Wednesday, August 2

What can be done to mitigate devastating wildfires during a time of drought?

A lot of people have been asking that question as massive wildfires this summer have hit in Mariposa County, California (the Detwiler Fire); Canada's British Columbia; and in Europe.

The Conversation published two photos of the exact same location that together clearly convey one of the problems Europe is facing today. To introduce the photos:
... In 1950, almost 50% of the Spanish population lived in rural areas. By 1990, that figure had fallen by more than 25%.
As a result, landscapes that previously comprised small-scale mosaics of farmland, grazing land and relatively open forests are now dominated by young, dense forests.
As an example, see the images below of the same Spanish landscape in the 1900s and today:

 Pont de la Frau, Solsona County in Central Catalonia, in northwestern Spain, in the mid-1900s. Solson├ęs County Counsil

Pont de la Frau in 2016. Marc Font Bernet

The entire article at The Conversation (H/T The Local) is worth the read. ("Wildfires are raging in the Mediterranean. What can we learn?") It's written by Luke Kelly, Research Fellow, University of Melbourne; Eduard Plana Bach, Head of Unit of Forest Policy and Environmental Governance, Forest Sciences Centre of Catalonia; and Marc Font Bernet, Researcher in the Forest Sciences Centre of Catalonia.

So these are experts who get paid to think about forests and about wildfire mitigation.


FARO is the acronym I've concocted from three important trends in drought/famine mitigation approaches that are now favored by relief agencies ranging from big international organizations to small, local nonprofits.


I added the "o" for "organization," because these approaches are having a big impact at the organizational levels of humanitarian assistance. With understatement, FARO is a very healthy trend in combating famines and building resistance to drought among the most vulnerable populations. The recent series of articles by The Christian Science Monitor about searches for solutions to famine reflect FARO principles in action.

I think FARO can also be applied to mitigating the worst effects of forest fires. The ideas from the three forestry experts who wrote for The Conversation very much reflect the FARO trend. 

Here I will add a few ideas I've picked up over the years.
Neighborhood Watch in the Sky

Ironically I got this idea from learning about the characters who fly their personal drones above forest fires; this so they can get a lookee-see that they can post to social media or try to sell to local TV stations. Time and again fire-fighting planes have had to be temporarily grounded because fire officials can't risk the drones bringing down one of the planes. 

But if there are people who have nothing better to do than fly drones, why not deploy them as a volunteer network of sentinels? During the dry season they could use their drones to patrol expanses of forest and raise the alarm when the drone camera picks up smoke/flames that seem larger than a campfire. Sort of a neighborhood watch in the sky. 

As to whether the sentinels would easily get bored waiting for a fire to break out -- from April 1 of this year through the end of July, at least 840 wildfires burned in British Columbia, charring 4,260 square kilometers of land. No I don't think they'd be bored looking for fire outbreaks during fire season.
If warnings from such sentinels could shave off even a few minutes of response time for fire crews, I think it would make a big difference. One of the problems with using dousing planes to fight forest fires is that the planes can't fly blind. Visibility becomes so poor because of thick smoke that the planes have to be grounded until the wind shifts and clears away some of the smoke. That happened in France last month at one point, and it's happening right now in British Columbia. For the latter situation, see the above link to news about the number of wildfires in B.C.

The idea is to send in the planes before the fire gets so out of control that it generates a literal smokescreen. Again, sentinels using drones could help in this regard. And because the drones are up above the forests, they can pinpoint the coordinates of a fire outbreak on Google Maps; this information could be quickly relayed to fire crews that have dousing planes on hand.       

Green Firebreaks

This idea isn't new, but another very informative article from The Conversation, published in February 2016 and written by (another) trio of experts, discusses how the idea is being refined so that it's more useful:

... The planting of low-flammability species in gardens and on property boundaries has been advocated in many parts of the world, including AustraliaNew Zealand, the United States and Europe. Many lists of suitable species are available.
Unfortunately, many resources don’t specify how these species lists were developed. Some base their recommendations on particular plant characteristics known to influence flammability, while others come from observations of how well certain plants burn in wildfires.
However, very few lists are derived from experimental tests of plant flammability. We set about testing which New Zealand plants were the least flammable – by throwing them on the barbecue.
In our paper published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire, we compared the flammability of 60 common plant species from New Zealand. We used a recently developed method for testing shoot flammability.
This involves placing shoots on a grill (our “plant barbecue”), turning on a blowtorch and then measuring how easily samples ignited, how hot they got, how long they burned for, and how much of them burned.
Given favourable fire conditions, any plant will burn, so green firebreaks are unlikely to provide protection in extreme fire conditions. The best option to protect houses from such fires may well be to reduce fuel within a 40m radius.
In less extreme fire conditions, green firebreaks are one of the options available to land managers to reduce fire spread across the landscape and could be established in areas where fire risk is greater, such as on the edge of highly flammable ecosystems. We should also consider deploying green firebreaks comprised of native species to help protect large-scale restoration projects.
At the individual plant level, certain traits make plants more or less flammable.
One key factor is moisture content; plants with moister leaves are less likely to ignite and don’t burn as readily. Hence, it helps to keep your plants well watered when fires threaten.
Some plants retain dead leaves and branches that provide ready fuel during a fire. Therefore, pruning dead limbs is a good way to reduce fire risk around your home.
While we are increasing our understanding of plant flammability, many questions remain. For instance, we have been testing plant shoots, but do whole plants burn differently? Under what climatic conditions does a low flammability species become a readily burning fuel? What happens when you burn low and high flammability species together? What risk do highly flammable weed species pose when they invade new areas?
We plan to tackle these and other questions by throwing many more plants on our barbie!
Of course, keeping plants well-watered throughout fire season isn't always feasible during a severe drought or even a period of 'water stress' as it's called. 

As to reducing fuel within a 40 meter radius -- that translates to 131 feet or about 44 yards. I'm not sure how feasible that is in a neighborhood of subdivisions, although of course homeowners who can reduce fuel within that radius would not only have a better chance against a fire but also -- if there were enough such properties in the fire zone -- break or at least slow a wildfire's progress. And I'd think this would be doable especially if a fire is progressing through brush rather than among trees.    

But I venture one problem with the 40 meter radius is that a flaming pine cone could traverse past that distance, I think. Pine cones, I've learned, act something like flamethrower weapons in a forest fire. They pop in the flames and get airborne. So once pine trees burst into flames, their cones quickly spread a fire over distances. 

I seem to recall that was one of the big problems with devastating wildfires that broke out in Greece some years ago; people couldn't figure out at first why the fires were spreading so fast. It was the flamethrower pine cones.  
Those fires in Greece were blamed on arsonists. Might have been in some cases but flying flaming pine cones are one reason a forest fire can break out in several places around the same time. 

As I've noted before, the most dangerous arsonist is Nature.

So in addition to reducing fuel within a certain distance of a building, you'd also want to use other precautions, such as fire-retardant roofs.  

All else I can add to the discussion about firebreaks is my recollection of the middle-income homeowner in southern California's 'wildfire alley.' He made it a mission not to be run off his property by wildfire. I might have mentioned him before on this blog; anyhow, his successful battle with a wildfire was publicized on American national TV news, which was where I learned about it. This might have been as far back as a quarter century ago.   

He made his home and acreage fire-resistant using different tactics and materials he learned about, including fire-resistant plantings. He also installed a portable water tank on his property just for the purpose of ensuring he'd have access to water when he would need it most -- which was when a fire came near.    

Eventually a wildfire did come his way. I think he sent his wife and kids to safety; maybe a friend or two or maybe a male relative volunteered to stay at the property with him. 

I do clearly remember that when the fire closed in, he stood on his house roof, hosing it down, and hosing down the vegetation he'd planted and the garage -- and tool shed, if I recall. 

If my memory serves the fire burned down all the homes around his property; at any rate this wasn't some little brush fire. But the wildfire didn't touch his property beyond a few flaming branches and leaves, which extinguished when they hit because of all water he'd sprayed, or which he immediately doused with water from the spray hose -- or they flamed out when they hit fire-retardant housing and landscaping materials

It was amazing.

He was happy to give free advice to anyone who also wanted to make it very hard for a fire to burn down a home.

His actions demonstrated several principles including flexibility, adaptability and resilience -- the FAR in FARO. By this he also showed how people can live with Nature without taking a scorched-earth approach, if you'll pardon the expression, to dealing with its threats.


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