Smoke Color Can Depict Fuel Type

Smoke is made up of particulates, aerosols and gases, and identifying the characteristics of each in a given smoke plume can be helpful when fighting fires. Reading smoke can tell a firefighter what is currently happening with a fire as well as what might happen in the future. One particularly important factor in predicting fire behavior is the color of the smoke emitted.

 

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Smoke is the biproduct of the fuels it is burning.  The color of the smoke indicates to firefighters the type and density of the fuels involved, all of which gives hints as to what the fire might do next.

White smoke can often mean material is off-gassing moisture and water vapor, meaning the fire is just starting to consume material. White smoke can also indicate light and flashy fuels such as grass or twigs.

Thick, black smoke indicates heavy fuels that are not being fully consumed. At times, black smoke can be an indicator that a manmade material is burning such as tires, vehicles or a structure. As a general rule, the darker the smoke, the more volatile the fire is.

Grey smoke can indicate that the fire is slowing down and running out of materials to burn.

2015 Wildfire Acreage Tops 10 Million for the First Time

2015 was a significant year for wildfires with the total acreage cresting 10 million for the first time on record. To put it in perspective, 10 million acres is roughly 7.5 million football fields, 12,000 Central Parks, or 15 Rhode Islands.

 

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Reported Wildfires from GeoMac and Fire Statistics from NIFC

2015 actually saw fewer fires than the 10-year average, but the total acres burned was more than 3.5 million greater than average. Alaska’s dozens of huge wildfires accounted for more than half of the total acres burned nationwide. Acreage-wise, an area the size of the entire state of Massachusetts burned inside of Alaska.

The Rocky Mountain and Southwest regions were quieter than normal. Major wildfire complexes raged for weeks in Idaho, NE Washington, Northern California, and Oregon. In terms of destruction, Northern California’s Butte and Valley wildfires combined to destroy 818 and 1958 structures respectively, the 7th and 3rd most in the state’s history.

Wildfire 101: Lightning Activity Level (LAL)

The Lightning Activity Level (LAL) is a measurement of cloud-to-ground lightning activity observed (or forecasted to occur) within a 30 mile radius of an observation site.

 

 The LAL is part of the National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS) and consists of two reports. The first report covers the period from the previous day’s observation until midnight (referred to as Yesterday’s Lightning) and the second report covers the period from midnight until the present day’s observation time (referred to as Morning Lightning).  Each report is assigned a number on a scale of 1 to 6 which reflects the frequency and character of the lightning. The scale for 1 to 5 is exponential, based on powers of 2 (i.e., LAL 3 indicates twice the amount of lightning of LAL 2). LAL 6 is a special category for dry lightning (see description below) and is closely equivalent to LAL 3 in strike frequency.

 

The Lightning Activity Level on a scale of 1 to 6 as described below:

LAL 1: No thunderstorm or building cumulus clouds observed.

LAL 2: A single or few building cumulus clouds with only an occasional one reaching thunderstorm intensity observed. Thunderstorms or lightning need not be observed for this activity level to be assigned; however at least one large cumulus cloud must be present.

LAL 3: Occasional lightning (an average of 1 to 2 cloud-to-ground strikes per minute) is observed. Building cumulus clouds are common; thunderstorms are widely scattered.

LAL 4: Frequent lighting (an average of 2 to 3 cloud-to-ground strikes per minute) is observed. Thunderstorms are common and cover 10 to 30 percent of the sky. Lightning is primarily of the cloud-to-cloud type but cloud-to-ground lightning may be observed.

LAL 5: Frequent and intense lightning (cloud-to-ground strikes greater than 3 per minute) is observed. Thunderstorms are common, occasionally obscuring the sky. Moderate to heavy rain usually precedes and follow the lightning activity. Lightning of all kinds (cloud-to-cloud, in-cloud and cloud-to-ground) is characteristically persistent during the storm period.

LAL 6: A dry lightning situation. Low lightning flash rate observed (less than one to three cloud-to-ground strikes per 5-minute period per storm cell passage). Scattered towering clouds with a few thunderstorms; bases of the clouds are high. Virga is the predominate form of precipitation.

 

National Wildfire Coordinating Group

http://www.nwcg.gov/term/glossary/lightning-activity-level-(lal)

Wildfire 101: Ignition

Since 2001, each wildfire season has averaged almost 73,000 ignitions and over 6.5 million acres burned in the U.S. Interestingly, the vast majority of these ignitions are human-caused, but the total acreage burned is mostly accredited to lightning-starts.

Annually-collected statistics on ignitions show that 85% of all wildfire starts this century have been classified as human-caused. Wildfire modeling studies point to higher ignitions due to predictable patterns of human activity along transportation routes, in recreation areas, and during certain times of year. Arson, automobile brakes, campfires, engine sparks, and escaped debris fires are the most frequent types of human-caused ignitions. 

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RedZone’s compilation of 2015 Wildfires Igntions

Though lightning and other natural causes make up most of the other 15% of annual ignitions, they cause 62% of the total acreage burned. This discrepancy is due to the fact that fires that start naturally often occur in large forested areas with more fuel and limited accessibility, and are likely given less suppression effort since naturally-occuring fire helps maintain ecosystem health.

 

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All statistics are based on fires and acres reported to the National Interagency Coordination Center at NIFC.

NASA’s JPL announces plan for more advanced wildfire detection by 2018

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been refining a concept first proposed in 2011 for a network of space-based sensors called FireSat that would revolutionize the monitoring coverage of wildfires globally.

 

JPL's rendering of FireSat in action

According to the JPL, “FireSat would be a constellation of more than 200 thermal infrared imaging sensors on satellites designed to quickly locate wildfires around the globe. The FireSat sensors would be able to detect fires that are at least 35 to 50 feet (10 to 15 meters) wide, within an average of 15 minutes from the time they begin. Within three minutes of detecting a fire from orbit, FireSat would notify emergency responders in the area of the fire, improving support for time-critical response decisions.” Currently MODIS and VIIRS satellites (which both serve many other functions than fire detection) operated by NASA have fire detection capabilities but are limited to large image sizes and can only detect fires twice a day. FireSat sensors would complement these systems by enabling faster, nearly continuous communication with the ground by sending low-resolution images of detected fires every minute along with a latitude and longitude of the location.

 For more on this and other stories from NASA’s JPL visit the JPLNEWS page.

Top Ten Things You May Not Know About Wildland Fires

 

1) 90% of wildfires are human-caused

Sources of anthropogenic wildfires are most often accidental ignition by campers, hikers, or garbage/debris burns…but some are purposely started by arsonists..

2) But the majority of acres burned comes from lightning ignitions

Because they often occur in isolated locations with limited access, lightning fires burn more total acres than human-caused starts. The average 10-year total of U.S. wildfire acres burned by human cause is 1.9 million acres; 2.1 million acres burned are lightning caused. If a lightning fire is not endangering life or property, the US Forest Service will allow the fire to burn under the Fire Use Guidelines.

3) Prolonged drought plus a freeze event can prompt wildfires in non-typical seasons. 

When a freezing weather event hits a wildfire-prone area during drought conditions, it can dry fuels to the point of extreme ignitability. Despite low temperatures, wildfires can frequently still burn when these conditions exist. 

4) Aircraft don’t put out the fire, they slow the rate of spread

Though news outlets heavily cover firefighting aircraft during a wildfire, the retardant these planes drop will rarely extinguish the flames. The retardant is designed to slow the fire’s rate of spread so as to allow ground forces enough time for a direct attack. Retardant is a fertilizer-based product that is able to adhere to vegetation, requiring more heat for ignition. The fertilizer is colored red for higher visibility to tanker pilots to see where the last drop was placed.

5) Smoke color depicts fire fuel types

Smoke is the biproduct of the fuels it is burning, and the color of the smoke is often used as an indicator to firefighters of the type and density of the fuels that are involved. White smoke generally indicates light flashy fuels such as grass or twigs. Thick black smoke indicates heavy fuels that are not being fully consumed. At times thick black some can be an indicator that a manmade substance is burning such as tires, vehicles or a structure. Grey smoke can indicate that the fire is slowing down and running out of materials to burn.

6) The Story of Edward Pulaski

Edward Pulaski was a Forest Ranger in Wallace, Idaho, and is most known for saving the lives of 40 men during the Great fire of 1910. When the fire broke out of control and overwhelmed his crew, he directed his men into a cave and held them at gunpoint so they wouldn’t leave. After the fire had passed, the men came to the entrance to find the ranger covered in debris and thought he was dead. Pulaski arose and stated “Like hell I am.” A firefighting tool pulaski tool he designed was later named after him and is still used today.

7) Post-wildfire mudslides are common

A fast-moving, highly destructive debris flow can occur within a few years after wildfires scorch the soil and roots of vegetation in a particular area, especially in steep terrain. Most occur in response to high intensity rainfall events and are particularly dangerous as they sometimes happen with very little warning.

8) Peshtigo Fire in 1871 killed over 1,200 people

On October 7th, 1871, the most devastating US wildfire started in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. 1,200 people were confirmed killed and the entire town of Peshtigo was destroyed. The fire started when several small burns grew out of control due to high winds. The fire eventually burned over 1.2 million acres. This is the highest recorded death total for a wildland fire.

9) Wildfires are important for the forest ecosystem

Forest ecosystems depend on wildfires to thin the forest canopy allowing saplings near the forest floor access to sunlight. Some plants and trees require fire and heat in order for their seeds to germinate. Fire can eliminate certain plants while allowing fire-resistant species to survive and thrive.

10) Large wildfires are capable of creating their own localized weather

Wildfires generate their own winds as they grow in size. These winds will pull air into the fire as they burn more fuel. Intense heating of air from the surface induces convection, which causes an air mass to rise above the fire and, in the presence of moisture, can form pyro cumulus clouds.

 

Sources include: The History Channel, Wikipedia, Accuweather, Smokey Bear, USGS, about.com, & Spokane Chronicle

 

Black Friday Brushfires

On Friday January 13, 1939, Victoria, Australia suffered one of the worst wildfires in history. These fires came to be known as the Black Friday brushfires. They burned nearly 5 million acres and 71 people lost their lives after several towns were destroyed.

Prior to Black Friday, Victoria had experienced a long, dry, and hot summer coupled with a drought that had lasted several years. Many creeks and rivers had dried up and high temperatures and hot winds had left the forest floors extremely dry. Several small fires were already burning since December. Some of these fires could not be extinguished while others were left unattended to burn under “controlled” conditions. However, high temperatures combined with strong northerly winds on Friday the 13th strengthened these fires causing them to combine into a massive fire front which swept over the mountains into Victoria. Over 1,000 homes were burned, and the towns of Narbethong, Noojee, Woods Point, Nayook West, and Hill End were completely destroyed. The fires had burned for three days when the area was hit with heavy rains Sunday evening which eventually extinguished the blaze.  

After the fires, the Australian Royal Commission attributed blame for the fires to careless burning, such as those used for campfires and land clearing. The Commission made a number of recommendations to improve forest management and safety, such as the construction of fire towers and access trails. It also encouraged the creation of a fire administration which would be responsible for supervising controlled burns. The Black Friday brushfires contributed directly to the passing of the Forests Act, which gave the Forests Commission responsibility for wildfire protection on public land.

 

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The town of Woods Point after the Black Friday brushfires.

Image courtesy of the Victoria State Government

This Week in 1956: Inaja Fire Tragedy

On November 24th, 1956, a wildfire began on the Inaja Reservation near Julian in East County, San Diego that would kill eleven firefighters and change the landscape of wildland firefighting. 


On the night of November 25th, firefighters were attempting to cut a control line around the fire in San Diego Canyon.  They were quickly forced to retreat up an 1,100 foot ascent however, as the fire engulfed the upper canyon area above them in a mere twenty minutes, according to the official report of the fire. Eleven firefighters were trapped just below a small bluff near the top of the canyon when a “flashover” lit 40 acres of wildland all around them, effectively cutting off all safe paths of exit.  A flashover occurs when all surfaces and objects within a space have been heated to their ignition temperature, and flame breaks out almost at once over the given area.

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Inaja Fire Map, Cleveland National Forest, November 1956.

Following this unfortunate tragedy and other fatal situations going back several years, changes were made in training and tools as well as standard operation procedures during what are termed “mass fires”. Calls came for more sophisticated fire behavior training and in-depth fire behavior research for fires in difficult topography.  Policies were implemented to require experts on scene to assist in decision-making, and incentives were provided to enable wildland crews to recruit and retain the competent individuals required to perform this difficult job.  

What Warrants a Red Flag Warning from the National Weather Service?

Another Red Flag Warning was issued for Southern California late last week for very low humidities and strong offshore winds. But what factors actually warrant this official notice from the National Weather Service and what do the associated weather conditions mean?

A Red Flag Warning is used by the National Weather Service to inform area firefighting and land management agencies that conditions are ideal for wildland fire combustion and rapid spread. Specically, the warning denotes a high degree of confidence that weather and fuel conditions meet the ‘Red Flag Event’ criteria in place for a given fire weather zone. These criteria involve low relative humidity, strong winds, dry fuels, or any combination thereof.

According the the NWS, a Red Flag event is verified when the weather and fuel conditions are met simultaneously for any three hour period, and the warning remains in effect until the critical fire weather pattern ends. The characteristics of fire weather zones differ greatly across wildfire-prone areas.  Therefore the specific thresholds needed to meet the warning criteria can vary as well, based on the local vegetation type, topography, and distance from major water sources.  

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 Southern California’s Ventura and Los Angeles Counties had a Red Flag Warning in effect for below 15% RH and gusty winds.

 

Red Flag Warning Criteria From Regions of California.

(source: SoCal GACC) http://gacc.nifc.gov/oscc/predictive/weather/myfiles/Watches_and_Warnings_for_California.htm

Area Description

NWS Fire Weather Zones

Criteria

Southern California desert area excluding the Colorado River Valley

226-228, 230, 232, 260­, 262

Relative Humidity  ≤ 15% and wind gusts GTE 35 mph for 3 hours or more

Colorado River Valley

229,231

Relative Humidity ≤ 15%, with sustained winds (20 foot) ≥ 20 mph and/or frequent gusts ≥ 35 mph for 3 hours or more

Antelope Valley and SE Kern County Deserts

298, 299, 259

Relative Humidity ≤ 15% and sustained (20-foot) winds ≥ 25 mph for a duration of 8 hours or more

Southern California from mountains westward

234-258, 288-297

Either
Relative Humidity ≤15%, with sustained winds ≥ 25 mph and/or frequent gusts ≥ 35 mph (duration of 6 hours or more)

Or
Relative Humidity ≤ 10% (duration of 10 hours or more) regardless of wind

Northern California East of Cascade/Sierra Crest and Western Great Basin including the Modoc Plateau

214, 270-273, 278, 284, 285

Tahoe Management Basin: Three hours of wind gusts ≥ 30 mph and Relative Humidity ≤ 20%

Other Regions:
Three hours of wind gusts ≥ 30 mph and Relative Humidity ≤1

 

Ready, Set, Go!

Although there is currently no national standard for wildfire preparedness and potential evacuations, most agencies have adopted CalFire’s Ready, Set, Go! program. This program educates homeowners on ways to be prepared prior to an event and how to handle themselves during potential and imminent evacuation situations. 

READY

Before an event, prepare by designating and creating your home’s Defensible Space Zones, which are the buffer between a house and the grass, trees, shrubs, or any wildland area that surround it. This space helps to slow the spread of wildfire and decreases the liklihood your home catches fire.  It also helps protect the firefighters protecting your home.

More info on defensible space

SET

As fire season approaches, take the time to complete the 3 steps of being set for a wildfire: 

  1. Create a Wildfire Action Plan that includes evacuation planning for your home, family and pets.
  2. Assemble an Emergency Supply Kit for each person in your household.
  3. Fill-out a Family Communication Plan that includes important evacuation and contact information.

GO

Being ready to go means knowing when to evacuate the area and what to do if you get trapped. Waiting longer to leave can not only increase the chances of being trapped, it can also cause problems for emergency personnel who are attempting to access the area in order to protect homes within the community.

The Waldo Canyon fire from 2012 is a good example of Ready, Set, Go! at work. Many homes had good defensible space that either left them standing or helped fire crews save them.
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 Evacuations Map produced by RedZone Disaster Intelligence during the early stages of 2012’s Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, CO.

With Red Flag conditions and changing wind directions that fateful Tuesday, it was crucial that residents were prepared, and that they evacuated ahead of the extreme fire behavior that destroyed 346 structures. Over 32,000 residents in the greater Colorado Springs area were evacuated during this incident.

For more detailed information on Ready, Set, Go!, see CALFIRE’s page: http://www.readyforwildfire.org/.