Editor’s note: Today the Missoulian concludes its look back at the 2000 wildfire season with a report on advances in fire science over the past five years.
The fires of 2000 changed everything for fire scientists.
Colin Hardy was reminded of just how far the doors have opened this summer when he and a team of 10 others packed themselves and 2,000 pounds of highly technical remote-sensing gear into three vehicles and traveled south to the Grand Canyon.
The wildfire burning there was the perfect setup for testing a variety of new devices being developed at the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula.
They were met by a team of firefighters ready and willing to give Hardy, a fire behavior analyst, and a crew of scientists access to the fire for their experiments.
“Before 2000, that would have been unheard of,” Hardy said. “There would have been too many concerns over logistics, safety and coordination. Prior to 2000, we were most interested in safety and getting the fire out.”
The movement to really take a hard look at wildfire started in the mid-1990s with a Government Accountability Office report that called for better planning for catastrophic wildfires in the West.
But it wasn’t until the National Fire Plan was approved – on the heels of the Bitterroot National Forest’s high-profile, big-acreage fires in 2000 – that significant funding was made available to begin addressing those concerns.
“That was really the first real infusion of money that we’ve seen in years,” said Hardy.
For researchers, the cash allowed investments in infrastructure and equipment, an ability to retain or pursue the best scientists and a variety of new studies that examined a wide scope of topics.
It also opened doors for researchers wanting to do more testing in field conditions.
“The change hasn’t only occurred in the advancement of technology,” Hardy said. “Fire management has changed as much as technology. They’re inviting us to work with them now.”
“In turn, we’re adapting to their needs. We know that it’s important to work with the fire culture,” he said. “We’re stepping out of the ivory tower and carrying a shovel instead.”
This summer’s study in the Grand Canyon was in part an effort to demonstrate how research equipment could be deployed in rapid fashion during the heat of a fire. Once Hardy and other researchers had their equipment scattered on both sides of the Grand Canyon, they collected data that will help others develop a better understanding of how fire burns in different vegetation types and aspects.
“We want to know what the effects of fire are on different vegetation, soils and water,” Hardy said. “In order to make those inferences, we need to know the energy and the heat created by the fire.”
That kind of research will go a long way in helping future firefighters decide how to manage wildfire in different situations.
The Forest Service and Department of the Interior have contributed about $8 million apiece to fund studies like Hardy’s that put researchers on the front lines.
The push is coming in good part because public land managers are taking a different view of wildfire.
The era of Smokey Bear – where every fire was bad and needed to be stomped out as quickly as possible – is coming to an end. In a number of cases, officials are now managing fires to benefit the forest.
“There’s much more flexibility about what actions they’re able to take,” Hardy said.
There are five national incident management teams dedicated to wildland fire use. Those teams don’t focus on suppressing wildfires. Instead, they operate under a strict set of guidelines that allows a fire to burn.
“It’s a real paradigm shift,” Hardy said. “We’re finally not just using fire in wilderness areas. It’s been a big change over the last three years.”
Over the last five years, more and more people have come to understand the importance of fire throughout the West.
“For those of us living in western Montana, the fires of 2000 emphasized the reality that we live with wildfire in our ecosystem,” said Jack Cohen, a researcher at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. “It drove home the point that wildfire is inevitable and now what are we going to do about it.”
And Cohen sees opportunity in that reality.
For the last 16 years, Cohen has studied the relationship between wildfires and the homes they burn, as well as the ones they don’t.
“For the last 20 years, the threat of homes burning has significantly jeopardized our ability to manage the ecosystem with fire as an ecological process,” he said.
No one is going to allow a fire to burn if it might threaten someone’s home. And that inability to let fire do its work has, at least in part, set up the forest for huge wildfires that no one can control.
But that can all change if homeowners in forested areas take measures to protect their homes from wildfire.
To be able to do that, Cohen said, people need a better understanding of how wildfire typically ignites a home.
The common thought is that homes burn after fire engulfs an area, igniting everything in its path. While that occurs on occasion, Cohen has found that many more homes catch fire from small blazes creeping along the ground or from firebrands piling up on a deck.
The fire can start small, but if someone isn’t there to put it out, it spreads throughout the rest of the structure.
“Even a small ignition might start a fire that would result in total destruction,” he said. “There were times that I would find a totally destroyed home next to unburned material.”
When people go back and look at a home that’s been destroyed in a wildfire, they often miss the clues that show how – and why – the house was lost.
“People’s perception is often that this happened all at once, but that’s not necessarily true,” Cohen said.
And he also discovered that best intentions aren’t always enough.
“I’ve found homes that are relatively highly resistant to ignition. They don’t have a flammable roof. They don’t have an unbroken canopy of conifers right up to their home. These are people who are doing things right, and these are homes that are typically not involved in fire.”
“But it’s the little things that get them,” he said. “The little things cause the ignition, not the high-intensity fire that blows right on by.”
In crown-fire tests conducted in the Northwest Territories over four years, Cohen found that plywood walls would more often scorch, but not ignite, when exposed to fire at distances of 33 feet. Double that and there weren’t any ignitions.
“It comes down to material and design,” said Cohen. “It can be as simple as covering an opening that could allow the fire access into the home.”
Property owners can make a huge difference just by paying attention to details like dry grass running up to the edge of the house or gutters filled with pine needles. Couple that with nonflammable roofs and keeping the forest thinned back and the chances increase dramatically of saving a home during a fire.
Once that happens, the wildfire problem simplifies.
“So now, if all of a sudden you have the opportunity to make a home fire-resistant enough so that firefighters can be highly effective you have the opportunity to reintroduce fire as an ecological process,” he said. “You may still have extreme wildfire, but you don’t have that dangerous urban-wildland interface.”
“That would change the outlook for everything,” Cohen said. “That’s exactly our initial goal.”