt fate for humanity, preferring to work on issues in his own backyard – a strong statement for grassroots organizing! But, oh the intersectionality of it all! That word recently burst forth implying areas of overlapping social concern. In the world of natural science, it’s called ecology, following one of Barry Commoner’s four laws of ecology, “Everything is connected to everything else.” It’s a basic Buddhist precept, and It is turning out to be true in climate change, as well. We see this as, one-by-one, other environmental issues trace their origin or accelerant to be a warming Earth. “The new normal” as Califonia Governor Jerry Brown has said of wildfire’s increasing occurrence and impact. Making my way north off the Colorado Plateau and over the Eastern Uintas, I crossed the Big Horn River, and I’m reminded this is the anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn – A perfect metaphor for America’s losing war on Fire. As I dropped into the Clark Fork drainage, it’s banks were swollen, leaking toxic sludge into swirling waters. It was peak runoff, but officials were concerned about the minimal snowpack in the Colorado and Utah mountains and the heightened fire risk for the summer. I would probe these questions and others with scientists and wildland fire professionals from around the world at the Fire Continuum Conference on the beautiful University of Montana campus in Missoula.
What if? That was the ominous theme for participants when the California Wildland Fire Coordinating Group (CWCG) held their annual IMT Workshop at the Wildland Fire Training Center in McClellan Park on the first three days of May. Incident Commanders (ICs) from all the Federal Type 1 and Type 2 IMTs from both Northern and Southern California were in attendance, along with other team members. The purpose of this annual gathering is to receive guidance from agency heads and set the tone for the upcoming wildland fire season. read more…
The conversion of the Sims Prescribed Fire to the Grape (Wild)Fire brings up a scary ghost from the past.
In 2000, the crew managing the Upper Frijoles Prescribed Fire in Bandelier National Monument had difficulties getting the fire to ignite and spread. Test burns were ignited in moist grassy fuels at the top of a mountain in 50 degree air temperature with upslope winds 1 to 2 mph. Hardly a reckless action, but, mistakes were made in the planning process that resulted in a smaller crew size than could handle the fire as it progressed downslope, moving from grassy fuels to shrubs and eventually timber stands with lots of downed fuel. When a 30 x 30 foot slopover at the top of the unit occurred, the National Park Service crew put in a request to the U.S. Forest Service to get some extra “contingency” resources to bring the “escaped” fire back into prescription. This is where things went terribly wrong. read more…
Wildfires are already a hot button in California, following on the heels of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in the State’s history just last year. Governor Brown holds up the wildfire impact as a certain indicator of climate change in the State’s suit against the U.S. Government headed by climate denier-in chief, President Trump. Local governments are joining in the fray. 2018 looks to be no different.
The Grape Fire was an escaped prescribed fire being jointly conducted by the Six Rivers and Shasta-Trinity National Forests at the end of last month. According to the Redding Interagency Command Center WildCAD records, the Sims burn was converted from a prescribed fire to a wildfire and renamed as the Grape Fire at 4:59pm on April 24th. read more…