Science has good and bad news for the future of wildfires

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.

Source: Science has good and bad news for the future of wildfires – KTUU, 2019-08-27

Amazon fires, deforestation could eventually affect Arizona forests

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.

Source: Amazon fires, deforestation could eventually affect Arizona forests- tucson.com, 2019-09-06

A Trailblazing Plan to Fight California Wildfires

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.

Source: A Trailblazing Plan to Fight California Wildfires – The New Yorker, 2019-08-19

Friendly Fires: How The Forest Service Uses Natural Wildfires To Their Benefit

By Kate Groetzinger
The word wildfire tends to invoke fear, but some wildfires are actually good. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Peavine and Poison Canyon fires currently burning in the Manti-La Sal National Forest will help the environment and act as future fire suppressants.

The Peavine Canyon Fire started July 16, while the Poison Canyon Fire started 10 days later. Together, they have burned around 5,000 acres in San Juan County.

Lightning started both fires, according to Forest Service spokeswoman Heather McLean. But rather than rushing to extinguish them, the agency has opted for a management strategy that involves letting them burn.

“The start was far back in the wilderness where there weren’t any values at risk, like people’s homes or infrastructure,” McLean said.

Firefighters have been helping the flames along, said Monticello District Ranger Michael Diem. More than 100 personnel are assigned to Peavine and Poison Canyons, and they have been lighting small, controlled fires along roads and trails to create buffer zones to stop the wildfire’s spread, as well as lighting small fires inside these boundaries to encourage burning.

McLean said the Forest Service doesn’t expect the fires to grow much bigger. They’ll stop as they approach these buffers and continue to burn internally.

“They will naturally burn themselves out as the thunderstorms go across, and it will actually work quite well,” she said.

Because of the conditions resulting from a wet spring and good snowpack, the fires aren’t destroying everything in their path. They are burning in a “mosaic” pattern, according to McLean, and will leave behind plenty of healthy foliage.

“People have an idea that when fires burn — everything is black,” she said. “But fires that burn naturally in the right conditions don’t burn like that. They just burn in places where there’s fuel.”

Diem said fires like this benefit the overall health of the forest. They open up areas for elk and deer to forage, as well as for hawks and Mexican spotted owls to hunt. The fires are also creating a patchwork of burned out areas that will act as buffers for wildfires later in the season.

Source: Friendly Fires: How The Forest Service Uses Natural Wildfires To Their Benefit – KUER, 2019-08-05

Today is Smokey Bear’s 75th Birthday – Celebrate with Celebrity Friends in Innovative New Animated Emoji Campaign

Today is Smokey Bear’s 75th Birthday – Celebrate with Celebrity Friends in Innovative New Animated Emoji Campaign

In honor of Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday – August 9, 2019 – the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters and the Ad Council have teamed up to celebrate the nation’s favorite bear. To ensure that Smokey Bear’s important message of wildfire prevention is heard throughout the nation, Stephen Colbert, Al Roker and Jeff Foxworthy have joined the historic campaign, lending their voices to help expand on Smokey’s iconic “Only you can prevent wildfires” catchphrase through the use of facial recognition and voice technologies.

For years, through the voice of Academy-Award nominated actor Sam Elliott, Smokey Bear has only said five words: “Only you can prevent wildfires.” Now, to complement this signature message, Smokey’s friends are stepping up to say more about wildfire prevention on his behalf and help millions of Americans understand the importance of the issue. Utilizing cutting-edge facial recognition and mapping technology, coupled with instantly recognizable celebrity voices, the animated emoji campaign has enabled Smokey’s famous friends to speak through him and further raise awareness of fire safety and wildfire prevention, in an effort to reduce the incidence of unplanned human-caused wildfires.

“I can’t think of a better birthday gift for Smokey than to have his wildfire prevention message echoed through the use of advanced social media tools like animated emojis,” said Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen. “In fact, since wildfire season is year-round, Smokey’s message is even more important.”

For 75 years, Smokey Bear has been recognized as a symbol of wildfire prevention. In fact, Smokey Bear is the longest-running PSA program in U.S. history, created in conjunction with advertising agency FCB, who has developed Smokey Bear campaign assets pro bono since his first introduction in 1944. While his campaign began three-quarters of a century ago, and great strides have been made in preventing human-caused wildfires, Smokey Bear’s message continues to be as important as ever, as wildfires continue to be one of the most critical environmental issues affecting the U.S. On average, almost nine out of 10 wildfires nationwide are caused by people.

“Smokey Bear and his friends know that wildfire is not just a western issue or a summer phenomenon. It’s always wildfire season somewhere in the United States,” said Jay Farrell, Executive Director of the National Association of State Foresters. “This is why it is so important that Smokey’s message resonate year-round and nationwide with all Americans. This year’s Smokey Bear wildfire prevention campaign promises to do just that.”

Source: Today is Smokey Bear’s 75th Birthday – Celebrate with Celebrity Friends in Innovative New Animated Emoji Campaign – Sierra Sun Times, 2019-08-09

U.S. Forest Service announces massive RFP to clear out Arizona forests

By Victoria Harker
The United States Forest Service took the first step to issue one of the largest RFPs in the history of the agency to attract industry to Arizona to clear out Arizona forests to reduce damage when wildfires erupt.

In the contract is a call for much-needed biomass industries to remove and burn the massive amount of debris here, said Jeremy Kruger, chief executive of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) for the Forest Service.

“We have a biomass bottleneck,” Kruger said. “Viable biomass utilization is currently the biggest obstacle to accelerating the pace of mechanical forest restoration treatments.”

With the longest contiguous pine forest in the world, northern Arizona is a prime location for reforestation industries as well as facilities that can burn woody forest debris – biomass – and transform it into energy for the electric grid.

Currently, there is only one biomass facility in the state, NovoBio in Snowflake.

Attracting industry has been the biggest challenge. A policy approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission last year also is designed as a shout out to attract biomass plants to the state.

Forest Service to spend $550 million over 20 years

Kruger said the first step of the RFP, a presolicitation notice, was issued July 10 to alert qualified vendors.

The Forest Service plans to spend $550 million over the next 20 years on reforestation. Business and industry will play a key role in this effort by harvesting, processing, and selling wood products.

The RFP calls for awarding contracts to companies to mechanically thin 605,000 to 818,000 acres of forests in Northern Arizona. The RFP will be available to both small and large businesses and seeks proposals that are “sustainable, innovative, feasible, and cost-effective to increase the pace of the scale of forest restoration.”

Source: U.S. Forest Service announces massive RFP to clear out Arizona forests – AZ Big Media,2019-07-31

Resilience of Yellowstone’s forests tested by unprecedented fire

By Kelly April Tyrrell, University of Wisconsin
In August 2016, areas of Yellowstone National Park that burned in 1988 burned again. Shortly after, in October 2016, ecologist Monica Turner and her team of graduate students visited the park to begin to assess the landscape.

“We saw these areas where everything was combusted and we hadn’t seen that previously,” says Turner, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who has closely studied Yellowstone’s response to fire since 1988. “That was surprising.”

In a study published this week [May 20, 2019] in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Turner and her team describe what happens when Yellowstone — adapted to recurring fires every 100 to 300 years — instead burns twice in fewer than 30 years. Yellowstone as we know it faces an uncertain future, the researchers say, and one of the big questions they hope to answer is whether the forests can recover.

“We were essentially able to reconstruct what the forest looked like before the fire happened, how many trees there were and how big they would have been,” Braziunas says. “Because we also measured nearby stands (of trees) that didn’t burn, we could compare what happens after the reburns and game out the scenarios in the model.”

The estimate, she and Turner say, represents a best-case, conservative scenario. With a warming climate and increased frequency of drought, the forests are likely to burn again in short intervals.

However, the forest has long shown itself to be resilient.

“The landscapes are going to look different than they have in the past,” says Turner, “but that doesn’t mean they won’t be beautiful. There will be species that benefit and species that see their ranges contract.”

“Change is going to happen and change is going to happen more quickly than we thought it would,” she adds. “We are learning how the system responds, but we don’t know to what degree it will be resilient or adapt in the future. But I am not ready to write it off. We have been surprised in the past.”

Source: Resilience of Yellowstone’s forests tested by unprecedented fire – Wildfire Today, 2019-05-21

To Control Forest Fires, Western States Light More of Their Own

By Sophie Quinton
RUSTIC, Colo. — Tramping over a charred mountainside here one foggy morning, Matt Champa glowed with satisfaction. “Deer and elk will love this,” said the U.S. Forest Service “burn boss,” gesturing to a cluster of blackened trees that eventually will fall and create more space for forage plants.

Champa and his team set fire to this area last month, part of the 1,900-acre Pingree Hill prescribed burn on the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland to improve wildlife habitat and create space that firefighters could use to defend nearby residents and the Cache la Poudre River from a wildfire.

The Forest Service and its partners hope over the next decade to carry out a series of such prescribed burns in Northern Colorado to protect communities and the river, which supplies water to about 300,000 people.

Public and private landowners across the West are increasingly using prescribed fire to reduce wildfire danger. Over 3 million acres were treated with prescribed fire in Western states in 2017, up from the roughly 2 million in 2011, according to a survey by the National Association of State Foresters and the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils Inc.

Source: To Control Forest Fires, Western States Light More of Their Own – PEW Stateline, 2019-05-16

The science behind California’s surging wildfires

As three major fires blaze in California, we consider some of their causes, both human and meteorological. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has been filming a NOVA documentary on megafires and witnessed the Camp Fire not long after it began. He joins William Brangham to describe that stunning experience, along with the broader scientific context around these destructive phenomena.

Source: The science behind California’s surging wildfires – PBS, 2018-11-13

‘Lifeboats’ Amid the World’s Wildfires

By Carl Zimmer
Islands of greenery, called refugia, survive even the worst fires, sheltering species and renewing charred landscapes.

Forests have burned in spectacular fashion this year. From California to Colorado, Portugal to Greece, photographers have captured terrifying images of infernos soaring into the sky and spreading to the horizon.

The fires left scenes of ashen destruction, but they did not wipe out everything. Scattered about the ravaged landscapes were islands of trees, shrubs and grass that survived unharmed.

It’s easy to overlook these remnants, which ecologists call fire refugia. But they can be vital to the long-term well-being of forests. These havens shelter species that are vulnerable to fires. Afterward, they can be starting points for the ecosystem’s regeneration.

“Those trees are lifeboats,” said Meg Krawchuk, a fire ecologist at Oregon State University.

Writing recently in the journal BioScience, Dr. Krawchuk and her colleagues argued that it’s urgent to better understand fire refugia, because they may be seriously threatened in future decades by climate change. Without them, many species may become threatened and the surrounding ecosystems may take longer to recover from wildfires.

Source: ‘Lifeboats’ Amid the World’s Wildfires – New York Times, 2018-10-12