Is Wildfire Modeling Behind the Times?

Wildfires are one of the most difficult natural disasters to model. Some argue wildfire modeling is 20 years behind hurricane modeling — and that’s not inaccurate. Hurricanes occur frequently, take several days to form and can be monitored via satellite. Hurricanes are also enormous and can be over 50 miles in radius. They are not obstructed by buildings and, while complex, are affected by fewer variables than wildfires.

Now, consider wildfires. A wildfire can start in seconds by a lightning strike or a dropped cigarette. Oftentimes, the source of ignition is concealed. A wildfire can smolder for days before significant smoke is reported and others can become destructive in a matter of minutes. A small burn — just a few acres — can destroy homes and other structures. Wildfires are affected by a myriad of factors from roads to fuel moisture and type to relative humidity. Sometimes, wildfires are so short-lived that these variables are not recorded; other times, a wildfire covers so many ecosystems that each area of the fire is impacted differently.

File:Propagation model wildfire.png

RedZone Improvements to Wildfire Modeling

Neither hurricane modeling nor wildfire modeling is an easy task. However, wildfires present so many distinct challenges that it’s difficult to even compare the two types of storms. But wildfire modeling isn’t inaccurate — and we’re making strides to make wildfire modeling more accurate than ever before.

Take the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado, for example. A simplistic wildfire model didn’t account for many of the devastating factors that ultimately destroyed properties. One of these factors was ember showers, which caused homes to burn that were outside of the assumed danger zone. RedZone’s solutions, developed by expert wildfire analysts, take into account these lesser-known variables that can have devastating effects on properties during a wildfire. RedZone wildfire modeling also takes several scenarios into account at the same time. For example, it asks: If the wildfire goes in direction A, how far will it go? If the wildfire goes in direction B, how far will it go? And so on. By taking into account the likelihood and severity of every possible scenario, and every variable that goes with each, we are reaching a new standard for wildfire modeling.

RedZone looks at wildfire modeling from a loss-prevention perspective. Therefore, while a model might be good, if homes are unnecessarily destroyed, the model isn’t good enough. We’re developing wildfire modeling so it’s a standard, scientifically peer-reviewed model, which will prevent the loss of structures, homes and land. This model is mutually beneficial for both homeowners and insurance companies — and insurance companies would likely see an obvious and significant ROI increase from adopting it.

The good news is that researchers around the world are working to develop this “holy grail” of wildfire modeling software. Between RedZone, researchers at the University of California at San Diego and other scientists, we expect that wildfire modeling will soon match the accuracy of hurricane modeling.

Florida Wildfires Provide Big Start to 2017 Fire Season

Florida wildfires have already produced unprecedented statistics for the 2017 wildfire season. Spring is wildfire season for the region, but the acreage burned to date has far exceeded the past decade’s averages. Wildfires throughout the Southern Plains in early March made up much of the acreage when more than a million acres collectively burned. So far, almost 2.2 million acres have burned according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). In the past ten years, the annual average by April 13th is over four times lower at 434,696 acres.

Southern Area Fire Outlook

In their April 1st Outlook Report, NIFC’s Predictive Services attributed the uptick in activity to warmer and drier than normal conditions in several southern states. Florida especially has taken the brunt of the action of late with drought conditions persisting in the height of their fire season. Since February, prolonged fire activity has scorched 70,000+ acres there this spring with 19 structures collectively lost. Currently, there are 31 active wildfires over 100 acres and more than 100 fires statewide.

Florida Wildfires Prompt State of Emergency

Due to major fires currently burning and the fire potential related to the ongoing and forecasted dry conditions, a state of emergency was initiated on Tuesday (April 11th) by Florida Governor Rick Scott. Also, several Central Florida counties have implemented burn bans to prevent future starts as humans have caused most of the activity impacting the state. The seven-day forecast currently shows no help in terms of rainfall relief for ongoing drought there. Florida’s outlook is bleak, as chances for wildfires will remain heightened with hotter temperatures and low rainfall typical for spring. Thus, the fire danger for Floridians may last until late spring or early summer when the air becomes more humid and afternoon thunderstorms return.

Florida Wildfires

April 13th Wildfire Activity Map from Florida Forest Service

Sources:

https://www.predictiveservices.nifc.gov/outlooks/monthly_seasonal_outlook.pdf

http://wlrn.org/post/severe-drought-developing-florida

https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm

https://weather.com/news/news/florida-wildfires-governor-impacts

 

infrared view of southern plains wildfires

Southern Plains See Record Wildfire Activity

Southern Plains Wildfires

This week, unprecedented fire activity swept through the southern plains. Multiple counties of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas saw critical fire weather conditions Sunday through Wednesday that fanned dozens of fires. Huge smoke plumes stretching for miles have been visible on NASA’s earth imagery for the area. As of March 9, seven people have died, five firefighters have been injured, thousands have been forced to flee their homes, heavy agricultural damage has been incurred, and more than a million acres have collectively burned.

The chaotic fire activity began this weekend when multiple starts forced residents from their homes in Central Kansas. The Highlands and Jupiter Hills fires in Hutchinson burned more than 6,000 acres between them. In the Texas Panhandle, three large fires broke out over the past three days, burning over 400,000 acres. The Perryton fire was the largest at 318,056 acres, rapidly spreading through grass and brush. Another Texas fire, the Lefors East Fire, ultimately claimed the lives of three of the seven reported deaths.

Roughly 60 miles to the north, three major fires burned along the Kansas and Oklahoma border, totaling another 800,000 between them. The three fires were merged into one, now called the ‘Northwest Oklahoma Complex Fire’. The fire is comprised of the Starbuck, Selman and the 283 fires. Authorities said the fires in Kansas and Oklahoma were actually the largest in the histories of both states.

On Wednesday (March 8), Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency for 22 counties affected. These historic fires can be seen in the top of the NASA imagery below. RedZone has used the imagery and MODIS heat detections to estimate the fires’ perimeters, as none of the fires have had official perimeters released.

March 7th view of Southern Plains Wildfires

NASA Imagery shows fires spewing smoke across the Southern Plains on Tuesday, March 7th

 

Southern Plains Fire Outlook

Wednesday marked the end of the critical fire danger period for the Southern Plains. There will, however, continue to be RH minimums in the teens (but light winds) for at least one more day in counties of western Oklahoma and the northern Texas Panhandle. The area had been dealing with low RH minimums, poor overnight recoveries, dry fine fuels, and breezy winds. A change in weather conditions will arrive Thursday bringing relief in the form of higher RH and potential for wetting rains. Nevertheless, a type-1 Incident Management Team (Dueitt) is already in route to take over command of NW Oklahoma Complex. The weather break is expected through next week and should reduce the fire concern and help aid in control and containment.

Historically, the spring wildfire season in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma can be very active. High fine dead fuel loading is already present and has been supporting large fire growth in Texas and Oklahoma since the start of the year. For the region, a longer than normal spring fire season is anticipated due to current drought, fuel conditions, and predicted warmer and drier than average weather. In turn, the regional fire managers caution that future weather systems could return this week’s fiery conditions to the region.

Regional Fire Statistics

  • As of: March 9th, 2017
  • Location: Southern Kansas, Panhandle of Texas, & Oklahoma
  • Size: 1,000,000+ acres
  • Number of Large Fires: 12
  • Fire Weather: Rapid fire spread through tall grass, agricultural areas, and brush.
  • Structures Threatened: 10,000+
  • Structures Destroyed: 13 Residences, 23 outbuildings
  • Evacuations: Are in place
  • News Article: CBS News

Sources

CBS News, NASA, NBC News, wideopencountry.com, Southern GACC

Rain fuels fire

Does Heavy Rain Actually Fuel Wildfires?

It may seem contradictory, but the recent drought-quenching rains seen across much of the west may actually lead to a higher potential for wildfires.  Thus far, 2017 has brought severe winter storms and record rainfall. These drenching rains have been a welcome respite to many areas suffering from multi-year drought conditions.  The excess water, however, has also brought flooding, landslides and the potential for increased wildfire risk.

Fine Fuel Growth

In areas that have experienced prolonged drought conditions or recent wildfires, rains often lead to an explosive growth of new vegetation.  Much of this vegetation growth is in the form of native and non-native grasses. Moist fuels are an ideal fire retardant, but these grasses are very susceptible to drying out after just a short period of low humidity and high temperatures. Once dried, these “fine fuels” are easy to ignite. Something as small as an errant cigarette butt or a spark from a vehicle tail pipe is a sufficient catalyst to spark a wildfire. Once active, these wildfires can move rapidly and are prone to “spotting”. Spotting occurs when embers are blown to nearby fuels and cause multiple ignitions, making the wildfire difficult to contain.

Rain fuels fire

Rapidly Spreading Fire in Fine Fuels.

Preparation

The ease with which these fine fuels can quickly dry and lead to hazardous conditions is one of the main factors fire managers consider when scheduling prescribed burns. Firefighters use prescribed burns to reduce the build up of fine fuels, thus decreasing the risk for wildfires in the future. Prescribed burns can also be used to establish fire breaks so that a small fire doesn’t become unmanageable. Individual homeowners can help with fire mitigation efforts by mowing grasses around their property and creating a defensible space.

Weather Outlook

Few meteorologists predicted the unprecedented rainfall that has impacted the majority of the United States so far this year. The recent storms have saturated fuels, likely delaying the onset of fire season. The threat, however, will not be all together eliminated. Long range weather predictions are vague at best. The Old Farmer’s Almanac suggests that the majority of the United States should see a hotter, but wetter than normal summer. The National Interagency Fire Center is also somewhat optimistic, predicting a delay of fire season until at least June. It remains to be seen if the recent storms will be enough to help combat the increasingly hot summers and severity of recent wildfires.

Sources

https://www.firescience.gov/projects/05-2-1-13/project/05-2-1-13_05-2-1-13_JFSP_Final_Report_05-2-1-13.pdf

https://www.fs.fed.us/fire/management/rx.html

http://hppr.org/post/last-years-rains-bring-increased-fire-risk-2017

http://www.auburn.edu/academic/forestry_wildlife/fire/fuels_effect.htm

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/heavy-spring-rain-has-boosted-fuel-loads-ahead-of-fire-season-20161023-gs8jvy.html

Milne fire

Milne Fire Prompts Evacuations Near Colorado Springs

Milne Fire Summary

The Milne Fire began Monday (2/27) afternoon in the Hanover area southeast of Colorado Springs, and burned over 7,000 acres in roughly 2 hours.  The initial report listed the originating location near Milne & Squirrel Creek Roads (southern tip of estimated fire perimeter below).  Sustained winds over 20 mph were observed along with relative humidity levels under 20%. The gusty winds have blown out of the southwest, fanning the fire to the north and east.  Given the rapid spread of the fire, it is not surprising that the fire area had been under Red Flag Warning conditions most of the day.

The El Paso County Sheriff’s office promptly evacuated over 600 residences in the fire area, and sent local school kids home early. The latest update from Hanover Fire Chief, Carl Tatum, stated that the fire had peaked at 7,000 acres by 5pm MST with an unknown number of structures involved. RedZone’s estimated perimeter in the map below reflects the nearly 7,000 reported acres.

Milne Fire in Hanover, CO

Milne Fire shown Southeast of Colorado Springs on RedZone’s Incident Dashboard

Milne Fire Outlook

Several local fire departments had taken over unified command of the fire as of Monday evening. Since the Milne Fire area is flat and mostly grassy, mop up and containment efforts shouldn’t be too difficult, and it’s likely firefighters caught the active fire front within hours. Flare-ups and spotting are possible with resources working to knock these down and gain containment on the bulk of the fire area. Crews continued to fight the blaze until around 9pm MST Monday while monitoring overnight.

Monday’s gusty winds and low RH are set to both improve by Tuesday, with the majority of the extreme fire threat moving further south and east into New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. The National Weather Service is forecasting extreme fire conditions for a 32,000 square mile area in the Southwest, well south and east of the Milne Fire Location. The area includes Lubbock and Levelland, TX, as well as Hobbs, Artesia, Carlsbad and Hobbs, NM.

Milne Fire Facts

  • As of: February 27th, 2017
  • Location: Hanover, CO
  • Size: 7,000 acres
  • Containment: unknown
  • Obs. Fire Behavior: Rapid fire spread through tall grass.
  • Structures Threatened: 602 (reported)
  • Structures Destroyed: unknown/none reported
  • Evacuations: Have been lifted as of 6:45pm MST
  • News Article: The Gazette

Sources: The Gazette, KKTV11News, El Paso County Sheriff’s, Hanover Fire

UPDATE (2/28 8:30PST)

Late last night (2/27), it was reported that the Milne Fire actually burned 5,000 acres, or 3,275 acres if unburned fuel within the fire perimeter isn’t included. This number was reduced from its original estimate of 7,000 acres after aerial mapping was conducted of the fire yesterday evening.

Wildfire Partners Cold Springs Fire

RedZone is Excited to Support Wildfire Partners

Wildfire Partners is a home mitigation program aimed at helping Boulder County residents prepare for wildfire. RedZone, in cooperation with the county, is beginning its second year of facilitating the program. The goal of Wildfire Partners is to assist homeowners who live in the mountains and foothills, and guide them through the process of hardening their home to survive a wildfire. Some of those tasks may include clearing combustible material around the house, clearing trees that could convey fire to the structure, and adding flashing between the home and wood surfaces such as decks or fencing.

Want to learn about how Wildfire Partners could be implemented in your community? Please contact RedZone for more details.

Since 2014, more than 1000 participating homeowners and 30 partner organizations have helped make this program a success. Wildfire Partners is a nationally recognized model for wildfire mitigation that is incorporated into the county’s building code. The program is funded by Boulder County, along with a $1.5 million grant from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and a $1.125 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“The old approach was firefighters were responsible for saving homes from wildfire. The new approach, the new emphasis, is shifting responsibility to homeowners. This program empowers homeowners to be able to take that personal responsibility,” said Jim Webster of Boulder County.

The Wildfire Partners Process

Homeowners in the program actively participate in a comprehensive assessment of their home with a Wildfire Mitigation Specialist, and receive a customized report that identifies the weak links in your home’s defenses. This report will include a checklist of items to mitigate, annotated photos of vulnerabilities, and additional information on wildfire mitigation and preparedness. Homeowners may also be eligible for financial reward after completing all the required mitigation actions, and upon completion, will receive a mitigation certificate which is recognized by many national insurance carriers.

Wildfire Partners Results

Homeowners who live in the wildland urban interface (WUI) have already seen successful results, in particular with the Cold Springs Fire in Nederland, Colorado, in July of 2016.
The video below, “Home Survival Success Stories”, contains interviews of actual homeowners affected by the Cold Springs fire, and contains aerial drone footage of homes in the Nederland area which were completely surrounded by fire, but which survived the blaze nonetheless.

By completing mitigation measures correctly, homeowners will rest easy knowing they have acted responsibly to help protect their families and the first responders who may be called upon in the event of a wildfire.

Chile Wildfire Outbreak “Worst in Country’s History”

Chile Wildfires Displace Thousands

For the past three weeks, wildfires have ravaged Central Chile in an event President Michele Bachelet called the “greatest forest disaster in our history”. Strong winds, hot temperatures and a prolonged drought have created chaos in seven separate regions with over a hundred wildfires burning this month.  The fires have scorched hundreds of thousands of hectares from Santiago to Concepcíon, burning homes and displacing thousands of residents (see photos at this link).

As a result, at least eleven are dead including seven emergency responders (five firefighters and two policemen).  Authorities have called a state of catastrophe in the central regions of O’Higgins and El Maule. Help in the form of funds and even manpower have been pouring in from nine different countries, including the United States.

Chile wildfire smoke

View from NASA Satellites of the Central Chilean Wildfires on January 25th

Cause Still Under Investigation

As the fires have cooled down in most areas, determination of the cause of the wildfire outbreak has been found to be part negligence and part criminal. As of January 30th, local authorities had detained 43 Chileans for suspected arson.

Chile Wildfire Outlook

Fires are common in the summer in Central Chile, but the area is drier than normal, contributing to the dangerous conditions. Hot and windy weather is forecasted to remain prevalent, meaning the fires could continue to spread. The over 4,000 emergency responders deployed to the area will aim to prevent that in the coming weeks.

Chile Fire Outbreak Facts

  • As of: January 31st, 2017
  • Location: Central Chile
  • Size: 180,000 hectares
  • Containment: Around 35 of 100+ fires remain out of control
  • Fire Behavior: Rapid fire spread, fanned by strong winds, hot temperatures and a prolonged drought.
  • Structures Destroyed: 1000+ (estimated)
  • Evacuations: 4,000 reported by the  National Emergency Office
  • News Article: The Guardian

Sources

NASA’s Earth Observatory, The Guardian, NBC News, Wildfire Today, Yahoo

East Peak Fire

Join RedZone at the 2017 WUI Conference

RedZone is happy to be taking part in the annual Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Conference to be held this year in late March at the Peppermill Resort in Reno, Nevada. This event, hosted by The International Association of Fire Chief’s (IAFC), offers invaluable hands-on training and interactive sessions designed to address the various challenges presented by wildland fire.

The WUI conference brings together wildland firefighters, federal and state-agency personnel, and land-use community planners to collaborate on emerging issues in wildland fire management. Attendees are able to make valuable industry connections while learning the latest in wildfire tools and strategies.

“The IAFC Wildland Urban Interface Conference is integral in helping me to learn about new science and innovative projects that are helping to drive us forward”, says Clark Woodward, RedZone’s CEO. “I have been attending for years and never fail to learn something new.”

Those responsible for protecting local forests or educating landowners and communities about the importance of land management may want to consider attending.

Led by industry experts, sessions and workshops are divided into three tracks:

  • Fire adapted communities
  • Operations and suppression
  • Wildland fire policy and tools

Learn – Topics include innovative Programs such as Ready, Set, Go! and the FAC Learning Network will be covered. Operational considerations such as lessons learned from Type 1 IC’s and tactical operations in Open Space Islands will also be covered.
Connect – Federal, state and local wildland fire personnel come together in a collaborative environment for idea sharing and future planning.
See – The Exhibit Hall provides a great opportunity to explore the tools, technologies and resources available to help you mitigate and respond to WUI challenges.

WUI Conference Information

Conference: March 21-23, 2017
Peppermill Resort – Reno, NV

Want to save $25 on your registration? Use marketing code: 159 to get a discount at http://events.iafc.org/wui

2016 Fire Season in Review

Fire Season in 2016 saw no shortage of headline-filling wildfires across the US and North America.  However, 2016’s final numbers for both total starts and total acres burned actually came in below averages from the last ten years in both categories.  Data reported by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) for the 2016 calendar year showed 62,864 fire starts, accumulating 5,415,121 acres (down 4.5 million acres from the year before). 

In a recent blog post, we highlighted the top ten wildfires in terms of destruction. Those ten fires alone burned over 1.7 million acres and destroyed over 6,000 structures, displacing tens of thousands of people.

2016 Wildfires in the US

Major Fires from Fire Season 2016 reported by GEOMAC and NIFC

A Look Back at 2016 Fire Danger

The record-setting year in 2015 (in terms of acreage burned) was due mostly to several large fires in Alaska which accounted for over 5 million of the 10 million total acres burned. This year, Alaska was much quieter and the rest of the country burned more or less an average amount. Like most years, 2016 saw high fire danger transition across the country (see animation below), coinciding with regional climate and conditions. High fire danger started in the Midwest in March and April, crept into the Southwest in May and June, moved into the Mountainous West by July, before finishing with the Southern Appalachians towards the end of the year.

2016 Fire Season Highlights

2016 saw the largest fire in Canadian history, the Fort McMurray Fire in May, which scorched over 1.4 million acres in Alberta. It also saw the costliest fire in California history with the Soberanes Fire which lasted 12 weeks and cost in excess of 250 million dollars to fight before being completely smothered.  Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming had its most active fire year since 1988 with 62,000 acres burned and two significant fires that closed down parts of the park. Lastly, the Southern Appalachians saw a significant period of drought through October and November, bringing the devastating Chimney Tops 2 fire and the worst overall fire season on record to that region.

 

Sources: NIFC, GEOMAC, Predictive Services

Social Media and Wildfire

Good communication is a key in any emergency situation. The ultimate goal is always to protect lives and property. Part of achieving that goal is keeping all audiences informed during an incident. FEMA’s Basic Guidance for Public Information Officers states that “During an incident or planned event, coordinated and timely communication is critical to effectively help the community. Effective and accurate communication can save lives and property, and helps ensure credibility and public trust.” In the Incident Command System, this job lies with the Public Information Officer (PIO). Some of a PIO’s main duties include gathering, verifying, coordinating, and disseminating pertinent information.

Social Media Prevalence

As keen observers in recent years, RedZone has seen the wildfire information delivery portion become more complex than ever before. Our ever-growing age of information, aided by the prevalence of smart phones and social media, has increased interest in unfolding events. Since the Guidance was created in 2007, new tools for connecting with the long list of potentially-interested parties have been utilized. Instead of relying on local and national media, most fire agencies and emergency management departments have taken to the major social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to update and inform on their own. CALFIRE and each of their units are some of the leaders in this department, regularly tweeting updates, which is especially helpful for small and medium fires.


A Ventura County Fire PIO updates on the Solimar Fire near Rincon Beach

Live Streaming a Useful Tool

As we heavily rely on timely information from the PIO in much of our daily work, we are excited about an emerging trend from 2016:  The used of live video streaming platforms such as Facebook Live and Periscope. Ventura County Fire has used Facebook live (video above) to share information from staging areas as fires unfold. Two of San Bernardino County’s 2016 fires were featured on Periscope as videographer Tod Sudmeier with EPN564 shot continuous live video, showing active flames, aerial operations, and answered questions from the over 150,000 viewers who tuned into the app. During both the Bluecut and the Pilot fires this summer, Tod, a fire and weather photographer gained over 30,000 followers ‘scoping’ the incidents from safe areas in the thick of the action.

Still from EPN564's live stream of the Pilot Fire in August of 2016

Still from EPN564’s live stream of the Pilot Fire in August of 2016

Pilot Fire – https://www.periscope.tv/w/1ypJdPBzdoyJW – 5,300 viewers

Bluecut Fire – https://www.periscope.tv/w/1OdKrbDePDzKX – 179,000 viewers

We expect these live videos to remain really just complimentary to the helicopter footage, press conferences, incident blogs and information pages, and media coverage that we information consumers are used to. But there’s something exciting and fun watching a situation unfold candidly. We’ll be watching for more from EPN564 and other live video streamers next season as we fully expect the trend to continue.


Source(s):

https://socialmediaweek.org/blog/2015/07/periscope-101/

https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1623-20490-0276/basic_guidance_for_pios_final_draft_12_06_07.pdf