USA–– While were facing more wildfires than ever, the federal government wants us to return to outdated firefighting methods.
Earlier this summer, the deputy chief of state and private forestry, James E. Hubbard, sent out a memo laying guidelines for the remainder of wildfire season. His message: Effective immediately, regional, area, and station directors should adopt the default position of full containment when approaching all wildfires.
Full containment means going all-out to put a blaze out as soon as possiblean approach that to most of us would seem pretty sensible. But it actually goes against decades of research that suggest a more balanced approach: allowing some wildfires to take their natural course, playing a cleansing role in the forest ecosystems, and clearing out some forms of underbrush and other material (called fuel)all of which helps reduce the size of wildfires in the future.
Hubbards order covered only this season and, he says, does not represent a permanent policy shift. But while many foresters understand the reasoning behind the deputy chiefs request for a changemore on that in a minuteit has some of them worried. Why? Because even if they return to standard procedure next year, the immediate fix puts the long-term solution for managing the countrys forestsand firesin serious jeopardy and could actually make things much worse.
With a record-breaking season of heat and drought has come an unprecedented season of wildfires. Recently, a Washington state blaze burned more than 20,000 acres of national forest and destroyed 60 homes, forcing 400 families to evacuate and prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency. On the national scale, thats just a tiny blip. According to the Interagency Fire Center, 31 large fires are currently active, while 7 million acres have already burned across the country this seasonwell above the 10-year average and charring the previous record set in 2006.
And that means our resources for fighting themthe aviation fleets, the smoke jumpers, and the budgets that pay for it allare stretched thin. You can measure the cost in dead 20-year-old firefighters in Idaho, or tens of millions of dollars in charred homes and getting boots on the ground. Or you can look at giant blob smoke map Julia Whitty has posted over at Mother Jones. But that high price is why Hubbard wants local forest services to reverse battle tactics and pursue aggressive suppression, even in the remote wilderness. The agencys $984-million budget for this year has already been busted, with cost projections of $1.4 billion.
Predictive Servicesthe office that uses a huge amount of recorded data to make short- and long-term predictions about wildfiresmay have taken stock of the situation and encouraged Hubbards order to fight all fires aggressively. But as with so many short-term solutions in the face of eminent threat, the long view is being set aside, and thats the scary part.
For more than 100 years, the U.S. Forest Service has been researching, reacting to, and generally trying to understand wildfires, and along the way, our methods have changed significantly. In 1910, the Big Blowup destroyed about 3 million acresroughly the size of Connecticutin Idaho, Washington, and Montana. The devastation of the Big Blowup, much of which reportedly took place in just 36 hours, cemented the idea of fighting fires aggressively and immediately. In the 1930s, the Selway forest fires in Idaho and Montana led to the 10 a.m. policy: Try to contain every fire that is reported by the next time 10 a.m. comes around. But in the 1960s and 70s, foresters began to recognize that fires were important parts of natural systems, and the policy of fire use came into playthe idea that local and regional managers could and should allow some fires to burn. Thats partly because in mountainous areas, they are nigh impossible to control, and sometimes its deemed too dangerous to send firefighters into a blaze.But they also serve an important purpose: preventing even worse burns. Thinning the herd, it seems, happens in the forestand can actually help build natural hurdles to subsequent blazes.
The 2000s have seen some very bad years for wildfiresin part thanks to a bevy of stupid or reckless human-started blazesbut until this summer the general policy stayed mostly the same: Let forest and land managers make the decisions of what to let burn and what to put out. This years shift is a reflection of just how up against the wall we are, nationally, when it comes to resources for fighting wildfires. The scariest part is that things seem to only be getting worse with climate change. A recent climate study published this summer in Ecosphere suggests that over the next 30 years, 38 percent of the planet will see increases in fire activity. By the end of the century, that number is projected to be 62 percent. If this holds true, now may not be the time to go back to fire-fighting techniques popular in the 1910s.
When I wrote earlier this season about the newer technologies were now using to fight fires, I spoke with David Calkin, a Ph.D. in economics and a research forester at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Mont. Calkins view of forest management is macro, and he doesnt seem prone to exaggeration. Even when I was pressing him on climate change or how damaging the policy shift could be, he was more likely to talk about the natural progressions of systems than to say that the extreme weather and awesome scope of the burningwhich NASA satellites are now monitoring from orbitwere cause for extreme alarm. But theres no question that he is worried.
When we look at climate models, some parts of the world are expected to get wetter and hotter, some expected to be drier and hotter, he said. But there is a concern that this is a step back. Even in the policy direction it acknowledges that its not a good long-term strategy.
You could almost consider it a surge strategylike the kind we used in Iraq with, shall we say, mixed success. Throw everything weve got at the fires now, to stop it from getting worse. Is there a third way? Until we can make our own rain, cool the climate, and stop shooting live ammo at rocks during drought season, probably not. Even our best technologies and treatments are still relatively puny against Mother Nature.
Any forester will tell youfire is a part of life. And weve got ourselves a firewalkers dilemma, a choice between setting our shovels against the small stuff and ignoring the smoke of a massive burn on the horizon, or taking the long view. This season, weve set our shovels to the small stuff, and lives and housing developments have been saved. But its going to set us back in the battle to manage, and to let nature take its course. This season, were making the next big burn even bigger.
When the Fourmile Canyon Fire erupted west of Boulder in 2010, smoke from the wildfire poured into parts of the city including a site housing scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-08-evidence-heat-trapping-effects-wildfire-particles.html#jCpWithin 24 hours, a few researchers at the David Skaggs Research Center had opened up a particle sampling port on the roof of the building and started pulling in smoky air for analysis by two custom instruments inside. They became the first scientists to directly measure and quantify some unique heat-trapping effects of wildfire smoke particles.
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-08-evidence-heat-trapping-effects-wildfire-particles.html#jCpWhen the Fourmile Canyon Fire erupted west of Boulder in 2010, smoke from the wildfire poured into parts of the city including a site housing scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Within 24 hours, a few researchers at the David Skaggs Research Center had opened up a particle sampling port on the roof of the building and started pulling in smoky air for analysis by two custom instruments inside. They became the first scientists to directly measure and quantify some unique heat-trapping effects of wildfire smoke particles. “For the first time we were able to measure these warming effects minute-by-minute as the fire progressed,” said CIRES scientist Dan Lack, lead author of the study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers also were able to record a phenomenon called the “lensing effect,” in which oils from the fire coat the soot particles and create a lens that focuses more light onto the particles. This can change the “radiative balance” in an area, sometimes leading to greater warming of the air and cooling of the surface. While scientists had previously predicted such an effect and demonstrated it in laboratory experiments, the Boulder researchers were one of the first to directly measure the effect during an actual wildfire. Lack and his colleagues found that lensing increased the warming effect of soot by 50 to 70 percent. “When the fire erupted on Labor Day, so many researchers came in to work to turn on instruments and start sampling that we practically had traffic jams on the road into the lab,” Lack said. “I think we all realized that although this was an unfortunate event, it might be the best opportunity to collect some unique data. It turned out to be the best dataset, perfectly suited to the new instrument we had developed.” The instrument called a spectrophotometer can capture exquisite detail about all particles in the air, including characteristics that might affect the smoke particles’ tendency to absorb sunlight and warm their surroundings. While researchers know that overall, wildfire smoke can cause this lensing effect, the details have been difficult to quantify, in part because of sparse observations of particles from real-world fires. Once the researchers began studying the data they collected during the fire, it became obvious that the soot from the wildfire was different in several key ways from soot produced by other sourcesdiesel engines, for example. “When vegetation burns, it is not as efficient as a diesel engine, and that means some of the burning vegetation ends up as oils,” Lack said. In the smoke plume, the oils coated the soot particles and that microscopic sheen acted like a magnifying glass, focusing more light onto the soot particles and magnifying the warming of the surrounding air. The researchers also discovered that the oils coating the soot were brown, and that dark coloration allowed further absorption of light, and therefore further warming the atmosphere around the smoke plume. The additional warming effects mean greater heating of the atmosphere enveloped in dark smoke from a wildfire, and understanding that heating effect is important for understanding climate change, Lack said. The extra heating also can affect cloud formation, air turbulence, winds and even rainfall. The discovery was made possible by state-of-the-art instruments developed by CIRES, NOAA and other scientists, Lack said. The instruments can capture fine-scale details about particles sent airborne by the fire, including their composition, shape, size, color and ability to absorb and reflect sunlight of various wavelengths. “With such well-directed measurements, we can look at the warming effects of soot, the magnifying coating and the brown oils and see a much clearer, yet still smoky picture of the effect of forest fires on climate,” Lack said. CIRES is a cooperative institute of CU-Boulder and NOAA.