The Science of Fighting Wildfires Gets a Satellite Boost

The Science of Fighting Wildfires Gets a Satellite Boost
From Wired - September 11, 2017

Ash is raining down on the city of Portland. Thousand-degree fireballs are forcing evacuations near Salt Lake City, Seattle, and parts of Northern California. In Missoula, Montana, the sun burns a bloody red even even at high noon.

These days, the American West looks less like an Ansel Adams postcard and more like the kingdom of Mordor. Across nine states, nearly 1.5 million acres are on fire. And according to President Trumps natural resources czar, you can blame it all on the hippies.

Allow me to explain: Last month, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke traveled to his home state of Montana for an on-site briefing on the Lolo Peak fire, burning just south of Missoula and turning the valleys air into toxic nubulae. Joined by Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue and members of Montanas Republican delegation, Zinke pointed the finger not at drought or climate change, but on mismanagement resulting from lawsuits by environmental extremists. Its not a new argument from the pro-industry camp, but Zinkes comments are reigniting some old debates about the best way for people to manage forests that have been turned into tinderboxes by decades of overgrazing, fire suppression, and extended droughts.

Climate change only makes the cycle more vicious: Less water leads to more fuel leads to more fire means more money to fight fires means less money to manage forests, and now were back to too much fuel. Since 1985, global warming has nearly doubled the annual number of acres burning in the western US.

So what is a scrappy, resource-strapped agency like the Forest Service to do? Thats where science comes in. An emerging consensus suggests that officials should spend less time thinning out forests where a fire might hit, and more time figuring out what the specific conditions are when a fire actually does. But to do that, theyll need some help from outer space.

Challenging the Tree-Hugger Theory

Lincoln, Montana, located 75 miles east of Missoula on Highway 200, is surrounded on all sides by the thick stands of spruce, fir, and pine that make up the western sections of the Helena National Forest. More than a decade ago, the area was dealt a double whammya series of summer droughts and a plague of pine bark beetlesthat left the forest littered with big, dead, beetle-hole-ridden trees that were barely still standing. Called snags, this brittle timber is far more likely to fall in a fire, making for much more dangerous wildfire fighting conditions. And overlapping downed trees can make it virtually impossible to cut fire lines. So a few years ago the Forest Service began developing a plan to thin trees, selectively log, and do controlled burns on about 4,800 acres four miles north of Lincoln. The idea was to build a more resilient forest to mitigate the intensity of any fire that might come across the landscape.

The project was to start this spring. But in February, two conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service, saying the agency failed to comply with federal laws requiring proper environmental impact assessments. And they alleged the project would disrupt essential habitat for endangered species like grizzly bears and lynx that live in the area. In May, a US district judge issued an injunction to stop all management actions from proceeding until the case could be settled.

Then came summer, with its dry heat and powerful thunderstorms. In July, lightning sparked a fire on a steep, isolated slope and a month later another storm started a second blaze. For firefighting purposes, they are now considered to be a single incident, which to date has burned 17,722 acres acres, mostly within the project area.

Heres the straightforward logic of Zinkes scapegoating: Environmentalists block the Forest Service from lowering the fuel load on the land, land catches on fire, and now its harder to put out. Thanks, tree-huggers.

But fire scientists say its more complicated than that. Many question the ecological (and economic) value of thinning forests out, for three big reasons. One, the evidence for its efficacy is both scant and at times contradictory. Two, probabilistic risk assessments show that the thinning doesnt really help much because the likelihood of a fire starting close enough to interact with thinned areas is negligibly small. And three, in the worst weather conditionsdry, hot, and most importantly, windyno amount of thinning or selective logging is going to make much difference.

The Canadian Model


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