There are at least 5 important factors that lead Alaska fire managers to continue their use of the Canadian CFFDRS system of fire danger and fire behavior tools for fire potential assessments in Alaska. Fire behavior expert Robert “Zeke” Ziel gives a succinct review of them in this illustrated 3-page report. Essential reading for anyone involved in fire management here in the 49th state! Download it <<HERE>>
The editors of the State of the Climate in 2017 invited AFSC and our collaborators Uma Bhatt and Rick Thoman to contribute a sidebar on wildland fire in boreal and arctic North America to the chapter on the Arctic. We were excited at the chance to share information about the region with an international audience. Check out a PDF of our contribution here: York et al_wildlandfire_Ch05_Arctic.
Reading today’s update from AKFireInfo about the Livingston Fire, it mentions smokejumpers setting up sprinklers around 5 cabins about a mile from the head of the fire. This is a common tactic for protecting isolated values at risk, but we did not have good information on how much sprinkling was needed and how long wetting down an area would last. Until now.
Devon Barnes, a graduate student at the University of Alberta, worked with BLM-Alaska Fire Service Fire Ecologist Eric Miller to measure the effect of sprinkling on interior Alaska feathermoss fuel beds. Their work found that it takes 0.8 inches (20 mm) of sprinkled water to bring the top 5 inches of duff to saturation. This takes about 7 hours of sprinkling with a Mark 3 pump at a low throttle, and uses about 2 gallons of gas. Devon and Eric estimate that the sprinkled area can resist ignition by firebrands and surface spread for about 3 days in typical summer weather. The area may of course dry more quickly in very hot and windy conditions.
You can find more details on the project and its results in this new AFSC research summary.
Caribou herds in North America seem to be declining. Is warming climate or it’s effects on habitat to blame? The relationship of caribou to lichen-rich winter ranges and fire is often oversimplified. Many factors besides habitat affect caribou numbers, which undergo large fluctuations naturally. In this new Research Brief, we highlight recent publications on caribou-fire relationships and explore some of the factors that make it complicated to predict exactly what will happen and when if old-growth caribou habitats diminish with warming climate and more frequent burning.
Alaskans were paying close attention in 2016 when a spring firestorm called Horse River burned over a Fairbanks-sized Alberta town resulting in unprecedented evacuation of 90,000 people with insurable losses over $3.77 billion so far. The disaster even had a negative impact on Canada’s National GDP–at 1.5 million acres it was the 3rd largest fire in Canada’s history. What have we learned from this catastrophic fire and can we co-exist with fire? Fire researcher Mike Flannigan, and Alberta’s fire science and prevention officer Cordy Tymstra teamed up on an important webinar for the AFSC last fall (watch it on our AFSC Vimeo Channel). Mike gave us a lot of additional insights into fire ecology: like the number of fires in Canada has doubled since the 1970’s, and spring fires are becoming increasingly important. Cordy provided intimate “behind-the-scenes” looks into decision-making and the challenges faced by fire managers. On May 5th, for example, the fire’s rate of spread was estimated at 2.86 km/hr (0.8 m/sec). The pyrocumulus clouds that developed deposited firebrands up to 35 km ahead of the main fire. Half of the discussion focused on recommendations from the after-action review: for example, Alberta moved their official fire season start up to March 1. They are going to review Incident Commander qualifications for WUI incidents and work on more ICS training for municipal cooperators. And they are going to ramp up their provincial FireSmart program. These are just a few. Watch the presentation: it will be an hour well-spent.
Remotely-sensed data is a newcomer to the fire management scene. A few years ago the only satellites we were aware of were MODIS weather and Iridium communications ones. But things have changed! Check out this graphic NASA Program leader Hank Margolis showed at the recent ABoVE science workshop in Seattle:
And that’s just for Earth Science. The point is, NASA’s ABoVE project now has about 5 years under it’s belt and has produced a wealth of new data and imagery that is available FREE for agencies and the public at their clearinghouse website–the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Distributed Active Archive Center (ORNL DAAC). Yes, big acronym but this one’s worth learning about–it’s the designated one-stop shop for all the big data coming from the ABoVE work. Some of these datasets could be really useful. For example, LiDAR-measured elevation and canopy height measurements flown over Alaska last summer, the last day of spring snow over Alaska from 2000-2016, 20 years of surface water extent and location(open water) for Alaska/Canada: 1991-2011, daily wildfire progression (using MODIS) of fires across Alaska from 2001-2015, plus maps of active layer thickness, growing season lengths, tree cover canopy, . . . . Get the idea? Visit one of the links and use the search function at DAAC for more. The data being made available should make it much easier to produce resource maps for planning and spatial analysis, without having to hit resource agency budgets for acquisition.
Although vegetation treatments can reduce fire potential, they may have unintended ecological effects, but there has been little published on possible impacts—especially for Alaska. So the recent publication (Melvin, et al. 2017) of a study on interior Alaska fuel treatments by an interdisciplinary team of researchers is an important addition to regional management resources. In fact, it probably represents the FIRST published paper specifically on how fuel-reduction affects carbon and nutrient pools, permafrost thaw, and forest successional trajectories. The analysis included 19 sites managed by numerous Alaska agencies covering a large swath from Nenana to Deltana, and were sampled at various ages from 2-12 years post-thinning or shearblading. Our third AFSC Research Brief of 2017 is a digest of the study results.
Full Citation: Melvin, A. M., et al. (2017), Fuel-reduction management alters plant composition, carbon and nitrogen pools, and soil thaw in Alaskan boreal forest. Ecol Appl. Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1002/eap.1636
Incident fire behavior analysts predicted the 2011 Las Conchas fire would calm down at night, but instead they witnessed a night-time blow-up between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. where 35-ft high “rolling barrels of fire” advanced rapidly downhill, quadrupling the fire’s size.
Rod Linn at the fire Los Alamos National Laboratory has been studying wildfires for 22 years, using computational models including weather and topography to explain unexpected behavior. In a recent Popular Science article he sheds light on some very interesting scenarios that caught the analysts off guard, including how an inversion developing in the evening spilled out of the Valles Grande basin like an overflowing bathtub and spawned the 26 ft/sec downslope night winds that blew up the Las Conchas fire. The article is very readable and sheds light on several other species of extreme fire behavior that will be of interest to anyone on the fireline. Pick up the July/August Popular Science or read it for free online here: https://www.popsci.com/las-conchas-wildfire-pillar-of-fire
P.S. Rod also published a series of articles for firefighters from the Los Alamos Lab and they are online. Here’s the link to the first one: Computer modeling helps us learn to live with wildfire.
Our Research Brief this month covers a new NASA-funded study led by Sander Veraverbeke of Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam which found lightning storms to be a main driver of recent large fire seasons in Alaska and Canada. Results of the study are published in the July, 2017 issue of Nature Climate Change.
MODIS (Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) satellite images and data from ground-based lightning networks were employed to study fire ignitions. Sander’s analysis found increases of between two and five percent a year in the number of lightning-ignited fires since 1975. Veraverbeke said that the observed trends are consistent with climate change, with higher temperatures linked to both more burning and more thunderstorms.
Study co-author Brendan Rogers at Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts says these trends are likely to continue. “We expect an increasing number of thunderstorms, and hence fires, across the high latitudes in the coming decades as a result of climate change.” This is confirmed in the study by different climate model outputs.
Charles Miller of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, another co-author, said while data from Alaska’s agency lightning networks were critical to this study, it is challenging to use these data to verify trends because of continuing network upgrades. “A spaceborne sensor that provides lightning data that can be linked with fire dynamics would be a major step forward,” he said. Such a sensor exists already– NASA’s spaceborne Optical Transient Detector –but it’s geostationary orbit limits its utility for high latitudes.
The researchers found that the fires are creeping farther north, near the transition from boreal forests to Arctic tundra. “In these high-latitude ecosystems, permafrost soils store large amounts of carbon that become vulnerable after fires pass through,” said co-author James Randerson of the University of California, Irvine. “Exposed mineral soils after tundra fires also provide favorable seedbeds for trees migrating north under a warmer climate.”
The Alaska Fire Science Consortium at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, also participated in the study, and provides this 2-page Research Brief executive summary.
Citation: Veraverbeke, S., B.M. Rogers, M.L. Goulden, R.R. Jandt, C.E. Miller, E.B. Wiggins and J.T. Randerson. Lightning as a major driver of recent large fire years in North American boreal forests. Nature Climate Change 7: 529–534 (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nclimate3329
That would be the Interagency Fuels Treatment Decision Support System–you know–that’s been in development and then beta-testing since 2006? Well, the good news is they’ve officially released it now as a finished tool and it’s free and available to everyone. See the new official IFTDSS webpage to review the history and capabilities. For the uninitiated, IFTDSS is a web-based software and data integration framework that organizes fire and fuels software applications to make fuels treatment planning and analysis more efficient.
We’ve had the beta-test version available for a while but funding availability to maintain the web-based tool has been a subject of debate so it’s nice to see this 2017 roll-out! If you haven’t checked out IFTDSS, one of it’s strengths is enabling you to complete an analysis using “cloud”-power without loading a lot of disparate pieces of software for project definition, fuel types, fire behavior and spread rate, etc. onto your personal or government computer. The platform has integrated links to sources of vegetation data (LANDFIRE), topography, etc. making them easy to upload. The proliferation of different software systems, by different entities, to “help” managers plan fuel treatments was identified as a source of confusion and inefficiency by the national fuels management committee, which spurred the initial development of IFTDSS. So check it out–they offer both training and a help center, and IFTDSS is now included in the training for Prescribed Fire Planner (aka Burn Boss) RX341 class.