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The future of wildfires: A cultural struggle to learn to live with fire

Sawyer D'Argonne, Summit Daily News
Smoke is thick in the air from the Grizzly Creek Fire, complicating COVID-19 precautions.
Chris Dillmann | cdillmann@vaildaily.com

The future of wildfires doesn’t have to be calamitous or tragic.

There are factors at play that point to a bad ending. The results of ongoing climate change and a history of questionable land-management policies are already impacting the kinds of wildfires we’re seeing today, often more frequent and more intense.

But much is being done to brighten the outlook.

Fire scientists are working to create more ambitious modeling systems to predict wildfire behavior and provide officials with a better understanding of how fires function. Firefighters are experimenting with new technologies that will track resources and pinpoint hazards in real time, and developing better ways to enhance their suppression techniques.

As innovators work on creative solutions to deal with fires, others stress that one key to mitigating risk is more cultural: Can humans learn to better coexist with fire?

“Most people tend to assume that we have a choice not to have wildfires, that we can put it out, we have that choice,” said Mark Finney, Ph.D. and research forester with the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, Montana. “The fact is every year, we’re reminded we don’t have the choice. It’s not within our power to keep fire out of our wildlands.

“The real choice that isn’t often appreciated is our choice of when to have a fire and what kind to have. … We have a choice of living with the kind that are both sustainable to our ecosystems and communities, or only living with the worst ones.”

Foreshadowing disaster

Some of the biggest problems surrounding future wildfires are climate change, invasive species and fuel loading.

The impacts of climate change could be far reaching. Warmer weather has resulted in earlier spring runoff, drier fuels and longer wildfire seasons. And experts say the trend of larger and more frequent wildfires is likely to continue. FlashpointResidents in Summit County and other areas of the wildland-urban interface live under the risk of wildfires much of the year. In this four-part series, we explore how historical policies have contributed to modern fire danger and dive into the science, firefighting tactics and perceptions of what the future of wildfires might look like. 
July 25:Playing with fire
Aug. 1:Anatomy of a wildfire
Aug. 8:On the front lines
Aug. 15:The future of wildfires

In higher elevation forests that are ripe with fuel sources, the climate is historically what has helped to keep wildfires in check.

“What we’ve seen looking at the trajectory going back through the past 50 years is that the fire season is getting longer,” said Julie Korb, professor of biology at Fort Lewis College in Durango. “When I first moved here 20 years ago, we would have snow in the High Country up to the Fourth of July, and then the monsoons hit. The fuel never had a chance to dry out.

“But across the West, what we’re seeing is that even in normal snow years, there’s early spring runoff. As we keep broadening that gap from when there’s snow on the ground to when we get precipitation in the summer, it’s going to increase the length of the wildfire season, and often affect the size and behavior of wildfires. They can move more rapidly, and once they get going, they’re not as easy for firefighters to attack.”

But climate change at lower elevations, which frequently deal with hot and dry conditions, also can have major impacts on wildfire behavior. Deborah Kennard, a professor of environmental science at Colorado Mesa University, said some ecosystems might never look the same after a wildfire.

Kennard said crown fires in ponderosa pine forests are preventing seedling regeneration, which could convert those areas to shrub or grasslands. Fires in riparian areas along the Colorado River could spell the end of some cottonwood stands, which require flooding levels for regeneration that might no longer be realistic. And as the Pine Gulch Fire rages north of Grand Junction, there are concerns that drought could impede the regrowth of the pinyon-juniper habitat.

Firefighting operations Aug. 6 on the Pine Gulch Fire north of Grand Junction. The wildfire is now the fourth largest in Colorado history.
Photo from Inciweb

“We might be getting to a situation today where the climate may not be the same as it was when these woodlands were established,” Kennard said. “Those are going to possibly go through a type conversion to a different type of system.”

One major fear is that as changes in the climate inhibit the regeneration of natural vegetation, invasive species could start to take over in certain areas. In Colorado, one nonnative species causing trouble is cheatgrass, a highly flammable weed that can significantly impact native plants.

The grass potentially could fill in traditionally barren areas that rely on fuel breaks in the landscape to keep fires at bay, creating more contiguous fuels and larger fires. And once the natural vegetation is dead, it might never return.

“The grass comes back right away and even better after a fire,” Kennard said. “That means that those other species can’t get ahold. Once you get cheatgrass in an area, it increases the fire frequency and the fire size, and it makes it so much harder for other fuels to come back. It turns into an annual grassland that could burn every couple years. … 

“Climate change, I think, will be the overarching factor increasingly as we look forward to future wildfires because it will keep getting hotter and drier. But especially in Western Colorado and drier areas, climate change coupled with nonnative invasive species has a synergistic effect where we could see fires that are bigger than they would have been otherwise.”

A history of wildfire suppression over the past 100 years is also taking its toll on many modern forests, which were not allowed to burn naturally resulting in massive fuel loads capable of creating larger fires. Colorado residents have seen the results already.  

In 2002, the Hayman Fire northwest of Colorado Springs became the biggest recorded wildfire in the state’s history, burning more than 137,000 acres, 133 homes and costing about $40 million to suppress.

In the Forest Service’s case study on the Hayman Fire, officials said it burned in rich and dry vegetation, resulting from the exclusion of fire over recent years, and called the blaze an “example of a consequence of what is wrong with current forest management policy in this country.”

“Repeat photography after more than a century or so of lapse shows tremendous changes in vegetation,” Finney said. “The trees in the forest are so dense now, and there’s complete coverage over large parts of the terrain that at one point burned (frequently) enough to have a patchy structure to it. …

“We’re well beyond the point where we can get a head start on this. Looking back to something like the Hayman Fire, it was a direct consequence of having landscapes for tens of miles with very little management.”

An aircraft drops fire retardant to protect the Wildernest neighborhood from the Buffalo Mountain Fire on June 12, 2018, near Silverthorne. In addition to firefighting efforts, a fuels reduction project along the wildland-urban interface is credited with savings homes.
Photo by Hugh Carey / Summit Daily archives

Rethinking our relationship with fire

While turning the tables against climate change is an endeavor further down the line, officials have begun to reshape the way they think about land management.

As with modern day firefighting, creating a more positive future outlook on wildfires relies heavily on proactive solutions. Fuels reduction projects along the wildland-urban interface have become more commonplace over recent years and will continue to be one of the more important tools officials have to combat fires near developed areas.

But some are calling for more cooperation from local, state and federal agencies to take a broader view in building resiliency across larger landscapes.  

“There are so many areas that need treatment that we need to stop saying this is private land or state land or federal land,” Korb said. “We need to work across all lines to determine how we’re going to manage our landscapes. So when we’re talking about tackling these issues in the future, it’s really about forming this collaborative and working together to look at larger landscapes — not 1,000- or even 10,000-acre parcels, but 100,000 to half-million acres — to determine how to manage that to have the type of fires we’re willing to live with.”

Korb emphasized that resiliency might look different for varying types of forests and ecosystems and that there is not a one-size-fits-all prescription. In other words, the topography, fuel types and other factors in certain forests might call for more widespread human manipulation while others might be best left alone.

While fuels are really the only major component of natural wildfires that humans have some direct control over, it makes sense to prioritize treatment projects as we look to the future. But officials also say that not all treatments necessarily have the same impact.

Tree harvesting and the mechanical removal of fuel sources certainly have their place, but those treatments don’t do much to remove finer fuels like grass and brush from the forest floor. Instead, some experts are pushing to allow more wildfires and prescriptive burns to create forest maintenance benefits.

“You can use chain saws and modern logging methods, but that doesn’t really remove the fuel that wildfires depend on,” Finney said. “And once you’re done thinning, then fire is the only way of maintaining fuel conditions and keeping the ecosystem running. One thing we know for sure is that fire plays an essential role in most of our ecosystems in the West, and there’s just no substitute for it.”

But large-scale land-management overhauls and prescriptive fires are solutions easier said than done. In areas that already have embraced changes to management policies, officials say the funding to conduct the desired work is often difficult to come by. In other areas, where the strategies have been slow to take hold, officials say they’re still fighting a cultural war to inform the masses of the benefits of fire.

“This culture — which consists of the public, elected officials, media and the fire agencies — all come together in reacting to wildfires and determining what the acceptable responses are,” Finney said. “And they tend to react in a very predictable way: to try and put the fire out.

“When you try to change the appropriate response to fires, such as doing more prescribed burns or not putting a fire out, then the culture tends to react negatively to that. … We have to change how we look at fires. The science is well developed. The obstacle to using that knowledge in a proactive fashion is almost entirely cultural.”

A Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District firefighter is silhouetted against smoke filtering through the sunlight at a prescribed burn near Breckenridge.
Photo by Mark Fox / Summit Daily archives

ALL |

A data revolution

As experts toil away at creating better land-management practices, scientists in the field are hard at work trying to provide better tools to get the job done.

If officials are going to use fire more proactively, providing them with an even better understanding of the underlying physical processes resulting in different wildfire behaviors is key.

“Fire is full of nonintuitive processes,” said Torben Grumstrup, a Ph.D. and research mechanical engineer with the fire sciences lab in Montana. “It’s a very odd phenomenon, and it’s very normal for us to run into something that makes us say, ‘What the heck is that?’ Something that just doesn’t make sense. But as we dig deeper, we realize it does. We’re learning more and more about fire behavior … and ultimately we hope to update and modernize training with that knowledge.”

Scientists at the fire lab and elsewhere around the world are working to create newer computer modeling systems that can more accurately predict how a wildfire will behave in a given environment. Upgraded models would allow officials to realistically preview how a fire would react in different fuel types, topographies and weather conditions as well as fundamentally improve the way we plan fuel mitigation projects and fire breaks along the wildland-urban interface.

Variations of this technology have existed for a while. Current models are still based on the foundational Rothermel surface fire spread model developed during the 1960s and early 1970s, but there’s much that could be improved.

“Our understanding of fire has come a very long way,” Grumstrup said. “The advantage to the model is it’s very fast on the computer, and relatively simple and easy to run. The disadvantages are that there are some aspects of it that don’t model fire in a realistic way. There are some parts that were developed as educated guesses. It’s long past time to develop a new model.”

Grumstrup and his colleagues are actively working to develop a new modeling system that would incorporate more realistic physics, heat transfer, ignition processes and combustion properties. But as the underlying framework undergoes a facelift, better data collection is needed to power the model.

On a more micro level, the lab is running experiments to determine how fast and long different sizes of fuels burn and how a flame’s orientation on a piece of wood plays a role. With “Big Sandy,” a 12-foot-long rotating table filled with sand, scientists are getting their best data yet on how the shape of flames and variable slopes are impacting heat transfer.

Scientists experiment with “Big Sandy,” a rotating sand table that allows researchers to study how flames transfer heat in varying shapes and slopes.
Photo by U.S. Forest Service Fire Sciences Lab

Special to the Daily |

On a macro level, officials are working to map fuel types and densities on a massive scale. Aerial mapping of fuel sources across the United States is updated every few years, and serves as a valuable tool for land managers and firefighters.

In the mid-2000s, the Landfire project launched in partnership between wildland programs at the U.S. departments of agriculture and interior, and was tasked with providing comprehensive geospatial data to describe vegetation, wildland fuel and fire regimes across the country. But experts say more detail is needed to determine not just how much fuel is in an area but how it is arranged.

“The way we describe fuels right now is with the average loading, the average tons per acre of fuel across an area,” Finney said. “But that doesn’t account for gaps or patchy structure in the landscape. The nonconformity is not captured. … Through some of these much more high-resolution images, we can capture special arrangements of fuels that are sufficiently detailed to do a good job modeling whether a fire can spread or not.”

To that end, researchers are relying on new technologies in aerial imagery to help. In smaller areas, light detection and ranging systems are allowing officials to get detailed 3D maps by reflecting lasers off the treetops from the air. Other techniques rely on aerial photographs taken from different angles that are later constructed into 3D structures of the landscape. Once detailed fuels mapping is complete, experts can distill the information into their more sophisticated wildfire modeling systems.

“We’re hoping in a couple years we’ll be satisfied enough to release (the model) to the world,” Grumstrup said. “And we think it would be a revolution in how we model fires.”

Crews work to map the Pine Gulch Fire from the air Aug. 12 north of Grand Junction.
Photo from Pine Gulch Fire Facebook page

Emerging technologies in fighting wildfire

Learning to live with wildfires doesn’t mean letting them run unimpeded. In high-risk areas along the wildland-urban interface or near important watersheds, fires will always call for a strong suppression effort.

Firefighters also are working with new technologies to do their jobs safer and more efficiently. One of the newest tools breaking its way into the firefighting scene is the Android Team Awareness Kit developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory to help track friendly individuals on the ground during airstrikes.

Firefighters in Colorado already have begun using the kit and similar technologies in pilot deployments. The system essentially allows officials to keep track of all of their resources — including firefighters and aircraft — in real time, providing better spatial awareness and allowing individuals to update conditions and threats.

“If I have a safety officer on a hill watching us work, instead of him communicating that there’s a spot beyond some trees to go to if things get bad, he can actually put a point on a map that pops up on everyone’s phone,” said Ben Miller, director at the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting. “From the command post where they have the bigger perspective, they can look at lightning or high winds coming in, and they can show us that information within seconds on our map.”

Spatial awareness tools also are helping firefighters implement other military technologies in their practices. The ability for officials to point out detailed locations of power lines and topographical hazards paired with night vision could soon allow helicopter missions after dark.

With operations often in remote areas, firefighters are also experimenting with new equipment that would allow them to detect strong cellular networks nearby and deploy radios to boost the signal to make sure all firefighters are kept in the loop. Similarly, new drone programs are in the works that would allow firefighters to get more eyes on the fire from the air and serve as pseudo-communication satellites.

Down the line, options like Starlink, a satellite internet initiative being developed by SpaceX, would provide firefighters in the backcountry with connectivity independent of cell sites on the ground.

“We want to get to the point where when somebody has something to report, they can just point their camera at it,” Miller said. “And not only would everybody be able to see what they’re talking about, but it could actually triangulate that image so everybody knows what they’re seeing and where exactly it is.”

In regard to actually attacking the wildfires, firefighters are also looking for ways to do more with the tools they have. One way is through experimenting with new water enhancers, essentially a type of gel that firefighters can mix with water from any source en route to make it evaporate slower and more effectively douse flames.

“With the changing climate, we think the future holds more fires and bigger fires,” Miller said. “Our challenge from a technology perspective is really about researching and potentially employing new technologies that make us safer, faster and more efficient.”

Scientists with the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Lab conduct experiments alongside the New Zealand Forest Research Institute in New Zealand in March. The experiments are designed to test hypotheses developed in the lab while allowing researchers to observe fire in a more natural setting.
Photo by U.S. Forest Service Fire Sciences Lab

Shaping the future of wildfires

As we look to what the coming years might bring, the challenges facing tomorrow’s firefighters are considerable.

Wildfires are a matter of when and not if. And Coloradans and others throughout the West will continue to be confronted by that fact.

But thanks to the work being done by scientists, firefighters and land-management experts, we have a choice in what kind of fires we’ll see and better tools to learn to live alongside them.

“If we know more, we can do better,” Finney said. “We can explain it in more detail. We can provide better foundations and expertise. But the bottom line is that human beings are going to have to utilize the science behind wildfires a lot more and be smart about how we interact with them. That is inherent to the challenges we’re going to face with the future of wildfires.”


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