Tag Archives: wildfire

We’re starting to see the worst wildfire years in recorded history

Rising temperatures and a decrease in atmospheric humidity are driving extreme weather around the world, especially wildfires, according to a new study. Researchers looked at global fire weather trends from 1979 to 2020 and found that the world’s eight most severe wildfire weather years on record happened in the last decade. 

Image credit: Flickr / EU.

Humans influence wildfires in several ways. While human activities such as discarding lit cigarettes and lighting campfires can be responsible for starting the fires, hotter weather also makes forests drier and susceptible to burning. This happens because growing temperatures evaporate more moisture from the ground, then dry the soil and make vegetation more flammable.

Globally, average temperatures have already increased by 1.1ºC, and the way things going now (without ambitious climate action), temperatures will rise even more. This leads to more extreme weather events, such as drought and heatwaves, which can exacerbate. In the US alone, 18 wildfire events between 1980 and 2020 have caused over $1 billion in damage. 

To make matters even worse, this increase in temperature is not uniform — and some areas are seeing much stronger heating than others. But wildfires also have a negative impact on the Earth’s climate. Forests concentrate large amounts of carbon, which is immediately released into the atmosphere when they burn. In turn, this contributes to the climate crisis. After burning, carbon continues to be released via decomposition.

The more researchers look at wildfires, the clearer the link between climate and wildfires becomes — and it doesn’t take much to stoke the fires.

“Extreme conditions drive the world’s fire activity,” said in a statement former wildfire expert Michael Flannigan, who conducted the new research with study lead Piyush Jain, scientists at Natural Resources Canada and Sean Coogan, postdoctoral fellow. “For example, in Canada, just three per cent of fires are responsible for 97% of the area burned.”

Exploring wildfires 

The researchers explored fire weather trends from the last 40 years, using fire weather indexes to estimate fire intensity, the rate of fire spread, and changes in vapor pressure and humidity. The findings linked higher global temperatures and a decrease in humidity with the possibility of extreme fire events happening more often.

Wildfires are now expected to spread to new areas and burn more intensely than ever before if the climate change trends continue as now, the study showed. The researchers found that more than 75% of the increase in fire spread and severity was driven by a drop in humidity. Increases in extreme weather have also been a significant driver of wildfires. 

Half of Earth’s burnable landmass has seen increases in extreme weather, which can then trigger forest fires, Flannigan said. “It’s not a big surprise, but with climate change, we expect warmer conditions to continue and this trend to continue, expand and get worse,” he added, with examples from British Columbia included in the study. 

The researchers argued that even if global warming is addressed with stronger action now, the wildfire threat would still be there for decades around the world. With this in mind, they called communities to be prepared. “We’re on this path of a new reality. It’s not normal because there’s nothing normal about what’s going on,” Flanningan said.

The study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change. 

Satellite images show the massive extent of August’s wildfires

It’s been a scorching summer, and it’s no coincidence. With climate change in almost full swing, the odds of heatwaves and fires increase dramatically — and we’re seeing the effects. The European Union’s Copernicus observation program has published a collage of just some of these fires, as seen from space. Here are some of them.

Wildfires in north-eastern Algeria

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery.

This 3D visualization shows one of the dozens of fires ravaging through the Kabylia region in Algeria. Thousands of fires have broken out in the Mediterranean, and over 100 of them are in the Kabylia region, where there have been  65 casualties to date.

Algerians have decried the lack of governmental support as the fires rip through the country.

“We started raising funds and volunteering during the last COVID-19 wave, so a lot of organisational mechanisms were already in place to fight these fires,” said Mokrane Nessah, a 54-year-old coordinator for one of the charities on site.

Wildfire in Evia, Greece

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery.

Evia is the second-largest Greek island, and these two images taken just ten days apart show how the island was devastated by wildfires. Thousands of residents were evacuated, and after tireless firefighter work, the fire was contained only after seven days.

Carbon monoxide pollution from wildfires on North America’s West Coast

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-5P imagery.

Many of the dreadful effects of wildfires are visible to the naked eye — but not all. Heatwaves across North America have fueled massive wildfires (so-called “megafires”). According to data from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, these megafires have triggered massive carbon dioxide emissions. Many of these fires are still not contained.

Smoke cloud from fires in Amazonia

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-3 imagery.

Every year, the fire season in the Amazon peaks in August-September. While some fires are natural, in recent years, the phenomenon is greatly exacerbated by burning of vegetation for deforestation. Recently, the Brazilian Institute of Space Research (INPE) recorded the second-highest annual deforestation rate ever. According to its data, in the period between August 2020 and July 2021, Brazil has lost 8,712 km² of forests, or about 12 times the area of New York City. 

This smoke cloud is visible from some of the areas most affected by deforestation — the states of Rondônia, Mato Grosso, and Para.

Wildfire in Var, France

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery.

The Mediterranean basin has been hit by one of its most severe heatwaves in history. A fire broke out in south-eastern France, causing thousands to evacuate their homes or holiday sites. In the image above, the fire scar is still visible, while active fires still output smoke.

More fires in Greece

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery.

Greece is having a particularly painful wildfire year. The image above shows a fire in Peloponnese, also fueled by intense heatwaves and strong winds. Heatwaves cause leaves and wood to be drier and more flammable.

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-3 imagery.

Meanwhile, in western Attica, very strong winds are making firefighter intervention much more difficult.

Wildfire near Castro Marim – Portugal

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery.

This image shows the massive burnt scar that resulted from wildfires in the Faro District, in southern Portugal. The wildfire is now under control, but it shows that Portugal is also vulnerable in the face of summer fires.


The bottom line: wildfires and global warming go hand in hand

The relationship between climate and fire is complex, but researchers are increasingly finding strong correlations between warm summer temperatures and large fire years. Since climate change is making heatwaves more likely, the logical conclusion is that fires will become more and more common (and more and more massive) as climate change starts to take its toll.

For instance, in the south-eastern US, models suggest that a warming of just one degree Celsius would increase the burned area by as much as 600% in some types of forests.

Of course, hotter weather doesn’t automatically bring wildfires — you also need ignition, and in many parts of the world, the majority of fires are started by humans. In the US, for instance, 84% of fires are started by humans

However, once a fire starts, hot weather can make the difference between an easily contained fire and a large-scale catastrophe — and this is pretty much what we’re seeing over the course of this summer.

Wildfires could ‘seed’ new clouds with the particles they release

‘Ice’ is not the first thing that pops into your mind when thinking of wildfires, is it? And yet, new research is pointing to a link between such fires and the teeny tiny bits of ice that form clouds.

Image credits Sippakorn Yamkasikorn.

A new study is looking at the link between wildfires and ice-containing clouds like cumulonimbus or cirrus, the main drivers of continental precipitation. According to the findings, these clouds require microparticles to start forming — which a wildfire can supply in great quantities.

Ashes to rain

Cloud formation is a complex phenomenon, one that can shift quite significantly depending on conditions such as temperature or atmospheric dynamics. The clouds you’re used to seeing, for example, start their lives around very tiny particles, known as ice-nucleating particles (INPs). These can be anything from bacteria to minerals, just as long as they’re very tiny.

And that’s why the team was interested in studying how wildfires could influence the genesis of such clouds: wildfires can generate tons and tons of small particles. Because of this, they argue that wildfires could have a very important role to play in the dynamics of clouds, at least on a local level.

In order to find out, one study analyzed the plumes of the 2018 wildfires in California (western US) from samples taken at high altitudes, where the particles it contains might directly affect cloud formation. In very broad lines, this study found that INP quantities can become up to 2 orders of magnitude higher in a wildfire smoke plume compared to normal air. However, this didn’t account for the types of particles involved. Fires can produce a wide range of particles depending on the fuel they’re burning, their location, the specific conditions this burn is taking place in, and its temperature. One useful bit of information we can glean from this study is that the INPs were dominated by organic materials.

Spherical tar balls accounted for almost 25% of INPs in certain conditions, although this seems to vary widely with the type of fuel and the type of fire involved — understanding how they factor in is still “an open question,” according to the researchers.

Wildfires are predicted to become much more common in the future due to climate change, the team explains, so understanding how they can influence clouds (and thus, precipitation patterns) will do us a lot of good in the future. So far, the papers showcase that they can lead to very high levels of INPs accumulating in the troposphere, which could in turn influence how clouds and rain behave.

At this time, however, we need more modeling and sampling studies to understand these mechanisms in detail, and how they influence the world around us.

The paper “Observations of Ice Nucleating Particles in the Free Troposphere From Western US Wildfires” has been published in the journal Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

Researchers develop new tool to help regrow burned-down forests

New research at the University of California, Davis with support from U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Cal Fire, and the U.S. Forest Service aims to understand how forests regenerate after wildfires.

Image via Pixabay.

The team has managed to create a predictive mapping tool that showcases where forests may have trouble regrowing after burning down. This tool can be used to nurture those areas that could have trouble recovering on their own, an especially important task in the wake of the massive wildfires we’ve seen in Australia and the USA this year.

After the flame

“Huge fires are converting forested areas to landscapes devoid of living trees,” said lead author Joseph Stewart, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis and with USGS.

“Managers need timely and accurate information on where reforestation efforts are needed most.”

Wildfires might char whole forests down to the ground, but there will always be saplings to start anew — at least, that’s what we like to think. There are, in fact, multiple factors that influence whether, and how fast, a forest can regrow after such an event; understanding what these are and how they interact in the real world can thus help preserve forests even after they have burned down.

The new tool, known as the Post-fire Spatial Conifer Regeneration Prediction Tool (POSCRPT), aims to give forest managers a way of estimating which areas will regrow naturally after a fire, and which are likely to need some help to do so. It produces results within weeks of a fire, too, meaning steps can be taken quickly to prevent long-lasting forest losses.

POSCRPT was developed from data recorded in the USA in the wake of the massive wildfires that swept through California. The team found that conifers (which dominate North America’s forests) are less likely to recover after a fire if seedlings have to face drier conditions. This is especially pronounced in low-lying forests that already experience frequent periods of drought, the team explains.

Fewer conifers are expected to regrow in California’s lower elevation forests due to climate change and its associated drought conditions, the team adds.

“We found that when forest fires are followed by drought, tree seedlings have a harder time, and the forest is less likely to come back,” said Stewart.

The study recorded post-fire recovery data from more than 1,200 study plots in 19 wildfires that burned between 2004 and 2012, and 18 years’ worth of forest seed production data. This was put together with multispectral satellite imagery, forest structure maps, as well as data pertaining to climate and other environmental factors. The end result was a model of how seed availability and forests’ regeneration probabilities vary for different groups of conifers.

A prototype has been used over the last few years by forest managers, the authors explain — the latest update includes more in-depth information on post-fire climate and seed production and also has an improved web interface.

“This work is a great example of how multiple partners can come together to solve major resource management problems that are arising from California’s climate and fire trends,” said co-author Hugh Safford, regional ecologist for the USDA Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region and a member of the research faculty at UC Davis.

The paper “Effects of postfire climate and seed availability on postfire conifer regeneration” has been published in the journal Ecological Applications.

Wildfire smoke can carry microbes that cause infectious diseases, researchers find

Breathing wildfire smoke, even in low amounts, means you’re exposed to noxious gases, plant material, and incinerated synthesis materials. It’s bad enough, especially for those with respiratory conditions. But there’s more: the haze can also be loaded by microbes, a new study showed.

Image credit: Flickr / BLMidaho

Wildfires over the past 3 years have resulted in lengthy episodes of smoke inundation across major metropolitan areas in Australia, Brazil, and the United States. In 2020, air quality across the western United States reached and sustained extremely unhealthy to hazardous levels for successive weeks from August through November.

Although the pulmonary and cardiovascular consequences of human exposure to smoke particulate matter are extensively researched, there remains little recognition or monitoring of microbes, a smoke component with potentially important health repercussions that has only just started to be studied.

That’s why a pair of researchers, Leda Kobziar and George Thomson, published a perspective piece, calling for a multidisciplinary approach from fire ecology to epidemiology to better characterize these microbes and determine how they might be making wildfire smoke even worse for human health.

“It’s not just comprised of particulate matter and gases, but it also has a significant living component in it,” Kobziar told Wired. “Wildfire smoke may actually spread beneficial organisms for an ecosystem but what might the consequences be for the spread of pathogens that we know are airborne?”

Wildfires are a source of bioaerosols, airborne particles made of fungal and bacterial cells and their metabolic byproducts. Once they are in the air, these small particles can travel hundreds or even thousands of miles. The extent will depend on the fire behavior and atmospheric conditions, eventually being deposited or inhaled.

But shouldn’t the microbes get burned in the flames? Not necessarily, the researchers argue. Wildfires burn at different intensities at different spots as they move around. This means complete combustion happens simultaneously with incomplete combustion, leaving lots of pockets in which microbes can survive the blaze.

Instead of dying, microbes can be transported in wildfires smoke emissions. They are basically hitchhikers on charred carbon and water vapor. While microbial concentration in smoke is higher near the fire source, these microbes may be active agents spreading infection, the researchers argue in their piece.

“The diversity of microbes we have found so far in the very few studies that have been done is impressive,” said Kobziar in a statement. “These taxa (groups of living organisms) were not found in non-smoky air in the same locations prior to the fire, proving that combustion and its associated winds aerosolize microbes.”

For example, there’s the fungus genus Coccidioides, a species that lives in soil. If a fire disrupts a landscape, it affects the soil directly by burning it with flames but also indirectly, as the hot and rising air creates an atmospheric void near the surface. This can produce strong winds that move the earth, aerosolizing the fungi and altering the local microecosystem.

A firefighter can then inhale that air filled with microbes, which can create a condition known as coccidioidomycosis, or valley fever, with symptoms such as fever and shortness of breath. This can then progress to pneumonia or meningitis. Coccidioidomycosis is actually very common among firefighters.

This could easily get more severe. Wildfires are getting bigger because of climate change and researchers are reporting an increase in the number of people in the American West infected with mycoses. Fungal spores “can at as an allergen and initiate asthma,” Mary Prunicki, from Stanford University, told Wired.

Studies with hurricanes and storms had shown that microbes agents can travel very long distances, but no one was able to prove a similar journey for bacteria in a smoke plume. But the ability of smoke to travel around the world suggests that it could be a “missing link” in explaining some patterns of infection.

“When infections are detected in patients, the potential causal agents that are screened are based on what is known to be endemic in a given region,” said Kobziar. “However, smoke blurs the lines between regions.”

The perspective piece was published in Nature.

Climate change is driving California’s record wildfires

California is experiencing one of its worst wildfire seasons on record and climate change seems to be the main driver, according to a new study. Researchers have found an “unequivocal and pervasive” role for global warming in driving the scale and severity of the fires.

Credit Flickr Daria Devyatkina.

More than two million acres (809.000 hectares) have already been burned across the state, with residents being forced to leave their homes as firefighters try to contain blazes. President Trump has pointed the finger at poor land management practices as the main cause, while the California Governor has blamed climate change.

Now, a review of scientific research into the actual reasons for the wildfire has suggested rising temperatures are playing a major role. The same research team had already looked at the origins of Australia’s dramatic fires and found climate change was behind the increase in the frequency and severity of fire there as well.

The new review looked at more than 100 studies published since 2013. They showed that extreme fires form when natural variability in the climate syncs up with increasingly warm and dry background conditions (which are made more frequent by global warming). That’s the case now in California, and it created the worst wildfires in 18 years.

“In terms of the trends we’re seeing, in terms of the extent of wildfires, and which have increased eight to ten-fold in the past four decades, that trend is driven by climate change,” said Matthew Jones, lead-author to BBC News. “Climate change ultimately means that those forests, whatever state they’re in, are becoming warmer and drier more frequently.”

The researchers found that in the 40 years from 1979 to 2019, weather conditions that foster wildfires have increased by a total of eight days on average across the world. However, in California, the number of autumn days with extreme wildfire conditions has doubled in that period. They concluded climate change is bringing hotter and drier weather to the Western US, exposing the region to more fire risks.

The researchers also acknowledged that fire management practices in the US have also contributed to the build-up of fuel. Fire authorities normally do controlled burnings to reduce the amount of fuel available when a wildfire starts. But this has been altered due to the rising temperatures.

“When you do prescribed burns, you can only do it when the conditions aren’t too hot and dry, because you need to be able to control the fire,” said Prof Richard Betts, co-author, told BBC News. “But once you’ve passed the point where you’ve got hot, dry conditions for much of the year, you’ve lost your opportunity to do lots of prescribed burnings.”

The researchers argued that the conditions for wildfire are likely to continue to become more common in the future, and, according to Dr. Jones, the resulting fires will likely get worse. That’s why they called for further action to address climate change. The more we can do to limit temperature growth the better, as far as avoiding the further expansion of wildfires is concerned.

The study was published in the journal ScienceBrief.

Wildfires can change the songs birds sing

Wildfires seem to alter the songs of birds living in affected forests, a new paper suggests.

The study focused on Hermit Warblers, a small songbird native to North and Central America. These birds woo their mates with songs following formulas and patterns, unlike the ones they use to defend territory — these are more complex and creative. Oftentimes, there is a song formula that becomes dominant within certain populations or geographic areas.

Hermit Warbler (Dendroica occidentalis).
Image via Wikimedia.

Researchers recorded over a thousand of their songs in California from 2009 to 2014. They report finding over 35 regional dialects in song formulas, and that wildfires and other disturbances have a significant effect on the way these birds sing their songs in the short term by mixing populations together.

Environmental artists

“Our surveys suggest that song dialects arose in sub-populations specialized to different forest types,” said the paper’s lead author, Brett Furnas. “Over the longer term, fire caused some birds to flee and created a vacuum for other birds to fill. The net result is that some areas now have birds singing more than one dialect resulting in a complex diversity of songs throughout California.”

The species is immediately — and negatively — impacted by disturbances such as wildfires or elective timber harvests, according to the authors. However, they do ultimately fare well under the effects of such events, due to changes in forest structure and an increased influx of pollinating insects (food).

The authors proposed that birdsong can help us understand how biodiversity is maintained in certain environments. These birds learn songs through imitation, and with time this creates song variants that are characteristic of individual areas.

The study recorded the formulaic songs from 1,588 males across 101 study sites in the state between 2009 and 2014, providing the first comprehensive mapping of Hermit Warbler songs throughout California. Each song fit one of 35 dialects.

Song dialects tended to be isolated to different forest types. Local song diversity, meanwhile, increased with the amount of local fires. Using data from ten study areas revisited in 2019, the researchers also showed that song structure had begun to change since the initial visits 5-10 years earlier, with locations that saw wildfires between visits showing the greatest increase in diversity.

The paper, “Wildfires and Mass Effects of Dispersal Disrupt the Local Uniformity of Type I Songs of Hermit Warblers in California,” has been published in the journal The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

California, and the world at large, will contend with longer, hotter, drier wildfire seasons

Climate change is going to put California at risk of longer, more dangerous, and more destructive wildfire seasons reports a new study from the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

Australian wildfire photographed in 2019.
Image credits Sippakorn Yamkasikorn.

The authors hope their work will guide authorities to implement more effective strategies for wildfire risk mitigation and land management, as well as to spur better resource allocation for the fighting of wildfires.

Wilderfires

“Many factors influence wildfire risk, but this study shows that long-term warming, coupled with decreasing autumn precipitation, is already increasing the odds of the kinds of extreme fire weather conditions that have proved so destructive in both northern and southern California in recent years,” said study senior author Noah Diffenbaugh, the Kara J Foundation professor at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

The team reports that autumn days with weather conditions conducive to extreme fires have doubled in frequency since the early 1980s in California, while rainfall during the wildfire season has dropped by about 30%. At the same time, the average temperature has risen by over 2 degrees Fahrenheit (more than 1 degree Celsius) over the same timeframe, with late summer and early autumn showing the highest increases. All in all, these factors work together to create very dry plant material in forests and grasslands that can act as tinder during the same parts of the year when dry “Diablo” and “Santa Ana” winds blow throughout northern and southern California.

This is what has been feeding the large and fast-spreading wildfires seen across the state in recent years, the team explains. And their effect has been seen over the past few years: California recorded its deadliest wildfire, its two largest wildfires, and its two most destructive wildfires so far during 2017 and 2018, the team explains, which collectively caused more than $50 billion in damage and claimed over 150 lives.

File:2017 California wildfires.png
Map of 2017 California wildfires from January 1 to October 11.
Image credits Wikimedia.

The paper analyses the November 2018 Camp Fire in the Northern Sierra Nevada foothills and the Woolsey Fire around the same time near Los Angeles. Both were fueled by strong seasonal winds and dry plant material created during the state’s hottest summer on record (in 2018). The outcomes of the fire were worsened due to the state’s limited emergency response resources, which were put under immense strain trying to contain the fires raging across different areas.

Local data, global problem

For the study, the team looked at historic temperature and rain gauge records to determine the risk of extreme wildfires throughout the year. Autumn showed an especially pronounced increase, with a doubling in conditions that foster such events over the past four decades. A suite of climate model simulations showed that human-caused climate change is at the root of this change in conditions.

“Autumn is of particular concern since warmer, drier conditions may coincide with the strong offshore wind events which tend to occur in the September to November period,” said Michael Goss, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral scholar in Diffenbaugh’s Climate and Earth System Dynamics Group.

As for solutions, the team showed that the proposed reductions in emissions under the United Nations’ Paris agreement would help to slow down the rate at which wildfire risks increase — however, even in this scenario, much of California will likely still experience a rise in extreme wildfires in the future. The findings are “yet another piece of evidence that climate change is already having a discernible influence on day-to-day life in California,” according to Daniel Swain, a research fellow at UCLA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and The Nature Conservancy, a study coauthor.

While the study focused on California, the findings are broadly applicable to any regions that are historically fire-prone, the team explains. This further exacerbates the problem, as global firefighting resources need to be spread over a larger area, limiting their effectiveness.

Apart from curbing our emissions, the team recommends controlled burning to reduce available fuel, upgrades to emergency communications and response systems, the development and implementations of community-level protective fire breaks, and changes to zoning and building codes meant to promote fire-resistant construction.

The paper “Climate change is increasing the risk of extreme autumn wildfire conditions across California” has been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The key to avoiding massive wildfires? Small, strategic controlled fires

As climate change continues to take its toll, more intense wildfires are expected. A team of researchers believes they have a way to tackle this phenomenon — but the solution is wildly unpopular.

“We need a colossal expansion of fuel treatments,” said study lead author Rebecca Miller, one of the study authors said.

US Forest Service prescribed burn in California’s Sierra National Forest. Image credits: US Forest Service.

Fuel and fire

Wildfires have always been devastating. They’re a natural phenomenon in many parts of the world, but deforestation and climate change are making things much worse, exacerbating fires way beyond their normal levels.

Not only is climate change driving drought, but it’s making things drier. This means that many plants, which are usually moist and would not readily burn have become fuel, spreading the fire and making it more powerful than it would naturally be.

The effect of this extra fuel has become apparent in the catastrophic Australia bushfires, which have already burned an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres), destroying some 5,900 buildings and killing 30 people and over 1 billion animals.

Now, the authors of a new study published in Nature Sustainability believe they have found a way to limit the effect of such fires. The study was focused on the California area but could apply to other drought-plagued areas, including Australia.

Essentially, they say that proactive vegetation treatment (which includes small, controlled fires) can substantially reduce the total burned area. Although this seems dangerous, it can reduce the amount of fuel available for uncontrolled fires.

“Prescribed burns are effective and safe,” said study co-author Chris Field, the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies. “California needs to remove obstacles to their use so we can avoid more devastating wildfires.”

Fire suppression efforts in California have been somewhat successful, but they’ve also led to a massive accumulation of wood and plant fuel in forests. This means that when a fire does go out of control, it can grow to terrifying strengths.

The controlled burns, especially in conjunction with vegetation thinning, have multiple effects. They provide the same environmental benefits as natural fires (such as reducing the spread of insects and increasing species diversity) and rarely escape beyond the confined area.

To make a significant difference, California needs to deploy treatments on nearly 20% of the state’s land area, the study finds — be it controlled fires or vegetation thinning. California is already deploying ambitious fire control measures, but the recommended measures are even more ambitious.

A rewarding but unpopular solution

Controlled fires are unpopular, but they can make a positive difference. Image credits: USDA.

The problem, however, is that no one really wants to do controlled fires anymore. Researchers carried out interviews with policymakers and government employees, finding that everyone is extremely risk-averse, taking decisions in the shadow of liability laws — burners would be held responsible for every fire that escapes the controlled area, even if the net effect is positive. The system works in a counterproductive way, researchers found.

Essentially, federal employees don’t get any reward if the prescribed burns are successful and reduce burn area, but are heavily punished for any accident regarding escaped fires. So you can have a situation where the net area of the fires is reduced, but where one controlled fire caused minor, unanticipated damage — and the employees would still be sanctioned

To make matters even more touchy, negative public opinion also places more pressure on federal agencies, making the approach even more undesirable.

Controlled fires are almost a traditional solution, but they’ve become less and less popular. Deploying this approach would require quite a bit of innovation — if not on the technical side, then definitely on the legislative and organizational side. Essentially, agencies need to reorganize and be capable of handling the risks, especially when they are heavily outweighed by positive outcomes. This also needs to be communicated effectively so that public opinion understands the general picture and what is at stake.

We can only hope that policymakers can make the right decision and implement these changes. It’s not an easy task, but it can be done. With climate change coming into force, this is more important than ever.

“As catastrophic climate impacts intensify, societies increasingly need to innovate to keep people safe,” said study co-author Katharine Mach, an associate professor at the University of Miami who was director of the Stanford Environment Assessment Facility and senior research scientist in the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at the time of the research. “Much of this innovation is conceptually simple: making sure the full portfolio of responses, prescribed burns and beyond, can be deployed.”

The study has been published in Nature Sustainability.

Immune system could be altered for years after a wildfire

Exposure to wildfire smoke may alter the immune system for years, new research found, as the tiny particulate matter in the smoke that penetrates into the lungs and into the bloodstream could linger for a long time.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

When exposed to wildfires, people are also inhaling noxious fine particles measuring less than 2.5 microns, or a fifth the size of a particle of dust or pollen. Researchers have had a hard time quantifying exposure to those tiny particles.

A new study, published in the journal Allergy, found exposure to high levels of that tiny particulate matter, abbreviated as PM2.5, impairs the immune system of children. The researchers tested the blood of 36 children exposed to wildfire smoke blown into Fresno in 2015.

In their results, they found changes in a gene involved in the development and function of T cells, an important component of the immune system. The alteration made the gene less capable of producing T regulatory cells, potentially putting the children at greater risk of developing allergies or infection.

“T regulatory cells act as peacekeepers in your immune system and keep everything on an even keel,”Mary Prunicki, an allergy researcher and lead author, told WIRED. “You have fewer of these good, healthy immune cells around when you’re exposed to a lot of air pollution.”

As with wildfires, controlled fires to clear out underbrush, known as prescribed burns, also can cause health effects. Thirty-two children exposed to smoke from prescribed burns had immune changes, too, but the effect wasn’t as strong as it was for children exposed to wildfire smoke, the study showed.

The research did not follow those children to see if their altered immune systems led to worse health outcomes, but an ongoing study at the University of California, Davis, raises some similar concerns. This one focused on rhesus macaques that live in an outdoor enclosure at the California National Primate Research Center and were exposed to 10 days of PM2.5

At three years of age, researchers examined 50 monkeys that had been exposed to wildfire smoke. They produced less of an immune-related protein as compared to monkeys not exposed to smoke as babies. That protein triggers inflammation to fight pathogens. A closer examination o revealed immune-related genetic changes as well.

“Clearly, the toxicants in air pollution are having a permanent effect on the DNA of immune cells,” Lisa A. Miller, principal investigator, told WIRED. “It’s a change that stays with that cell for its entire life.”

The National Interagency Fire Center predicts an “above normal” potential for wildfires this summer for Northern California. People can take precautions to limit their exposure when wildfire smoke blankets their area. Some cities provide “clear air centers” like a wildfire version of the evacuation shelters used during hurricanes.

A unique tree could help soils remain fertile in the Amazon

Subject to growing wildfires and deforestation, the Amazon has been recently challenged in Brazil and Bolivia. But there’s a ray of hope, as researchers are encouraging farmers to plant a tree species that could keep the soil fertile.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The inga tree, known as the ice cream bean three, can grow on the very poor soil left by destructive slash and burn land clearing and also improve the soil, making it fertile enough for other species to return.

The tree fixes nitrogen into the soil, a key nutrient for plants. Then, its beans can be sold by farmers, leaves from the trees can be fed to cattle, and they can be coppiced to create firewood – giving people several reasons to invest in growing them.

The Ouro Verde Institute in Brazil is behind an initiative designed to support farmers wishing to plant inga trees, aiming to prove that farmers can expect to get an income from the species – which is a type of legume.

Toby Pennington, a professor of tropical plant diversity and biogeography at the University of Exeter, told the BBC: “Even amongst legumes, they have pretty fantastic growth rates. If you had a cup of coffee this morning that came from Latin America, the odds are that it was growing underneath one of these inga trees.”

The ecosystems that thrive below the branches of the trees are also an important factor for boosting ecological diversity and assisting growers with the means of making even greater financial returns. Greater coverage of land where ingas are grown could also provide vital corridors for wildlife in the Amazon.

However, attempts to re-green areas of the Amazon needs to occur at the same time as stopping the destruction of the rainforest. Fires in the Amazon have increased by 84% since the same period last year, according to satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

In June, the institute published data showing an 88% increase in deforestation in the Amazon compared to the same month a year ago. The data release led to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro accusing the director of the National Institute for Space Research of lying, which apparently led to him being fired.

The Amazon rainforest has long been recognized as a repository of ecological services not only for local tribes and communities but also for the rest of the world. It is also the only rainforest that we have left in terms of size and diversity.

New gel-like material can stop wildfires for months at a time

New research at Stanford aims to gel out wildfires.

Image credits Marc Mooney.

A novel preventive technique developed at Stanford could help slash the incidence and severity of wildfires. The technique involves an environmentally-benign gel that helps common fire-retardants applied against wildfires to last longer.

Up in smoke

“This has the potential to make wildland firefighting much more proactive, rather than reactive,” said Eric Appel, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford.

“What we do now is monitor wildfire-prone areas and wait with bated breath for fires to start, then rush to put them out.”

The idea behind the gel is to apply it to areas that are prone to wildfires. The gel helps fix fire-retarding compounds where they’re needed long after weathering would remove them by themselves. The team notes that the gel treatment is more effective and much less expensive than monitoring and sending firefighters in to contain the wildfires.

We’ve done a pretty decent job at suppressing wildfires over the last century or so since the industrial revolution really picked up. The downside to this, however, is that it makes wildfires today more likely to happen due to fuel (dry plant matter) buildup. Fire is a natural part of many ecosystems, and helps recycle nutrients and clear the way for new generations of plants and animals to move in after the scorch. Today, the issue of wildfires is further intensified by shifts in precipitation levels and climate.

The last two years recorded four of the 20 largest and eight of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California’s history, even though the 2019 season has been relatively calm in the West, the team explains. They add that federal spending on firefighting in 2018 drained over $3 billion.

Image credits Anthony C. Yu et al., 2019, PNAS.

Despite their ecological role, most wildfires in the U.S. are caused by people, and many originate in the same hotspots. These include roadsides, camping grounds, and remote electrical lines. The team’s idea was to treat these at-risk areas ahead of time to prevent wildfires — but we didn’t have any long-lasting, environmentally-benign materials to use for the task.

Wildfire preventive measures today revolve mostly around the clearing of potential fuel, and short-term suppressants and fire retardants. If a wildfire starts, firefighters use suppressants, such as gels that carry water and wet superabsorbent polymers (the stuff that’s in diapers). They’re currently short-lived, however, and lose effectiveness in about an hour as they dry out. Crews thus use such gels to protect buildings in the path of the fire for example, rather than blanketing the whole forest with them.

The Stanford team wanted to improve this useful time, so they swapped the traditional formulation (which uses ammonium phosphate or its derivatives) for a cellulose-based substance. This swap made the gel stay on vegetation longer even when exposed to wind, rain, and other environmental factors. The substance is non-toxic, made from materials used in food, drug, cosmetic, and agricultural products. Application is as simple as loading it into standard agricultural spraying equipment or an airplane and spraying it on or around a point of interest.

“You can put 20,000 gallons of this on an area for prevention, or 1 million gallons of the traditional formulation after a fire starts,” said study lead author Anthony Yu, a Ph.D. student in materials science and engineering at Stanford.

The team collaborated with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) to test the new fire-retarding gel on two types of vegetation that frequently kindles fires — grass and chamise. The gel still provided complete fire protection even after half an inch (1.3 cm) of rainfall. The team notes that a typical commercial retardant formulation would provide little or no fire protection in the same scenario.

The material does degrade, but slowly, providing protection for months at a time. The researchers are now working with the California Department of Transportation and CalFire to test the material on high-risk roadside areas that are the origin of dozens of wildfires every year.

“We don’t have a tool that’s comparable to this,” said Alan Peters, a CalFire division chief in San Luis Obispo who monitored some of the test burns. “It has the potential to definitely reduce the number of fires.”

The paper “Wildfire prevention through prophylactic treatment of high-risk landscapes using viscoelastic retardant fluids” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Forest Fire.

Wildfires lock away a ‘considerable amount of carbon’ for centuries, or even millennia

Wildfires could, surprisingly, act as net carbon traps.

Forest Fire.

Image via Pixabay.

The charcoal produced by wildfires can keep carbon out of the atmosphere for hundreds of years, new research from the Swansea University suggests.. The findings will help us better model changes in climate, especially as warmer mean temperatures in the arctic are leading to an unprecedented outbreak of wildfires and CO2 release in the area.

Burned and buried

Wildfires generate a large quantity of CO2. Generally, however, the gas is re-captured as vegetation grows back, so wildfires are considered to be more or less carbon-neutral once this regrowth process is complete.

“However, in a fire some of the vegetation is not consumed by burning, but instead transformed to charcoal,” explains Dr. Matthew Jones, lead author of the paper who recently joined the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) School of Environmental Sciences from Swansea University.

“This carbon-rich material can be stored in soils and oceans over very long time periods. We have combined field studies, satellite data, and modelling to better quantify the amount of carbon that is placed into storage by fires at the global scale.”

On average, wildfires burn an area roughly equivalent to the size of India every year and emit more carbon dioxide than global road, rail, shipping, and air transport combined, the team explains. Given the increased occurrence of wildfires in the past few years, a trend which will likely pick up in our warmer, drier future, the team set out to quantify how much carbon this charcoal can sequester from the air. All in all, the team says that this charcoal could lock away a considerable amount of carbon for years to come.

Vegetation growing back in burned areas draws on atmospheric CO2 to grow (through photosynthesis). This stage of the fire-recovery cycle takes just a bit under a year for grasslands, up to several decades in fire-adapted forests. In extreme cases, such as we’re seeing today in the arctic or tropical peatlands, full recovery may not occur for centuries. The timing of this recovery is important because the carbon that is emitted during the fire stays in the atmosphere and contributes to climate heating. Plants recapture it as they mature.

Overall, grassland fires don’t have that great of an impact; deforestation fires, however, are a particularly important contributor to climate change. Forests produce a lot of emissions as they burn, and take a long time to regrow, resulting in a long-term injection of carbon to the atmosphere.

The team explains that the charcoal resulting from forest fires — known as pyrogenic carbon — plays a larger part in mitigating these emissions than we’ve assumed. While they do emit CO2 to the atmosphere, landscape fires also transfer a significant fraction of the carbon locked in the affected vegetation to charcoal and other charred materials. The researchers say the quantity of this pyrogenic carbon is significant enough that it needs to be considered in global fire emission models.

As this material gets covered in soil, it locks carbon in place. Given time for flora to recover, the process actually leads to a net loss of carbon in the atmosphere — which is what we want.

“Our results show that, globally, the production of pyrogenic carbon is equivalent to 12 % of CO2 emissions from fires and can be considered a significant buffer for landscape fire emissions,” Dr. Jones said.

“Climate warming is expected to increase the prevalence of wildfires in many regions, particularly in forests. This may lead to an overall increase in atmospheric CO2 emissions from wildfires, but also an increase in pyrogenic carbon storage. If vegetation is allowed to recover naturally then the emitted CO2 will be recaptured by regrowth in future decades, leaving behind an additional stock of pyrogenic carbon in soils, lakes and oceans.”

The pyrogenic carbon will eventually find its way back into the atmosphere as the charcoal degrades, but it takes centuries or even millennia to do so. In the meantime, all the carbon it contains doesn’t influence the climate. It isn’t enough to offset man-made emissions, but every bit helps.

“This brings some good news, although rising CO2 emissions caused by human activity, including deforestation and some peatland fires, continue to pose a serious threat to global climate,” Dr. Jones adds.

The findings showcase the importance of factoring in pyrogenic carbon production in future climate models and in the global carbon cycle. The team plans to continue researching how the warmer more drought-prone climate of the future is going to impact the global extent of wildfires and to more accurately estimate the proportion of CO2 emissions recaptured by future vegetation regrowth.

The paper “Global fire emissions buffered by the production of pyrogenic carbon” has been published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Unprecedented, catastrophic wildfires blaze through California

At least 23 succumbed and thousands are being evacuated as dramatic wildfires scorch through California.

A U.S. flag hangs in front of a burning structure during the 2013 wildfires. Image credits: NASA.

Unprecedented scale

Wildfires are not particularly rare in California. The dry, windy, and hot weather provide all the necessary conditions for the fire to spread, but the 2017 season has been particularly destructive. Some 170,000 acres are burning, with 8,000 firefighters battling 22 fires. Over 600 missing persons reports have already been filed, with 23 confirmed fatalities already — and things aren’t slowing down. Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says things might get even worse, as firefighters and rescuers can’t even get into some areas.

“We are literally looking at explosive vegetation,” Pimlott said. “It is very dynamic. These fires are changing by the minute in many areas.”

Some 20,000 people have been ordered to evacuate, as gusts aren’t really calming down. The acreage hasn’t increased, but many areas are at the mercy of winds, and Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency for the counties of Napa, Sonoma, and Yuba.

“We have had big fires in the past. This is one of the biggest, most serious, and it’s not over,” Brown said at a news conference Wednesday.

Image via CA.gov.

Indeed, large swaths of wine country have already been devastated and this is already shaping up to be the worst wildfire event in California’s modern history. It’s not entirely clear how the situation will develop.

“We often have multiple fires going on, but the majority of them all started right around the same time period, same time of night – it’s unprecedented,” Amy Head, the fire captain spokeswoman for Cal Fire, the state agency responsible for fire protection, told the Guardian. “I hate using that word because it’s been overused a lot lately because of how fires have been in the past few years, but it truly is – there’s just been a lot of destruction.”

Why this is happening

It will take a while after the flames settle down to identify the circumstances which led to this situation, but we already have good reasons to say that humans are at least partially at blame.

In recent years, California has faced devastating droughts, culminating in 2014 with the worst drought in at least 1,200 years. Last year, however, the weather was much wetter, encouraging vegetation to grow lusher — making it much more susceptible to catching fire. The connection between global warming and droughts is well established. In particular, one study concluded that this warming can lock California in drought for centuries. So warming leads to drought, and drought leads to wildfires — another connection that’s well established. But it’s more than that.

“It’s very clear that the increasingly hot summers are the product of climate change,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “And it’s clear that human influence has an impact on the climate system in the American West and more broadly. That increases the risk of fire and the overall acreage burned when we get these conditions.”

Decades of aggressive firefighting have also left a lot of fuel on the ground, which also feeds the wildfires. Careless house planning has also left many homes in vulnerable positions. To make things even worse, humans often cause the spark that starts a wildfire.

A 2011 study found that forest fires in the western United States have been increasing in size and possibly severity for several decades, with climate change and human activities being largely to blame. Understanding the nature and magnitude of these impacts is challenging but also important. As devastating as these fires have been, the next ones might be even worse.

Wildfire

Up to 80 percent of all wildfires in the U.S. are started by humans

Wildfire

Credit: Pixabay.

Five out of six wildfires which occurred in the U.S. in the past two decades can be traced back to human activity, a new study found. Human-caused blazes, either on purpose or by accident, have tripled the length of the wildfire season causing it to start earlier in the East and to last longer in the West.

Jennifer Balch, a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado, and colleagues analyzed wildfires occurrences in the country between 1992 to 2011. The researchers found a staggering 1.3 million fires were started by humans, mostly due to trash burning which explained 29 percent of human-started fires. Around 21 percent of fires were due to arson or just as much as there were due to lightning. Another 11 percent can be traced to faulty or misuse of equipment.

Strikingly, one out of five wildfires occurred during the 4th of July. That’s not to say these were the most damaging. While humans are the prime drivers of forest wildfires, we’re responsible for only 44 percent of acres burned.

This chart put together by the researchers show human-triggered wildfire incidence around the country. Credit: PNAS.

This chart put together by the researchers show human-triggered wildfire incidence around the country. Credit: PNAS.

The most human-triggered wildfires can be found in the Southeast. For instance, in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee fire seasons lasted for more than 200 days on average in a year. In these states, 99 percent of all wildfires are caused by humans. That’s because forests in these states don’t catch fire easily.

“The role that humans play in starting these fires and the direct role of human-ignitions on recent increases in wildfire activity have been overlooked in public and scientific discourse,” the scientists wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Humans are also indirectly responsible for an increase in both frequency and length of wildfires by driving climate change as a result of releasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Four of the worst wildfires since 1960 happened in the last decade, among which 2015 is considered the worst wildfire year on record. A growing number of homes in or near major forests is to blame for this dramatic rise in fires but hotter, drier seasons shouldn’t be ignored. In 2016 alone, wildfire damages amounted to two billion dollars.

[ALSO See] The different types of forests

Generally, wildfires are good for ecosystems. These regenerate the forest, revitalize the watershed, renew the soil, and reset the clock for the ecosystem. Many forests such as pine barrens or lodgepole pine forests can’t even survive without fires since the trees are adapted to only produce seeds following a major fire event. That being said, there’s clearly nothing natural in this recent trend and people should definitely act more responsibly when going out in the forest.

This fire in Australia has been burning for 6000 years

Some fires are big enough to see from outer space, others burn for a very long time, but from what I could find, this is the oldest continuous fire in the world. Beneath an Australian mountain, a fire has been burning continuously since 4000 BC.

View of the summit. Image via Wiki Commons.

Way before Egyptians started building pyramids and in fact way before there was an Egypt, this fire was still burning quietly in Australia. To an observer on the surface, Burning Mountain would seem like a rather normal mountain – except for the foul-smelling steam; you wouldn’t really suspect that the coal inside the mountain has been fueling a fire for the past 60 centuries.

No one really knows what started the fire, but I think it’s safe to say we can count Billy Joel off the suspect list. Local Wanaruah people have been using it for thousands of years for heating, cooking, and to make weapons. It could have been a lightning, a forest fire or even spontaneous combustion. Another likely possibility is that the Wanaruah set it ablaze during their traditional rituals – either intentionatelly or on purpose.

Image via Science Alert.

The underground fire is estimated to be at a depth of around 30 m (100 ft). Interestingly enough, the fire isn’t sitting in one place – it’s moving at a rate of about 1 m (3 ft) per year. European explorers and settlers discovered it in 1828, and wrongfully believed it was caused by volcanic activity. Burning mountain, or Mount Wingen (which means “fire” in the local Aboriginal language) is now attracting many tourists, but it’s also causing significant environmental damage.

Image via Gizmodo.

Coal fires are surprisingly common in the world; an estimate puts the number of coal fires taking place on Earth at any given time at around 6,000. The American West is smoldering with coal fires from abandoned mines, and in fact, the entire landscape was shaped by these fires.

“Much of the landscape of the American West — its mesas and escarpments — is the result of vast, ancient coal fires,” writes Kevin Krajick in Smithsonian Magazine. “Those conflagrations formed ‘clinker’ — a hard mass of fused stony matter. Surfaces formed in this way resist erosion far better than adjacent unfired ones, leaving clinker outcrops.”

However, India and China have the biggest problems with burning fires, due to the huge number of abandoned mines.

ISS astronaut snaps beautiful yet disturbing pictures of Australian wildfires

australian wildfire1

Chris Hadfield, the current commander of the International Space Station has taken a few pictures that capture the stunning amplitude of the blazing Australian wildfires. The bushfires have been going on for almost a week, fueled mainly by record temperatures – who would have guessed?

australian wildfire23

The fires are also devastating Tasmania and New South Wales, consuming thousands of acres, leveling down numerous households. So far, they show no signs of stopping.

australian wildfire2