Upcoming Fire Training

For all you fire bugs in California, there are three upcoming training sessions you may not want to miss. Take note:

2017 Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX)

Slated for October 2nd, 2017 to October 15th, 2017 in Orleans, California, this training will provide participants with experience on how to plan and implement controlled burns, protect communities from wildfires, and prepare for managing wildfire for resource benefits. Complete the application here.

Please note: you’ll have to pass the arduous pack test (3 miles, 45 minutes, 45 pounds). S-130, S-190, FEMA IS-100b, and FEMA IS-700a are also required prior to attending the training. However, these can be completed online. And don’t forget your full PPE!

Courtesy of Lenya Q. Davidson

NorCal TREX – 2017

Another similar training (with the same requirements as above) will be held October 17th, 2017 to October 28th, 2017. This one will be held throughout Northern California depending on personnel availability and the weather. The aim of this training will be to work together to share and build experience in prescribed fire practices, fire effects, and other conservation efforts affecting forest and grassland in northwestern California. NOTE: This training will be managed as an incident using the Incident Command System.

If interested, apply here.

Courtesy of Chris Ferner

Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (WTREX)

For all the awesome ladies in fire, there will be a women-centric training in Yosemite National Park from October 9th, 2017 to October 21st, 2017.

The training will be organized as an incident, using the Incident Command System. Participants will serve in qualified and trainee firefighting positions on a burn team and will assist with preparing, scouting, briefing, igniting, holding, mop-up, and patrol on numerous controlled burns in the area. The training team will also complete pre- and post-fire monitoring, train with equipment, practice fireline leadership skills, and learn about local fire ecology and fire management. The work will take place in diverse ecosystems in and around Yosemite National Park. The training will include field trips to areas burned in recent wildfires and to prescribed fire and fuels treatment project sites, as well as presentations from local scientists, land managers, and practitioners, and women who are leaders in various aspects of fire management. In addition, participants will practice preparing for media interviews.

Yes, all the same requirements for the normal TREX training apply to this one, too.

Male or females can apply here (though a higher portion of females will be selected from the pool of applicants).

Sadly, I will not be able to attend this year’s WTREX as I will be in New Zealand. But next year, I’ll be there!

All training sponsored by the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, BLM, CAL FIRE, UC Cooperative Extension, California Fire Science Consortium, USFS, and FLN.

Living With Fire

It has been some time since I posted about fire in our California landscape so I’ll give a quick recap.

In the summer of 2014, the King Fire in the central Sierra Nevada mountains burned close to 100,000 acres in less than two weeks. It is considered one of the worst wildland fire incidents in California history, prompting many in the popular media to predict the usual doomsday scenarios. So, I thought, let’s look at the numbers and see what they tell us.

I posted a quick article about how, indeed, given the small data sample available to me on recent fire history (from 1913 to 2013), fires have become more numerous and fire sizes (in terms of acres burned) have increased.

However, I failed to follow up on that post to illustrate that:

  1. those numbers reflect fire history during a period of intense fire suppression (a management policy born from human needs and fears, and do not reflect good land management practices), and
  2. an increase in fire size reflects those fires that started under extreme weather conditions in remote locations, guaranteeing they would escape suppression efforts to begin with.

I know that’s a poor substitute for an in-depth article, but you can read Fighting More Forest Fires Will Come Back to Burn Us by Michael Kodas, in On Earth. The author does a great job of detailing the controversy and the science (or lack of it) behind national fire policies (that inevitably influence state and local management policy).

The point is:

The rise in the number of fires and their sizes has more to do with our land management policies and human activity, than anything going on with climate change and/or our fire ecosystem. Fire has long played a starring role in shaping the California landscape and will continue to do so.

In mid-November, I wrote another post about the language used in media to describe forest fires. Public perception of fires are heavily influenced by how we refer to them. And whenever someone says things like:

I’ve never seen that before.

Please, for the love of all things green and black, do not take much stock in it. Think about it. Even a 40 year wildland fire veteran would not have seen it all. How could she? Our landscapes have been evolving with fire for thousands and thousands of years.

During a conference I attended last fall, Tamara Wall of the Desert Research Institute is trying to explore statements just like the one above. Her aim is to find out directly fire-fighters how they experience fire behavior, and how it changes throughout their careers. Remember, how we perceive something is based on what we expect and relative to what we have experienced before.

Living With Fire

I  hope that those two previous posts along with this one would bring us to a realization that fire in our landscape is at our doorsteps. It always has been and will continue to be so far into the future. And as our population balloons and more of us move into the edges of urban areas, we must all learn to live with fire instead of fight it.

In 1997, my post-graduate adviser, Paul Tueller (University of Nevada, Reno) and Ed Smith started a public outreach program called Living With Fire. It was initially developed for the Nevada landscape, but it has been adopted by many California communities. Along with the efforts of the California Fire Safe Council and the national Firewise program, these programs aim to educate the public on fire issues in their community, teach how to protect one’s home through defensible space and smart building material choices, and provide a framework to collaborate on larger, fuel reducing projects.

While these are all great, sometimes they fail on what I think is the most important issue facing Californian’s today – the lack of fire.

While protecting one’s home through defensible space is paramount in most people’s minds (and it should be, you shouldn’t expect someone to put their lives in the path of fire to save your home), what about the rest of the landscape?

Photo by Debbie Robinson (as it appeared on Ear to the Ground).

No matter how relieved the owner of the above house was after the fire, do you think they really want to live in that blackened landscape?

And what about homes that immediately abut other homes? And what about the 42% of California owned by federal and state agencies? And what about those large tracts of private land that no one seems to weed, let alone manage?

How do we protect all that land from fire?

The federal and state agencies task with managing our forests and wildlands cannot do it*.

The timber industry cannot do it**.

The military cannot do it***.

But fire can.

What? Fight fire with fire?

Prescribed Fire Councils began in the United States in the southeastern states of Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, and Oklahoma. They quickly spread throughout the southeast when land managers and private land owners realized how great they worked. Councils in the west have been recently formed in Washington, Oregon, California, as well as British Columbia, Canada.

Their goals are to facilitate the use of prescribed fire to manage our landscapes – regardless of ownership boundaries and regardless of who wields the torch. They do this by working to change national, state and local policy, collaborating closely with regulators, and educating citizens on the use of prescribed fire. They also provide training venues for everyone (regardless of agency affiliation or lack of it).

In other words, they are doing everything they can to get fire back in its natural role in our landscapes. By allowing prescribed fire to do the heaving lifting of removing dead and dying material (that no one wants to buy nor can we pay to remove it all) and thinning excessive vegetation, the aim is to create landscapes resilient to fire. The idea is so when an unplanned burn does start (it will, we know it will), its effects are moderated (because of less fuel).

Yes, this means more smoke in the air.

Californians crow and covet their clear, blue skies. I know I do. I love them.

And haven’t we just spent the last forty years trying to clean up our air?

While it is true that prescribed fire will put more smoke into our skies, it does not mean a return to smoggy cities. Emissions can be estimated and plume travel tracked to optimize when and how a fire occurs to reduce smoke impacts.

This is what I mean by living with fire. It means all land managers implementing fire policies that allow us to use fire to live with fire.

I admit, that is a lofty goal. However, it is inevitable. Our landscapes are going to burn one way or another. Would you (i.e., land managers, private home owners, etc) want to be holding the torch when it burns? Or are you willing to give that up to some random arsonist or the weather?

Living with fire is not just about defensible space, but includes embracing fire as a land management partner.

* Federal and state agencies have been hampered by policy, and environmental and management constraints.

** The timber industry’s goals are not (necessarily) coincident with developing a fire-resilient landscape.

*** They have other wars to battle.

 

 

 

We’ve Never Seen This Before

Did you see that?

The internet (and the written word for that matter) has its drawbacks. One of which is that you could not see me roll my eyes back at the title of this post.

It’s easy to forget history. It’s in the past, right? Can’t do anything about it now so why give it any thought? There are bills to pay, people to see, and that random YouTube video demanding your attention. Who’s got time for the history?

Well, as the saying goes, if one does not know one’s history, one is doomed to repeat it.

And since plants and ecological processes are not people with memories, rest assured they repeat themselves.

So, whenever I read that someone is shocked at recent fire behavior, I can’t help but trudge out the many fires that were “unprecedented”.

The History

…clouds of smoke have been sent forth from a tremendous fire… (1)

…fires raging from San Bernardino to Jacumba. (2)

A dense volume of smoke overhung the city…from the combined influence of the weather and the fires raging in the mountains. (3)

Those media quotes sound familiar, don’t they? However, they use language we don’t hear of too often now-a-days. Today, we see words like “catastrophic” and “devastating”. “Raging” seems to have gone out of vogue.

Wondering when those quotes were printed?

  1. September 11, 1869 in the Los Angeles Star
  2. September 21, 1869 also in the L.A. Star. Note: the distance between San Bernardino and Jacumba (on the border) is over 150 miles.
  3. October 8, 1875 in the L.A. Star.

In 1987, R.A. Minnich published a paper in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (77:599-618). A research brief of the paper can be found here on the California Fire Science Consortium (CFSC) website. The title of his paper is rather long, so I won’t bore you with it, but I will summarize CFSC’s summary.

Prior to fire suppression in the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, frequent fires were reported in the growing metropolis of Los Angeles. The populous and officials were so concerned about these fires they even studied them.

USGS reports for the area, dated 1899 and 1900, showed large areas of chaparral had been repeatedly burned with severe damage to soil and water holding capacity. ~ CFSC Research Brief, May 2012, emphasis mine.

In addition to these post-fire effects, presumably started by lightning strikes since many of the reported fires also indicated that a rain event occurred during or prior to the fires, fire behavior was reported to be both smoldering and intense, with frequent reports of “raging infernos”. Not unlike the “catastrophic” fires reported in our media today.

If you’d like to read more (and gain some perspective), check out this paper original published in Ecological Applications (Vol. 17, No.3). Talk about incendiary language (“fearful flames”). And let’s not forget the summer of 1988. While not in California, that year, the fires in and around Yellowstone National Park exhibited the widest range of fire behavior you can imagine. And it was often reported that the “catastrophic” fires ruined the park. But it didn’t. Less than one-tenth of one percent of the park experienced temperatures high enough to kill deep roots. Read about what scientists are saying about those fires here.

Remember, back before our public agencies started putting wildfires out, the weather or geography did it. Either a large enough rain even occurred to put the fire out or it ran out of vegetation (fuel) to burn. While our current and recent fire suppression policies may have altered the frequency and distribution of wildfire on the landscape, it sure as heck didn’t stop it. And while fire suppression may have contributed to “extreme” fires, it is nothing new under the sun.

In addition to the likelihood that fires (both small, low intensity fires and large, high intensity fires) will continue to dominate our landscape, our ever growing population also continues to increase the intersection of human settlements and our wildlands (called the Wildland Urban Interface or WUI), providing ever more opportunities for accidental fire starts and arson activity.

So, yes, fires are getting more frequent, and they are impacting relatively larger areas. But that doesn’t mean it’s new or unprecedented on the landscape.

Fire is Scary

Photo courtesy of John McColgan and The Public Safety Electronic Post Office

When you have a wall of flame in front of you, puckering your skin and standing your hair on end, believe me, you are scared (shitless, I think is the term often used here).

And fire does destroy. It destroys forest/plant systems, shelter and food sources for many wildlife species, and our homes. In addition, it also rejuvenates forest/plant systems and provides new opportunities for wildlife. And, one might say it presents interesting challenges to us. Regardless, fire as a process of change on our California landscapes has been happening for millennium and there is nothing we can do stop that (except, of course, change our climate – but that’s another topic all together).

But just because we are scared of something that is dangerous doesn’t mean we need to over-react and attempt to eliminate it. For the past hundred years or so, we’ve tried that – and it doesn’t work.

What To Do?

Post-fire view of the King Fire, Pollack Pines, CA. Photo by P.E. Mandeno.
Post-fire view of the King Fire, Pollack Pines, CA. Photo by P.E. Mandeno.

In my next post, I’ll highlight some of the things we are learning to do right when it comes to wildfire in California. There are still many things we are doing wrong, but we know now that eliminating fire from our ecosystem will not save us from devastating fires. They happened before we got here and they’ll happen after we are long gone. If we intend to stay for the long haul, what we must do instead is learn to live with fire.

 

Bigger and more means better, right?

In the case of wildfires, not necessarily. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean worse. The fire landscape, and our place in it is a lot more complicated than that.

While the recent King fire raged this past summer, my husband commented that it was unprecedented.

Okay, he didn’t use that word exactly, but essentially, he felt concerned about the size and severity of the fire. And while I agree the King fire was unacceptably large and severe, I also want to stress that fire of any size is not an uncommon occurrence in our California landscapes. Not only is it common, but it is a very natural occurrence and, sometimes, necessary.

And here’s the clincher, even fires that burn hundreds of thousands of acres are common and necessary. In fact, the size of fires we see today pale to obscurity when compared to estimated pre-1800s acres burned. Remember, back then, there were no fire-fighters around to put out a blaze. No air tankers with loads of retardant to dump. And no (or few) homes to burn.

So, yes, fires like the King fire are terrible. They are often started by stupid humans and burn so severely they wipe out large chunks of our forests. But, do keep in mind that on the grand scheme of things, it’s just a drop in the “reservoir” bucket of fire “potential” (see my post Every day is a burn day).

Recent Fire History

Each year, CalFire (along with federal and local agencies) records and documents all fires that occur within and on the immediate border of California. They compile the data and offer it to the public in GIS format. I often use this data layer when compiling maps for reports. So, let’s look at the numbers. In particular, in this post I’ll look at the last 100 years of data compiled by CalFire. In later posts, I would like to compare these numbers to paleo-fire history data. However, spatial estimates of fire size based on fire scars is not very easy to come by. But I’ll take a look at what we do know and extrapolate from there and we’ll see just how “unprecedented” fires like the King fire (2014), or even the Rim fire of 2013, are.

More Fire

For the past 100 years in California, though the number of fires reported each year varies, there’s no denying that each year we see more fire-starts. In addition, once these fires get “out of hand”, they consume what we think are significant swaths of forested land.

numfires1913-2013

The graph above shows 100 years of reported* fire history in California. The red line graphs the total number of fires for each year. We see that it varies from year to year, sometimes significantly so. However, the overall trend (marked as a dark, gray line) is increasing. Each year, the number of fires reported has gone up.

In addition, the number of fires over 100,000 acres are becoming more frequent. Prior to 1970s, fires of this size occurred once every ten years or so. But now? Every year. In 2002, 2003, and 2007, we had two large fires occurring in one fire season.

largefires1913-2013

So, yes, there are more wildland fires dotting our dry landscape and they are getting bigger. This is obvious.

But – is that a bad thing?

Paleo-fire History

Well, if you have a home in Sierra Nevada, or if you own timber that can burn at the drop of a match, or if you care about our ecosystem, then, yes, it is.

However, it doesn’t mean we need less fire, but more.

Getting numbers for fire history prior to European settlement of California is rather hard, but we do have extensive evidence of fire regularly impacting our landscape. This evidence comes in the form of charcoal sediments in lake beds and fire scars on trees (both living and dead). Study after study have shown that fire visits our forests as frequently as every 2 years**. It’s not hard to imagine every year, given the right conditions, a fire was burning on the California landscape.

In addition, these fires would burn pretty much all year long. The only thing that stopped them were:

  • A lack of fuel,
  • Relative humidity increased to the point of fire extinction, or
  • A drenching rain came along.

It’s not hard to imagine that these fires managed to burn extensive swaths of California and beyond. Our native plants and the very ecosystem have lived with the threat of fire longer than we’ve been here. In subsequent posts, I’ll argue how modern fire suppression has harmed rather than helped.

Notes and References
  • * Data downloaded from CalFire, Fire Perimeters 2013 data version.
  • Wildfire – A century of failed forest policy edited by George Wuerthner (2006 by the Foundation for Deep Ecology).

Build a better trap

There are many in the firefighting community that have long complained about fire shelters. If you’ve ever used one or trained to use one, then you probably wondered how a thin piece of foil is suppose to protect you from fire and hot, deadly gases.

Well, sometimes, it doesn’t.

Today, NPR featured a story about one man trying to improve on the materials used to protect wildland firefighters. In response to his son dying on the Yarnell Hill fire last year, Mr. David Turbyfill has taken it upon himself to find better material to protect firefighters.

While I commend the effort, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the news.

Mr. Turbyfill claims that 20 to 25% of fatalities would be eliminated if his new fire shelters were used. It wasn’t explained in the news piece whether he meant:

1. Of all fatalities on wildland fires, those caused by being burned over (while in a shelter) accounts for 20 to 25% of those fatalities, and those would be eliminated if his new fire shelters were deployed (meaning his fire shelter is truly fire-proof).

Or did he mean:

2. Of the fatalities caused by being burned over (while in a shelter), 20 to 25% would be saved.

If the later is the case (which I suspect – nothing can be “fire-proof”), then what about the other 75 to 80%? They’re just written off as necessary collateral?

Building a better fire shelter will definitely improve the chances of a firefighter surviving terrible choices, but it really will not improve firefighter safety. If you put firefighters in harms way, then they are in harms way.

In order to really make a difference in firefighter safety, we have to stop making terrible choices. Landuse and land protection goals need to be shifted; prioritizing human life over property.

Everyday is a burn day

When in the midst of fire season, it is hard to support the notion that we need more fire.

“Are you crazy?!” you might shout, pitchfork and shotgun at the ready.

With California at the start of what could be its worst drought, how can I be thinking about putting more fire out there?

CalFire, the agency responsible for ensuring we don’t all burn to the ground (along with other local and federal fire agencies), has reported that in the first half of 2014, over 2,000 fires have been reported in Calfironia, burning over 17,000 acres. The five-year average for the same interval (Jan through June) is only 1,255 fires burning just over 10,000 acres. The number of fires and acreage burned hasn’t quite doubled, but it is close. Close enough for all of us to feel the heat.

And we can’t forget 2013’s Rim Fire, now can we? The Rim Fire was one of California’s largest wildland fires, burning over 250,000 acres from August 17 to September 6th.

So, why do we need to put more fire on the ground? Why do fire ecologists advocate for more burn days?

Earlier this year, when snow still capped mountains, I attended a fire symposium where John Bailey, Associate Professor at the Oregon State University, gave a rousing talk about “draining our biomass reserve”. He likened the growing biomass accumulation in our forests and open spaces to a reservoir that will soon spill over its banks and into our homes.

While I cringed a little over the mixed metaphor, what he had to say made a lot of sense. Currently, all treatments conducted by all land agencies (private, state, local, federal, tribal, etc) put together only account for something like 1 to 2 percent of the landscape.

Think about that.

The Rim Fire, one the largest fires on record, only accounted for fraction of forested land in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. That leaves countless acres left to burn or otherwise treat the accumulated biomass. So despite all our best efforts, and happenstance (in the case of wildland fires like the Rim Fire), we are barely making a dent in it.

Prior to recent human settlement, western landscapes burned – all the time. The only thing that put them out was a drenching rain event. So, even though California may seemingly lack water, all that lovely green stuff still grows, still dries out, and still becomes available fuels for the inevitable march of fire.

If we don’t burn it, someone’s escaped camp fire will, or an arsonist, or a lightning strike. Whether we want to suck in all that smoke or not, our landscapes will continue to burn.

So, what to do?

Mr. Bailey made a strong case that our fire suppression efforts and technology will never keep pace with the growing accumulation of biomass. It’s got a 100+ year head-start, and without DOD*-sized budgets, trying to put out all those fires is futile. Instead, Mr. Bailey advocates three things:

  1. Build resistance and resilience spatially in our landscapes (that means more work for loggers),
  2. Relax our expectations for fire suppression, especially during moderate conditions, and
  3. During those moderate conditions, take the opportunity to extend prescribed and wildland fire perimeters to encompass an area’s “fireshed” – the idea is to choose the conditions when large fires burn.

Accept, Acknowledge, Anticipate, Adapt

One of the great things about listening to Mr. Bailey’s talk was his humor. He compared our country’s aggressive fire suppression to a sort of addiction. He stressed that those in the fire suppression industry need to accept the fact that suppression is not the answer to our long-term sustainability, acknowledge what does and doesn’t work, strive to anticipate where our combined efforts will be most effective, and adapt as conditions change.

But it’s not just those in the fire industry that need to adopt this strategy. So do you. Without decisive restoration and the integrated use of prescribed fire, many of our landscapes (homes included) are at risk of being burned.

Everyday is a potential burn day.

We shouldn’t let them go by without doing something to actively manage the growing vegetation around us. If you’re a land manager (small or large), consider adopting fire resistant strategies to reduce your fire risk and help us all manage our forests well into the future.

*Department of Defense

You Can Trust Nature

Earlier this month, I attended the A Week of Fire in Central Oregon fire science symposium in Bend, Oregon. It was a well-attended conference where I got to participate in the RX-310 course (The Ecological and Social Effects of Fire), sat in on some amazing fire science lectures, and learned that most folks trust nature – but not fire officials. Whoa. Back up. Did I just write that folks, people like you and I, trust our landscape’s inherent natural processes more than they trust the people in whom they place responsibility to protect their home from those natural processes? Well, if I didn’t, that’s what I meant to write. One of the aspects of this symposium that I found interesting was the inclusion of the social aspects of fire ecology. How is that we (residents, scientists, land managers) influence fire on the landscape and how does fire on the landscape influence us?

Jeff Kline, a U.S. Forest Service researcher, and Christine Olsen, Ph.D., a Research Associate and Instructor at the Oregon State University, presented the results of a survey they conducted among homeowners in central Oregon. They asked homeowners 25 questions about their fuel reduction activities on their property. And they also asked about what influenced their decision to conduct those activities and where they got their information. Their answers were both predictable and revealed a surprising, subtle relationship between these landowners and the fire-prone landscapes they live in. Results from Christine Olsen‘s survey showed that a little more than half of the landowners surveyed reduced fuels on their lands. This was a lot more than I had thought. Even though it would be nice if 100% reported they were actively managing their property, 56% is better than zero. What was also encouraging is that the surveyed showed Firewise programs did influence homeowners’ activities. Regardless of the motivation (“likes the way it looks”), the fact that Firewise programs had a positive influence on homeowners shows that federal and state efforts to engage the public are working! But what I found most interesting about the survey is that when asked about trust, the responses were not what I would have expected. I’ll present that question and the results in their entirety:

EDIT: my apologies to Ms. Olsen. Her paper is in the publication process and she has asked that I remove the screen shots of her paper. So, you get my terrible summary. My apologies.

In one of the questions, the respondents were asked about where they get their fire safety information from, whether they trusted the person or agency from which the information originated and whether they thought the information was important in their decision making process (as far as fire mitigation efforts were concerned).

Most folks got their information from the local fire department, a family member, or the U.S. Forest Service. Among those three, 62.6% fully trusted their family members, 80.7% fully trusted their local fire department and only 59.2% fully trusted the U.S. Forest Service.

What’s interesting to compare is the local fire department and the U.S. Forest Service. I pick these two for the obvious reason: the local fire department scored the highest in trust and importance, however, we all know, they have little influence over the management of the wildlands that surround these homeowners. The agency that does manage those lands are more than likely to be the U.S. Forest Service (simply because they own the most land in these rural settings). Notice that that agency score significantly lower on the trust and importance question. One might deduce that homeowners do not particular trust the one agency that has some of the most influence on whether a wildland fire occurs near their home and very well may be the agency that is ultimately responsible for protecting their home in the event of a wildland fire.

On the other hand, the respondents placed their complete trust in the fact that a wildfire, a natural process, in the vicinity of their home was only a question of time. Most (71%) believed that the chance of a wildfire occurring close to their home in the next five years was 50% or greater – even though only 2.3% had ever been evacuated from their home due to a wildfire. In other words, they know its coming – just not when. And the one agency that is responsible for managing those huge tracts of land where a wildfire is inevitable? The study showed that the U.S. Forest Service needs to improve the communication of their land management policies (wildland fire management versus “let burn” policy), because folks just didn’t trust the agency to use fire* near their homes.

EDIT: Image removed per request from study author.

If you’d like to find out more, please contact Jeff Kline with the U.S. Forest Service or Christine Olsen with Oregon State University. *Fire use to manage large tracts of land is becoming more popular with public land agencies. Fire ecology studies show the many ecological and fire risk benefits result from the use of managed, recurring fire.