By James Steinbauer
The secret to fewer fires may be having more people in the state who can start them.
Scientists and land managers almost universally agree that prescribed fire is the single best tool available to help mitigate wildfire risk. Landowners in the American Southeast use more prescribed fire than in any other part of the country. But across much of the American West—which has captured an outsize proportion of the public imagination around wildfire—scientists say land management agencies aren’t using fire nearly enough.
In 2017, federal and state forest managers, ranchers, and private property owners in Florida, which many fire scientists consider the prescribed fire capital of the country, burned more than 2 million acres, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Climate Central. That same year, California—which is twice the size of Florida and has six times more acres in public land—burned less than 50,000 acres. Oregon burned 48,000, Idaho 33,000, Montana 24,000, and Nevada 5,000.
Like in Florida, Native American cultures throughout the United States used fire to manage the land. But in the West, much of the land taken from Indigenous groups was redrawn as public “forest preserves.” In the absence of Native American land management, many of the places where they had previously used fire to clear the landscape became dense and overgrown. In 1910, a series of wildfires burned more than 3 million acres of forest in Montana, Idaho, and Washington. Known collectively as the Big Blowup, the blazes spooked the nascent US Forest Service into adopting a policy that demanded all fires be put out by 10 A.M. the day after they were reported. Because much of this land was publicly owned, federal land management agencies could efficiently enforce this policy of suppression.
In southeastern states, such as Florida, where most forestland is privately owned, people simply never stopped burning it. Even the US Forest Service in the Southeast dabbled with prescribed fire—the first-ever lit on federal land was in Osceola National Forest in 1943.
By Laura Lundquist
Federal and state leaders laud not only the ability of Montanans to hash out tough issues but also the way collaboration has gotten several timber projects into production.
That was evident from the speeches of Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Jim Hubbard, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary, who kicked off the Montana Forest Collaboration Network’s annual two-day workshop in Missoula.
The two men praised the efforts of Montana’s collaborative groups, represented by the 120 participants in the audience, that have put many hours into finding agreement on which forest tracts have “the right acres in the right places” to sustain commercial timber projects.
“In an age where political polarization often threatens the progress of important policy, you all quietly keep coming back to the table, year after year,” Cooney said. “You find sensible paths forward by engaging diverse local perspectives, treating one another like neighbors in advancing plans that ultimately can achieve durable returns for our forests and our communities.”
Cooney said that kind of cooperation was one reason Gov. Steve Bullock was able to make Montana the first state to sign a stewardship agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, allowing the state to negotiate with federal, tribal and private partners to thin trees or use prescribed burns regardless of who manages the area. Thus, foresters can focus on any region that might be important for reducing wildfire risk near communities. Yet, only seven other states have signed shared stewardship agreements.
Hubbard said being able to work across multiple jurisdictions is necessary to do work at a large enough scale to be effective at slowing a potential wildfire. But when it comes to wildfire, thinning projects go only so far.
“There’s no way in the world we’re going to protect all the communities that are at risk of fire in the West. There’s no way in the world we’re going to treat all the acres that need treatment. So which ones are we going to go for? That’s the shared priority, to decide what we want to do together,” Hubbard said. “Also, the community has to be engaged, because if the community isn’t paying attention, all that land treatment is not necessarily going to reduce their risk very much.”
Bullock was also among the first to sign a Good Neighbor agreement. The 2014 Farm Bill created the Good Neighbor Authority to allow states to log timber on federal land adjacent to state or private land undergoing thinning operations. The 2018 Farm Bill broadened that authority.
By Theresa Davis
BANDELIER NATIONAL MONUMENT – Pinecones hang from tree branches and scatter the forest floor near Los Alamos. At first glance, they are nothing special. But inside those cones are seeds that can help bring a forest back to life.
This year, ponderosa pine trees in New Mexico are producing more pinecones than they will for the next 10 to 15 years – an event scientists call a “mast seeding.”
The Nature Conservancy, Santa Clara Pueblo, the National Parks Service, the Institute for Applied Ecology, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and Highlands University are collecting the abundant seeds to plant in areas that have burned in severe wildfires.
The groups set a goal of gathering 1 million seeds in New Mexico and Colorado this fall, according to Sarah Hurteau, urban conservation director for the Nature Conservancy.
“Mast seeding is an evolutionary process,” she said. “In these years, trees will produce enough seeds that animals can’t eat them all, so more seeds get the chance to germinate.”
Last winter’s above-average precipitation helped make this year ideal for a mast seeding. Ponderosa pines currently have more viable seeds per cone, which means the groups get a better selection of potential trees for reforestation.
Wildfire is a natural part of the life cycle in northern New Mexico forests. Many trees need fire to germinate. But the size and severity of recent forest fires is unusual, said Kay Beeley, a natural resource manager with the National Park Service. She referenced the forest damage done by Los Conchas Fire in 2011. The blaze consumed 156,000 acres and burned for more than a month in northern New Mexico.
By Aaron Labaree
The biggest wildfire in 20 years in Spain’s Catalonia region began on June 26, when a pile of chicken manure, baking in record high temperatures, burst into flames.
Fed by strong winds, the flames spread quickly, igniting dry brush and pine forest. In three days the fire burned more than 16,000 acres, and it took more than 500 firefighters to put it out.
Fires in California and the Amazon rainforest have grabbed attention, but large areas of Europe’s forests also were consumed this summer. Blazes nearly the size of the one in Catalonia tore through Spain’s Canary Islands, the south of France and the Greek islands of Evia and Samos.
From January to mid-October, the European Union has had almost triple the average number of wildfires for the same period over the past decade, with more than 800,000 acres burned so far this year, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.
Heat waves like the ones Europe experienced in 2019 are far more likely to happen because of the changing climate. And hot, dry conditions contribute to making massive fires no longer just a southern European problem: Last year Sweden saw its biggest fires in modern history, and this year the United Kingdom had a record number of them.
Now, like in the United States, firefighters and ecologists in Europe are starting to realize that putting out each fire isn’t possible or desirable. To prevent megafires, experts say, the authorities have to let forests burn naturally — and sometimes even set fires on purpose.
“We need to learn to live with fire, the same way we do with tornadoes or snowstorms,” says Marc Castellnou, chief analyst for a special forest unit of Catalonia’s fire services, known by its Catalan initials GRAF.
The wildfire problem is partly a result of decades of prevention. Fire plays a natural role in a healthy forest, burning away brush, dead trees and plant debris, while leaving many mature trees alive. But to protect human habitation, officials have tried to allow almost no fires to burn. The result is forests that are packed with undergrowth providing kindling and enormous unbroken stocks of trees to burn — megafires waiting to happen.
Europe’s forests have reached this dangerous state for another reason not seen in the U.S.: rural abandonment.
“When I was growing up, all of this was harvest — hazelnuts and olives,” says Rut Domènech, a forest expert who lives in Ribera d’Ebre, the county in Catalonia’s Tarragona province where the recent fires took place, pointing at what is now continuous forest. In the 1950s, the price of these and other crops plummeted with international competition and farmers were forced to move to cities.
Over much of Europe, rural abandonment has led to once-cultivated fields being given back to nature. In the 50 years after World War II, Western Europe’s forest area increased almost 30%. The continent’s land is now more than 40% forested.
Mediterranean shepherds and farmers have been using fire to manage the landscape for thousands of years. But most techniques used by firefighters today were developed in the United States, where the record-setting blazes of the past 10 years have shown the limits of suppression alone. In the U.S. as well as Europe, the change in approach toward fire is just beginning.
“In the scientific community, it’s understood we need to get fire back on the landscape,” says Rod Linn, a climate modeler at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “And most fire practitioners have come to grips with fire having a lot of benefits. But with the public, there’s work to do to get it socialized, to get people aware that just because you see smoke, it’s not necessarily bad.”
Sometime later this month or in early November, if the weather cooperates, the U.S. Forest Service will fly a pair of fire-spitting helicopters over a remote mountain in southern Utah and set the forest ablaze.
While the helicopters are pelting burning liquid fuel at the treetops, dozens of firefighters will be providing support on the ground, using drip torches and flamethrowers to create a towering wall of flame that will stretch from the forest floor to the sky. As the heat builds and the blaze roars across spruce- and fir-stippled canopies, a small army of scientists will launch weather balloons and drones, drive radar- and LIDAR-equipped trucks around the perimeter, fly specialized research planes overhead, and gather data on fire-hardened GoPro cameras to analyze the inferno from start to finish.
It will be among the fiercest controlled burns scientists have ever studied in the wild—“as close to a wildfire as you can expect,” says Roger Ottmar, the principal investigator for the Forest Service–led Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE). The goal? To collect data on every aspect of the fire at once, in order to improve the models scientists and land managers use to predict the impacts of fires. That will allow the agency to oversee more controlled burns on landscapes that need fire to thrive, and the data will also provide insight into the large, intense blazes that keep erupting across the West—the types of unruly fires that climate change and changing land-use patterns are making more common.
“The more experiments we can do, the better we can understand fire behavior in a changing climate,” says Craig Clements, the director of the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San Jose State University and the science lead for FASMEE’s plume-dynamics and meteorology team. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
The opportunity exists only because of the very specific ecological challenges facing Fishlake National Forest’s Monroe Mountain. The upcoming burn is part of a larger restoration project the Forest Service launched back in 2015 to revive the area’s ailing aspens, explains Linda Chappell, the regional fuels program manager. These trees, which provide food and shelter for a wide array of animals, including elk, rabbits, porcupines, beavers, and countless birds, have been declining across the West for decades due in part to overgrazing by deer and livestock. Drought and disease have hit hard, too. And aspens, a clonal species, need wildfires to cue their roots to put out new “suckers,” or sprouts. Around Monroe Mountain, the frequency of wildfires has dropped dramatically over the past century, allowing a mix of conifer species to slowly take over.
One of the most effective ways to bring aspens back is to ignite a “crown fire”: a really big, really hot fire that jumps from treetop to treetop and sends flames writhing upward into the sky. The work is being done piecemeal over the course of a decade in order to introduce as much variation as possible into the mountain ecosystem. “We want a crazy quilt of aspen ages and a crazy quilt of conifer ages,” Chappell says. Because these prescribed crown fires are so similar to wildfires in terms of their intensity, the restoration project served as the ideal natural laboratory for FASMEE to piggyback onto.
By Nicky Ouellet
As fire season winds down, managers are intentionally setting fire to brush piles, slash and even large sections of forests in an effort to prevent out of control wildfires in future seasons. A group of scientists from Montana and Idaho recently published a paper arguing that strategies like these should be part of a radical rethinking of how people in the West live with fire.
Dave McWethy says Montana has passed a tipping point. Summers are hotter and drier, which means fire season lasts longer. Our approach to put every single fire out, like we’ve done for the past 100 years, just isn’t realistic anymore.
“The big take home message is that we can’t respond the way we have in the past to wildfire,” McWethy said.
McWethy is an assistant professor of earth sciences at Montana State University. In a recent article in Nature Sustainability, McWethy and his coauthors argue that people living in the West need to reconsider how we live with, and even harness, fire if we want to continue living here in the future.
“We have to make changes. And one of the great things we have to do that, is how we used to use fire as a tool in the past,” McWethy said.
McWethy’s team found a model in the Netherlands, where instead of fighting rising sea levels with taller and taller dams, engineers built an infrastructure system designed to work with water instead of fight it.
“And instead of rebuilding in the same way that they have in the past, they’ve decided to transform how they accept or live with these hazards… It’s coming back to this idea that fire is part of Western landscapes, it was in the past it is today and it’s going to be in the future. And I think becoming comfortable with the fact that with warming temps and a longer fire season, the best way we can move into the future is accept fire as a natural process, and start to think about how we could use fire itself to safeguard our communities,” McWethy said.
Anthony C. Yu, Hector Lopez Hernandez, Andrew H. Kim, Lyndsay M. Stapleton, Ruben J. Brand, Eric T. Mellor, Cameron P. Bauer, Gregory D. McCurdy, Albert J. Wolff, Doreen Chan, Craig S. Criddle, Jesse D. Acosta, Eric A. Appel
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2019, 201907855; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1907855116
Despite strong fire prevention efforts, every year wildfires destroy millions of acres of forest. While fires are necessary for a healthy forest ecology, the vast majority are human-caused and occur in high-risk areas such as roadsides and utilities infrastructure. Yet, retardant-based treatments to prevent ignitions at the source are currently impossible with existing technologies, which are only suited for reactive fire prevention approaches. Here we develop a viscoelastic carrier fluid for existing fire retardants to enhance retention on common wildfire-prone vegetation through environmental exposure and weathering. These materials enable a prophylactic wildfire prevention strategy, where areas at high risk of wildfire can be treated and protected from ignitions throughout the peak fire season.
Polyphosphate fire retardants are a critical tactical resource for fighting fires in the wildland and in the wildland–urban interface. Yet, application of these retardants is limited to emergency suppression strategies because current formulations cannot retain fire retardants on target vegetation for extended periods of time through environmental exposure and weathering. New retardant formulations with persistent retention to target vegetation throughout the peak fire season would enable methodical, prophylactic treatment strategies of landscapes at high risk of wildfires through prolonged prevention of ignition and continual impediment to active flaming fronts. Here we develop a sprayable, environmentally benign viscoelastic fluid comprising biopolymers and colloidal silica to enhance adherence and retention of polyphosphate retardants on common wildfire-prone vegetation. These viscoelastic fluids exhibit appropriate wetting and rheological responses to enable robust retardant adherence to vegetation following spray application. Further, laboratory and pilot-scale burn studies establish that these materials drastically reduce ignition probability before and after simulated weathering events. Overall, these studies demonstrate how these materials actualize opportunities to shift the approach of retardant-based wildfire management from reactive suppression to proactive prevention at the source of ignitions.
By Lex Treinen
ANCHORAGE (KTUU) – Scientists have been working feverishly to understand the processes that drive wildfires in the state and in the country, and unsurprisingly there is some worrying news about chance of big fires in the future.
While national agencies offer predictions the data is pretty coarse without nuance to the terrain or ecology of an area.
So researchers like Peter Bieniek of UAF are working to produce better models to increase the accuracy of forecasts and models, particularly on a large scale and in longer time frames. Beniek’s work focuses on analyzing data for future, high-probability fire days, and the results aren’t much of a surprise considering a warming planet.
“Likely looking down the road, especially in these future projections, data show that we’re gonna get more higher fire danger over the next hundred years,” says Bieniek.
One of the main drivers of higher probability is a likely increase in lightning strikes in Interior Alaska, which is caused by a higher likelihood of convective precipitation. Convective precipitation occurs when water vapor rises straight up through the atmosphere to form clouds, instead of moving diagonally like normal weather patterns that bring various forms of precipitation.
That moves the total likelihood of a fire year like 2015 — when five million acres burned — higher by 34 to 60%, according to Bieniek’s data.
Bieniek’s data show that these sorts of strikes are likely to increase as convection precipitation increases. That, in turn, drives up the likelihood of fires.
An interesting finding is that two different models used by Bieniek and his colleagues indicate that while fire danger is likely to rise in the early season–May, June, and July– the models diverge as to whether the fire danger will stay as high in August and September. That means that fire managers could be seeing intense strain on firefighting crews earlier in the season, and have it taper off later in the season. For now, though, they aren’t making any bets.
By Alex Devoid, Arizona Daily Star
As the Amazon burns, a bad situation could get worse for forests in Arizona.
“The relationship is very clear,” said Don Falk, a professor at the University of Arizona.
Deforestation in the Amazon accelerates changes in global climate. And these changes eventually affect forests close to home.
They’re driving longer, warmer and more intense wildfire seasons, he said. And they’ve already fueled unprecedented wildfires in Arizona and across the West.
Tropical forests like the Amazon rarely burn when left to nature, but fire has always had a place in the life cycle of forests in Arizona.
Low-intensity fires in Arizona historically cleared the forest floor, limiting the accumulation of wildfire fuel, while leaving mature trees standing.
In the 1880s, people and livestock started interrupting fire’s place in this cycle, Falk said. Then U.S. federal policies suppressed wildfire for decades staring in the 1920s, allowing fuel to accumulate. Changes to global climate dried it out with drought and higher temperatures.
In the worst cases, flames jumped from the ground to the crowns of densely packed trees.
They engulfed old-growth forests, spreading faster and more destructively through more forest than ever before.
In 2002 and 2003, for example, it happened in the peaks above Tucson on Mount Lemmon during the Bullock Fire and then the Aspen Fire. Since then, hundreds of thousands of acres have burnt this way in Arizona.
The Amazon is an important buffer against the warming climate, which has created the conditions for these unprecedented fires. It absorbs around 2 billion of the 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted globally each year.
At least a quarter of the stored carbon on earth is concentrated in tropical forests like the Amazon, which grow on barely 12% of the earth’s land, Falk said.
Forests fires across the globe may contribute to climate change by burning carbon these forests store, according to a 2015 study by researchers from universities across the country.
As the Amazon burns, for example, it absorbs less carbon dioxide.
Meanwhile, more billows from the flames, warming the planet by trapping heat inside the atmosphere.
“It’s a double hit to the global climate system,” Falk said.
By Nicola Twilley
Throughout the twentieth century, federal policy focussed on putting out fires as quickly as possible, but preventing megafires requires a different approach.
Six of the ten worst fires in California’s history have occurred in the past eighteen months, and last year’s fire season was the deadliest and most destructive on record. More than a hundred people were killed, and more than seventeen thousand homes destroyed. Experts have warned that this year’s fire season could be even worse, in part because record-breaking rains early this year spurred the growth of brush and grasses, which have since dried out, creating more fuel. Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a wildfire state of emergency in March, months before fire season would normally begin.
The tools and techniques capable of stopping megafires remain elusive, but in the past few decades a scientific consensus has emerged on how to prevent them: prescribed burns. When flames are kept small and close to the ground, they clear the leaf litter, pine needles, and scrub that fuel wildfire, and consume saplings and low-level branches that would otherwise act as a ladder conveying fire to the canopy. With the competing vegetation cleared out, the remaining trees grow larger, developing a layer of bark thick enough to shield them from all but the hottest blazes. California’s state legislature recently passed a bill earmarking thirty-five million dollars a year for fuel-reduction projects.
“And yet no one is actually burning,” Jeff Brown, the manager of a field station in the Tahoe National Forest, told me when I visited him there recently. Although prescribed burns have been part of federal fire policy since 1995, last year the Forest Service performed them on just one per cent—some sixty thousand acres—of its land in the Sierra Nevada. “We need to be burning close to a million acres each year, just in the Sierras, or it’s over,” Brown said. The shortfall has several causes, but, some fifteen years ago, Brown set himself the almost impossible task of devising a plan for the forest he helps maintain that would be sophisticated enough to overcome all obstacles. Now he is coördinating an urgent effort to replicate his template across the Sierra Nevada.