Responses to the IAWF “Issue-DialoguePaper: Extreme Fires” (published in the April 2019 issue of Wildfire).

23 June 2019

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TURKEY – What are your thoughts on the Issue Paper topics and questions. Here are some responses we received and share regarding the first topic on “Extreme Fires.”

What’s missing? The human factor

Frank Carroll (Managing Partner, Wildfire Pros. Custer, SD, US) explores the missing human factor.

Your recent issue outlining three major factors in the transition to extreme wildfires is missing a key element: The human factor and, specifically, the behavior of fire teams and the effects of fire management objectives.

Indirect fire suppression strategies: Big boxing wildfires has become the new normal, with incident commanders commonly burning out from indirect fire lines often many miles away from the fire, which is now responsible for an increase in fire size of 30-60 % (Ingalsbee – Big Bar Fire 1999, Carroll – Flat Fire 2012, Kolb – Lolo Peak Fire 2018). Big boxing is memorialized in Federal land management policy as expressed by the 2019 Forest Service Wildfire Key Messages. This strategy adds an astonishing number of burned acres to many large fires and results in wildly skewed costs of suppression and fire damages, costs that are being passed on to taxpayers and defendants, without any oversight or input from affected parties.

Agency fire management objectives: From the 2019 US Forest Service Key Messages – “Tools include mechanical treatments, prescribed fire, and unplanned fire in the right place at the right time.” Unplanned fire use is now the central theme and the most widely used tool of Forest Service and some state land management and is used with greater frequency than ever before, often to the detriment of all other considerations and natural resources and with no recourse or restitution for private landowners who lose years of investment in well managed forests (Dr. Peter Kolb – Montana State Extension Forester). Unplanned fire is responsible for more management acres of accomplishment than any other land management activity.

And this from the same source: “To diminish the “fire deficit” and thereby mitigate fire risk, the FS and partners will need to step up the use of prescribed fires and managed wildfires in concert with mechanical treatments. Working with partners and stakeholders, the FS can find opportunities in fire-adapted forests to reintroduce the right kind of fire at the right time in the right places to achieve desired ecological conditions.” “Reintroducing the right kind of fire at the right time in the right places” is the new default firefighting, fuels management, and land management strategy. The resulting running head fires, every bit as severe as the main fire, are doing unacceptable damage to ecosystems, often resetting the ecological clock for seral species and creating site conversions to brush fields and other much less fire-worthy vegetative structures (Kolb, Carroll 2019). The 2017 Legion Lake Fire in Custer State Park was 4,000 acres turned into 54,000 acres by managers in response to agency direction to reintroduce fire to the Park.

Management’s new fire-centric natural resource objectives and blank check approach to firefighting mean that incident commanders are using wildfire to manage land without having to prepare environmental documentation (EISs) or go through public comment and input phases of project planning. There is no oversight, no public input, and no way for private landowners and others to have any say in fire management tactics or strategies. This practice is particularly detrimental to the forest products industry and to landowners of tree farms and to those who manage their lands to reduce fire effects.

Predictably, agency administrators are using fire to meet resource management objectives with no way to measure qualitative or quantitative effects. The environmental impacts of this new order of natural resource management by wildfire are unknown, undocumented, and not subject to the influence of public comment and public review, nor are they governed by environmental laws and regulations.

Large fires are becoming extreme for many reasons, not the least of which is our new firefighting regime. It’s a new Wild West and anything goes.


An error of definition – and a need to make valid science key to our best practices

Rick McRae, an Australian-based wildfire scientist and fire behavior analyst, also offers insights on what was missing – in this case, perhaps even misleading – which is an authoritative definition. Equally important, he builds a claim that we need to support field crews and incident managers so that “valid science is applied as best practice.”

I am writing as someone with a long-term involvement in IAWF, a wildfire scientist who has published a large number of papers on “extreme wildfires” (as per a published, carefully analyzed definition, not IAWF’s – see footnote, below) and their drivers, and as a uniformed emergency manager who has deployed interstate and internationally as a Fire Behaviour Analyst.

So: The “Extreme Fires” Issue paper is fatally flawed, as it conflates too many issues.

Megafires are an issue that arises from long-term changes to the state of vegetation across key landscapes, as well as changes in fire management and suppression doctrine.

Extreme wildfires are a very carefully defined type of fire that couples with the atmosphere and exhibits dynamic fire spread on one or more occasions.

They are not related beyond the fact that some megafires happen to be extreme wildfires. Many recent studies of wildfire issues have suffered from lumping together multiple types of fire and analyzing them as one. The outcomes are spurious and help with the future management of neither type of fire.

Response to “Why the Transition to Extreme Fires,” Question 1 [climate change]. When a fire develops a blow-up event, and couples with the atmosphere, it cannot be stopped, nor can its impacts be mitigated. The only realistic incident objective is to save lives, until the blow-up event abates. The only explicit role for fuel is in the early, pre-escalation phase of a fire’s growth. Having said that two of the most intense fires recorded Australia escalated catastrophically in less than half an hour, well before any response could arrive (Bendora Fire, 18 Jan 2003, and Kilmore East Fire 7 Feb 2009). We now have an operational ability to predict blow-up fire events.

Response to Question 2 [fuel and vegetation]. Basically, the same as for Question 1. Most of the damage comes from very few fires, and there is nothing to be done about that. Building codes have never demonstrated any ability to change the impact of blow-up fire events. Even VLATs can be ineffective.

Response to Question 3 [rising trend of destructive fires]. The rapidly expanding global scope of extreme wildfires is the biggest challenge facing the world’s fire services. It is no longer just a matter of counting extreme fires (although in Australia they are growing exponentially), it is a matter of counting the countries starting to experience their impacts. This global growth is astonishing. New countries face new challenges and should not be left to develop their own solutions. IAWF is instead offering them potentially ineffective mis-targeted advice. This has to change.

What IAWF needs to prioritize is what the published science has already made clear – that there are a number of types of wildfires, each posing different threats and requiring different responses. For example:

These are various species of fire:

  • Steady-state fires – the normal ones, where fire behavior reflects weather, terrain and fine fuel load.
  • Megafires, which defy suppression due to total fuels.
  • Extreme wildfires which undergo coupling with the atmosphere due to deep. flaming and exhibit violent pyro-convection.
  • Extreme wildfires driven by isentropic drawdown (i.e. the foehn effect).

The triggers of deep flaming, the cause of extreme wildfires, are known to include:

  • strong winds, as seen in Western Australia last November.
  • wind changes, as seen in Victoria on Black Saturday in 2009.
  • vorticity-driven lateral spread (VLS), as seen in Canberra in 2003.
  • eruptive spread, as seen in the Elephant Hill Fire in BC in 2017.
  • dense spotting, as seen in the Grose Valley (NSW) in 2006, visited in a field trip with the recent 6th IFBFC.
  • “interior ignition,” a term for differential flammability in complex fuels, as seen in the Plateau Complex (BC) in 2017.
  • excessive use of incendiaries, as seen in… – best left unnamed.
  • isentropic drawdown, often seen in California but increasingly seen in eastern Australia.
Pyrocumulus Cloud or Pyrocumulonimbus ice capping at +-25k feet over the Mazatzal Wilderness during the Willow Fire (July 2004) near Payson, AZ. Shot from Mt Ord. A velum is visible just below the top (the white veil)
PHOTO: Eric Neitzel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Looking narrowly at pyrocumulonimbus (pyroCbs) as an unambiguous tracer for the spread of the problem (since the start of the earth observation satellite era in 1978), we see a startling picture:

  • the northern boreal forests have always produced pyroCbs.
  • Australia started getting lots of them in 2001, We now have had 80.
  • Western Russia got its first in 2010.
  • Europe got its first in Portugal in 2017.
  • South America and Africa get their first in 2018
  • the first ever (globally) tropical pyroCb was recorded in Western Australia in 2018.

Where next? Many expect Scandinavia.

I could go on, but I think that the list is long enough already. The goal is to get this diversity clearly across to all IAWF members. Tools are needed to ensure that all field crews are able to apply these concepts to safely and effectively implement their incident action plans.

To conclude, it is possible that the Yarnell Hill Fire burn-over event was due to vorticity-driven lateral fire spread (VLS). The discussions of the satellite and other data, and numerical modelling, by a group of international scientists strongly supported this. The lessons learned from that fire would be very different if VLS was accepted to have played a role. Lookouts would be trained to look over their shoulders for a tell-tale column of dark smoke over certain parts of the terrain. Perhaps even both sets of lessons could have been produced. The point is that where we are today, if it was VLS, then the unfortunate events could recur. Is it IAWF that needs to take the lead on ensuring that all of the valid science is applied as best practice?

Footnote: We have been plagued for decades by the re-use of terminology. “Extreme Fire” has recently been established as technical term, that needs to go into the Glossaries. It should not be used in the sense of the recent Issue Paper. We struggled to find terms that avoided colored words such as catastrophic. It is indeed a difficult task.


Editor’s Notes

For a recent concept paper on the definition challenge, see “Defining Extreme Wildfire Events: Difficulties, Challenges, and Impacts,” Fantina Tedim et al. Fire 2018, 1(1), 9;

McRae refers to extreme widlfire (or bushfire) in the sense used in a paper he contributed to — Sharples, J.J.; Cary, G.J.; Fox-Hughes, P.; Mooney, S.; Evans, J.P.; Fletcher, M.-S.; Fromm, M.; Grierson, P.F.; McRae, R.; Baker, P. Natural hazards in Australia: Extreme bushfire. Clim. Chang. 2016, 139, 85–99 — which Tedim et al discuss also. As McRae notes, “The reason for our definition is that it enabled a validated predictive model, the Blow-Up Fire Outlook (BUFO) model. Unless a problem is clearly defined, it is hard to tackle.”

For more on pyrocumulonimbus, see Michael Fromm et al, “The Untold Story of Pyrocumulonimbus.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. September 2010. .]

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