Growing Wildfire Risk Brings Challenges for Remote Research Facilities

Growing Wildfire Risk Brings Challenges for Remote Research Facilities

13 April 2017

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USA —   Fire season is underway already in parts of the United States, and the growing prevalence of wildfires can pose serious challenges for college research facilities in rural areas.

Such facilities can encompass expensive research centers or thousands of acres of experimental forest, like a Clemson University property where a tiny portion of 17,500 acres of land burned in November. Wildfire seasons have gotten longer, with research linking them to hot summers and other factors that are associated with climate change.

More fires bring more risk to property, including university-owned facilities where researchers conduct critical work in disciplines such as forest ecology and astronomy, using tools as varied as pack horses and radio telescopes.

Lloyd Queen is director of the University of Montana’s Fire Center, which specializes in fire-prevention techniques and management strategies. He said people who manage such rural facilities should be mindful of the risks.

The center plays a big role in wildfire management nationally, and the university churns out future fire managers. Mr. Queen said 60 percent of its forestry students work at least part-time fighting fires. He has firsthand experience with the ways that fire seasons have shifted, and how those changes have affected people who are trying to protect valuable property. Notably, he said, fires are getting more costly and more frequent.

When he started his career, “fire season” was something that happened in July and August.

“Now, 20-some years later, we are literally involved in fire operations 12 months a year,” Mr. Queen said, which means it’s prudent for anyone with valuable resources in vulnerable areas to have a plan in place.

As fire season gets longer and blazes get bigger, Mr. Queen said, they’re bound to occupy a growing part of any facility manager’s life. But it’s difficult for such officials to zero in on the costs of preventative measures. Mr. Queen said national funding for managing potential fuels — removing trees and vegetation that could be a problem, for example — has more than doubled in recent years. But the cost of a major fire can be exorbitant.

“If you have a facility, say a research enterprise that’s sitting out there in a potentially vulnerable position and you’re not thinking fire, I think you may want to double-check your math a little bit,” Mr. Queen said, highlighting the need for colleges to take steps to protect expensive equipment and property.

‘It Gets Pretty Toxic’

It stands to reason that forest fires aren’t great for telescopes. Even if a fire doesn’t burn down your $175-million-dollar observatory, the smoke and ash from a close call can wreak havoc on sensitive equipment, not to mention oxygen-breathing researchers.

“It’s not friendly at all to high-tech instruments,” said Erick Buckley, director of the University of Arizona’s Mount Graham International Observatory. Mix in a little moisture with that, he said, “and it gets pretty toxic.”

Mount Graham is one of the research arms of the University of Arizona’s astronomy department. The mountain reaches above 10,000 feet in Graham County, located in southern Arizona. The whole county has fewer than 40,000 residents. The observatory’s facilities include three telescopes — collaboratively owned with other institutions and research groups — and other assets valued at around $175 million, Mr. Buckley said. It’s one of many rural research centers across the country that warrant a fire plan.

The University of Arizona handles the bulk of the operations to keep Mount Graham and its three telescopes running for the international organizations that use them. Christian Veillet is the director of the Large Binocular Telescope, which gets most of the attention at Mount Graham. The LBT, as it’s called, is a big deal in the astronomy world and part of the “next generation of telescopes,” Mr. Veillet said. As an example of its importance, Mr. Veillet highlighted the 2013 imaging of lava lakes on Io, a moon of Jupiter, which Mr. Veillet called the one of the telescope’s biggest moments.

The Mount Graham observatory has had two close calls since it was built in the 90s. Most recently, the 2004 Nuttail Complex Fire burned to within about 200 yards of the facility, which houses the Large Binocular Telescope, the biggest of its kind in the world. The fire burned for about three weeks and cost the U.S. Forest Service an estimated $10 million.

Mr. Buckley became director at Mount Graham two years ago and said he and firefighting officials in the state know that fire threats have increased because of a long-running drought.

Limited Options

The McDonald Observatory, a research arm of the University of Texas at Austin, had a close call in 2011 and employs a fire marshal specific to the facility. Other research areas, like experimental forests or forest research centers, also face risks when fire season starts.

The University of Idaho’s Taylor Wilderness Research Station sits in the Frank Church­-River of No Return Wilderness Area and is only accessible by small aircraft or a 34-mile hike from the nearest road, though some people ride in on horses or mules. Kurt Pregitzer, dean of the College of Natural Resources, can rattle off five fires that threatened the facility just in the last 16 years. Staff members at the facility keep vegetation down and house Forest Service firefighters when they are in the area. They even keep their airstrip “green” — well-watered so as to not dry out — as a last resort for anyone who gets stuck there in the middle of a fire.

“They can go out into the middle of the airstrip and they’re pretty much secured from any kind of a firestorm,” Mr. Pregitzer said.

Mount Graham, in Arizona, isn’t quite as remote. There is a road from the base camp, where Mr. Buckley works, to the observatory, though it’s about an hour and 15 minutes up to the top, and eight miles of the road are unpaved.

A 13-member support team is trained to protect the remote facility and its valuable equipment if a fire burns nearby. The team stays behind the fire line to protect the facility while the forest service does the firefighting work. Team members’ job is to monitor buildings and ventilation systems, for example, or to evacuate people from the mountain.

In his role managing fires, Mr. Queen has had to revisit areas that see multiple burns, something that was unheard of 20 years ago when an area was considered low-risk for future fires if it had been scorched recently.

The National Interagency Fire Center reports more than two million burned acres of land in 2017 alone, a total area bigger than Delaware. Another 14 new fires are reported burning as of the end of last week, predominantly in the Southeastern United States.

The intensity and frequency of fires will most likely continue to increase, Mr. Queen said, and that means facilities will have to focus more effort on prevention to avoid big losses.

“There aren’t 20 bullets you can put in your six-gun,” he said, lamenting that fire managers have limited options for prevention. “There just aren’t that many things you can do in the near term.”

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