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.
The first social event on tap at the conference was a BBQ by invite over at Joe Scott’s house in Missoula. Missoula is the bastion of fire geekdom, the Silicon Valley of fire behavior modeling. The Missoula Fire Lab and the pleasant college town living, the nearby Bitterroot Valley, all make for a fine conference location. I helped Mark Finney (who wrote the code for the original FARSITE model) and Joe Scott teach early FARSITE courses. FARSITE was the first model to use Rothermel’s fire spread equations leading to an output displayed in a geographic information system (GIS). I had spent time as a dispatcher learning how to use ArcGIS by ESRI, called ArcView back then. I’m talking about early laptops, here, finally making their ways into the hands of early-adopter firefighters, no less. Around 1996-7 I aced the FARSITE exam and got asked to be on the cadre with Mark and Joe. They were smart and funny, and I was hooked.
We had to teach basic file management for much of the first day of a week-long class. Back then a single run could take overnight, and stood a good chance of crashing. Mark would sit in the back of the class, debugging in real time, as problems were encountered and ferreted out. Many others on that cadre were there or would appear later at the conference like Chuck McHugh, Dave Sapsis, and others. It brought back fond memories. The course was taught at the Marana Training Center at the weird privatized ex-military Pinal Airpark, home of CIA Airlines…<cough>…er, I mean Evergreen International Aviation. Wealthy heads of state would park their jumbo jets here, periodically, as did NASA for their Boeing 747 used to move the Space Shuttle. In the FARSITE course, Joe would put up Rothermel’s principle equation. I would look out at the class room, and many of fire management’s best…well, their eyes would glaze over, and they would check out.
Now we run thousands of iterations of the FARSITE model in the cloud in a Monte Carlo simulation to give us probabilistic outputs in FSPro, a very useful tool for freaking out huge chunks of the population, when multiple fire spread models are run on simultaneously burning fires in population-dense areas (see below) and released to the media with no interpretation or discussion of the assumptions. Decision makers like them, because they’re colorful and eye-catching. I make my bread and butter by running these models and using my direct fire experiences to temper the model to fit the observed fire behavior. The map below is ten years old. Public Information Officers know better than to put this out there, nowadays, without some serious professional interpretation. I’ve wrapped many a holiday gift with tossed plotter paper from draft maps. It’s so pretty…
The cool kids at Joe’s BBQ got to see a 20-year-old whirlwind chamber (a 1980s Bob Martin design according to Joe). Playing with fire is always fun, but making firewhirls in the backyard is super fun with this device. This chamber was developed to learn more about the dynamics of fire vortices. Rothermel’s model was developed in the early 70’s and didn’t include our more recent understanding of fluid thermodynamics. Studying roll vortices is important, so we can scale up to the point of helping firefighters that encounter this phenomenon quite often. These fire whirls spread embers across firelines and threaten firefighters. One of the primary themes I picked up from the speakers at the conference was a call, by Finney and others, to develop a more modern fire behavior model that includes more fluid thermodynamics. In so doing, we can measure the impact of flaming fronts near one another, and other behaviors not captured by our more primitive model. We don’t need a supercomputer so much anymore, but the mathematics and physics involved is very complex. Needless to say, this wasn’t my preferred track. I needed simpler fare, but I still enjoy the company of these two guys for bringing this all to my level.
On Monday Interim USFS Chief Vicki Christiansen was one of the Keynote Speakers. Bill Gabbert, of Wildfire Today, aptly pointed out…
It is not often that we hear someone from the present administration talk about climate change.
Want to learn more about the Omnibus Spending Bill? Click on the down arrow!
“The omnibus bill authorizes the fire funding fix that we requested, with strong support from Secretary Perdue. Under the bill, USDA and the Department of the Interior will have a new joint budget authority of $2.25 billion to cover firefighting costs that exceed regular appropriations. The new authority will begin in fiscal year 2020 and increase by $100 million per year through fiscal year 2027.
To be sure, the fire funding fix will not kick in right away. For the 2018–2019 fire years, we will continue to rely on regular appropriations based on the 10-year rolling average of firefighting costs. However, the omnibus spending bill contains $500 million in emergency suppression funds for 2018, in addition to our regular appropriation of $1.057 billion for suppression.
When the fire funding fix does kick in, the Forest Service—and the American people—will benefit in two key ways. First, it will end the need for us to borrow from non-fire programs to cover firefighting costs when regular appropriations run out during severe fire years. Since 2000, fire borrowing has disrupted other critical resource management work in most years. Second, the fire funding fix will stop the erosion of our non-fire programs. As our suppression costs have continued to rise, they have eaten up a growing proportion of the overall Forest Service budget. The fire funding fix will help us finally restore balance to our program delivery on behalf of the people we serve.
Moreover, the omnibus bill also resolves other issues facing the Forest Service and our partners. For example, it expands our ability to expedite fuels and forest health treatments through the use of categorical exclusions in project areas up to 3,000 acres in size and it includes a two-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, providing critically needed funding for rural communities.”
Monday morning I took a workshop on risk assessments, co-hosted by the firefighting contingent from Spain. Among them, I met Nuria Guitart, representing the Pau Costa Foundation. Their objective from the group’s website…
The objectives are the research in the field of forest fire ecology, the creation of knowledge, tools and techniques for the management of forest fires, and the dissemination of this knowledge to the technical world through training and dissemination instruments.
The Foundation has received a great deal of fire art from Josep Serra, some being used for the Foundation’s Art & Fire project, and some was donated to the Continuum Conference for their silent fund-raising auction. I was able to land this fine piece of Josep’s work.
Speaking of art, Kari Greer had a great exhibit of fire photography, concurrent with the conference. Bill Gabbert, at Wildfire Today did a great interview with her, when her work was on exhibit at the University of Idaho. I find her focus and framing on the faces of modern wildland firefighters to be exceptional. Be sure to check out her website.
Once I got the FUSEE booth set up, I managed to take part in the video project sponsored by Wildfire Today, answering the question, “Give an example of a catastrophic wildland fire event that led to a significant change.” I was more than happy to represent FUSEE in such good company with many colleagues I had known for some time. The FUSEE booth was right next to the plush NASA booth, replete with easy chairs, coffee table and multimedia dog & pony show, even fitting in mini-presentations, during the time folks were in the exhibition hall. That’s what being one of the conference’s biggest fiscal supporters will get you! The open bar was there for the Monday mixer and Tuesday poster presentation, and the snacks were delightful.
I took a break on Wednesday to get my annual wildland firefighter refresher out of the way. I got to meet Chris “CJ” Johnson of the Southwest Montana Fire Training Center. It was a great class. CJ kept it interesting, relevant with local case studies, and he touched upon the mental stress awareness that Chief Legarza had mentioned at the Incident Management Team workshop a few weeks before at McClellan. FUSEE will be commenting on this summer’s related Purple Ribbon Campaign that seems to normalize the expectation of death or injury in the wildland firefighting profession.
Most of the conference was without any major surprises. Like many before, there were calls for a “paradigm shift” in the way we do business, usually by way of calling for anything other than the full suppression doctrine that has already proven so disruptive to fire-adaptive ecosystems. There was much discussion about using fire to build ecosystem “resilience” to face the onslaught of climate change. Gone are the days when we used to talk about managing for some static condition, like “pre-settlement.” Trump seems on track to drain research funding from important fire ecology science. Fire ecology professors and their graduate students are ever careful not to bite the hand that feeds, and anonymous flyers were up around the conference with talking points about the value of the Joint Fire Science program and links to both a House and Senate sign-on letter, to which FUSEE added our endorsement. It’s easy to forget that organizations like AFE and IAWF, as valuable as they are, are less likely to be agents for fundamental cultural change. That’s why you’re here with us at FUSEE.
The conference ended with a social gathering held just outside of town at the Marshall Mountain ski area. I wouldn’t want to be a ski area owner in our current climate change scenario. Marshall Mountain could be yours for a cool three million dollars. It was a lovely affair. Like Joe Scott’s opening BBQ, the conference ended in flames with the amazing Wizard Garon Smith, a retired chemistry professor from the U of M. I’m not entirely certain that the Wiz has gone through some name changes. Known as “G Wiz” back in the day, it seems now he is the Wizard Garon. Perhaps, like Prince, he could just go with the arcane symbol on his wizardly garb. He seems a little menacing to the many children leaning in so close to all the flames and vapors. But he’s more like the crazy hair, wild-eyed Willy Wonka of Gene Wilder, than the far-more-menacing Willy Wonka played by Johnny Depp.
As a chemistry major myself, I can appreciate being drawn to <ahem> more highly exothermic reactions. Like anyone worth their salt with an addictive personality, you’re always going to be looking to get back to the high you felt that first time. I was less impressed with stuff constrained under the fume hood.
I preferred metallic sodium cast in the water, or the accident in a lab doing chromatography, when the Erlenmeyer flask of ether tipped over and the volatile gases spread across the lab tabletop, with students diving for cover. Then the vapors reached the first lit burner, and “whooof,” that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Fortunately the calm, cool T.A. grabbed the emergency blanket and smothered the flames, but my fascination with rapid oxidation would lead me directly to the “walls of flame” found in the raw power of nature. So keep on making for future generations of pyromaniacs, G Wiz, and perhaps a few of them will make it to a PhD in fire ecology, or be the next Mark Finney, or just the tireless fire manager working on his or her own patch of dirt, in the thankless job of reintroducing “the right fire at the right place at the right time.” My time was done here, it was time to pack it up and return to California in preparation for the fire season to come. I had brought a bike and biked from the hotel to campus each day, for the most part. The one day I drove, I got a parking ticket from the campus PD. I mused briefly on the karmic relevance of that. It was a good reminder from the universe, but I tore up the ticket anyway and headed west.