Texas’ Significant Wildfire Potential

According to Texas Forest Service’s Dispatch Tracker, the weekend produced multiple red flag warnings and 20 new fires totalling over 1,700 burned acres in the State of Texas. Despite the weekend’s elevated fire weather conditions and activity, Texas’ wildfire potential remains normal to below normal into early summer.

 

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February’s Significant Wildfire Potential

WILDFIRE POTENTIAL OUTLOOK FOR TEXAS 

Normal significant wildland fire potential and some areas of Below Normal significant wildland fire potential are expected for the state through May.

Weather & Fuels:

In January, the Plains states, from Texas to North Dakota, were very dry with generally less than 50 percent of normal precipitation for the month. But El Nino conditions and the expected jet stream path are forecast to bring above average precipitation and below average temperatures to most of the state into early summer. As a result, fuel moistures are projecting to remain above critical levels except for a few seasonably typical periods of low humidity, winds, and warm temperatures creating brief elevation of initial attack potential. All indications from Predictive Services (NIFC) point to these brief periods of elevated potential as the dominant concern for significant fire activity for the area in the coming months.

Source: NIFC Predictive Services (Outlook PDF)

 

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

 

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.
20120624_1600_CO_Waldo.jpg

 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/.

 

November Wildfire Potential At or Returning to Normal

As the ‘typical’ fire season comes to a close, the National Interagency Fire Center is forecasting below-normal, normal, and returning-to-normal autumn conditions across the U.S.

The only area not already at or below normal fire potential is Southern California’s coast which remains in a drought but is predicted to return to normal by the end of the month.

 Image by NIFC – Predictive ServicesNovember 2015 Fire Potential

So far the fall season has brought a few significant rain events coupled with high tropical activity in the Eastern Pacific. Heavy rain fell in Texas and in the Southeast U.S. leading to below-normal fire potential in those now-soggy areas. The approaching El Niño has a high probablity of continuing into the Spring of 2016 and keeping conditions wet in the Southern U.S. and most notably in drought-stricken California where normal fire potential is predicted to resume for the next three months. 

The full NIFC Fire Potential Outlook can be found here.

 

What Happens To Plants After A Wildfire?

News regarding large wildfires typically covers the location of the fire, the size of the fire, and the fire’s impact on people and property. With the possibility of hundreds of homes destroyed, thousands of people displaced, and millions in damaged property, it’s no wonder much of the media’s attention of large wildfire events is focused on what happens DURING a fire.  But what happens after a wildfire is out?  Or specifically, what happens to plants and vegetation after a wildfire burn? Does the ground remained scorched, forever void of life like some scene out of Mad Max?

The truth is wildfire has helped to shape California’s vegetative landscape for thousands of years. It affects the kinds of plants growing in a particular area, their abundance, size, health, and lifespan. The fire kills some plants, rejuvenates others, and some plants may even need fire in order to thrive.

Some areas in Southern California have plants with leaves naturally coated in flammable oils that encourage a fire to spread. The heat from the fire causes their fire-activated seeds to germinate and the young plants can then take advantage of the fact that the other surrounding plant life was destroyed in the fire. The cones of the Lodgepole Pine are sealed with a resin that is melted away by fire, which then causes the seeds to be released. Other plants have smoke-activated seeds which function in a similar manner. Some trees, like the giant sequoia tree, rely on wildfires to make gaps in the vegetation canopy so that sunlight can reach the forest floor allowing their seedlings to grow.  

This map (courtesy of the Department of Agriculture, Forest Service) shows the effects of wildfires on plant life in various regions of the US. The color coding shows the different ecosystem types and the frequency of fire (and types of fire) that allow those plants to thrive.

Some key definitions (courtesy of the Department of Agriculture):

Understory Fire

A fire in forests or woodlands that is not lethal to the dominant, overstory vegetation and thus does not change stand structure substantially. Most (75%) of the dominant vegetation survives.

Mixed Severity Fire

A fire that causes partial (26-75%) replacement of the upper canopy layer.

Stand Replacement Fire

A fire that kills all or most of the living upper canopy layer and initiates succession or regrowth.

Sundowner Winds and Their Impact on Fire Behavior

A sundowner wind is an offshore northerly Foehn wind that occurs near Santa Barbara, California. The winds surface when a ridge of high pressure is directly north of the area, and they blow with greatest force when the pressure gradient is perpendicular to the axis of the Santa Ynez Mountains which rise directly behind Santa Barbara. These winds often precede Santa Ana events by a day or two, as it is normal for high-pressure areas to migrate east, causing the pressure gradients to shift to the northeast.

 

Sundowner winds are dried and heated by the warm inland valleys and deserts. As narrow canyons and valleys compress the winds, they become stronger and overpower the diurnal winds. Firefighting efforts during a sundowner wind event can become extremely difficult. The Jesusita fire in May 2009 burned 8,733 acres and destroyed 80 homes while damaging 15 more. Most of the destruction occurred while sundowner winds pushed the main fire through populated areas. The Painted Cave Fire during June 1990 rapidly grew to 5,000 acres, destroying 427 buildings and killing 1 civilian.

 

September a Historic Month for Wildfire in California

Containment of three major fires nears after a tumultuous and historic month for wildfires in California.

Incident management teams on all three fires have made great progress of late on containing the Butte, Rough, and Valley Fires. This month the Valley Fire near Clear Lake has destroyed 1,958 structures while the Butte Fire near Jackson has taken out another 818. In terms of structures lost, that makes them number 2 and number 5 respectively since 2003 in California. Only the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County has destroyed more. As the Rough fire continues to gain acreage burned, it has moved up to number 13 all-time in California in terms of acreage burned at 151,493. 

Three large fires nearing containment

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, California’s fires have burned 818,946 acres so far this year. These three are over one-third of that total.

 

California Wildfires By the Numbers

It’s been a busy year for California wildfires. To date, The Northern and Southern California Geographic Area Coordination Centers have reported a total of 7,541 fires for 783,968 total acres burned. To put it in perspective, that’s larger than the entire state of Rhode Island… burned.

 Let’s have a look at the previous five years as reported by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC):

Year

Total Fires

Total Acreage

2014

7,865

555,044

2013

9,909

577,675

2012

7,958

869,599

2011

7,989

126,854

2010

6,554

109,529

 

The previous five year average was 8,055 fires for 447,740 acres burned. And while California is a bit under the average this year, it’s only mid-September, and US Forest Service officials are expecting to see fire activity until at least November.

 

Fewer fires but more acreage can only mean one thing, larger fires. This year California has seen six fires over 50,000 acres in size, with four of those still actively burning. Again, let’s have a look at the previous five years as reported by NIFC:

 

Year

Fires > 50k acres

2014

3

2013

1

2012

2

2011

0

2010

0

 

The previous five year average was approximately one large fire per year in California. With so many large fires this season, firefighting resources have been stretched thin. Not to mention that California has sent equipment and manpower to other states that have also been impacted by wildfires this year.

Rain Not Always Welcomed Forecast for Wildfire Scorched Areas

As the Valley Fire in Northern California continues to burn, the forecasted rain can help and hurt.

The Valley Fire north of San Francisco, CA has burned 70,000 acres and is 30% contained. Active fire and visible flames still cover a lot of the area, and the rain expected today will likely help firefighting efforts to cool and douse these parts of the fire. However, for the areas already scorched by this blaze, like Middletown, with burned, unprotected soil, the rain brings further concerns of landslides and flash flooding.

20150915_ValleyFire

 

Many variables lead to increases in risk for an area for landslides and flash floods. One such consideration is recently burned areas that have little to no vegetation to hold the soil in place and minimize erosion. Another notable fire in Northern California is the Butte Fire (71,780 acres, 45% contained) near San Andreas which is also in areas of mountainous terrain. This increased slope is another concern after a wildfire when rain approaches.

Images like the one seen above (taken by a RedZone Liaison on the ground near the Valley Fire today) are becoming common as large wildfires continue to burn across the Western US and Alaska this fire season. Many show no signs of being contained until snowfall.

 

USA Wildfire update – 206 and counting

Alaska remains the unfortunate leader in wildfire, with more than 1.2 million acres involved in 17 major fires. RedZone is currently tracking 30 wildfires in Alaska.

As a comparison, the twenty largest fires in the Continental US combine to measure 382,000 acres – barely a quarter of the size of the Alaskan fires.

Within the CONUS, California has two of the five biggest fires: the Happy Camp Complex fire in Klamath National Forest at 134,000 acres, and the Lake Fire in San Bernardino National Forest at 31,000 acres. RedZone is currently tracking 18 wildfires in California, with varying levels of intensity and threat.

There are other significant fires in Oregon, Washington, and even New Mexico and Nevada. If you want reliable, timely intelligence on wildfire, turn to RedZone. For more information, visit our website at www.redzone.co.

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This screen shot from RedZone’s RZAlert dashboard shows the CONUS and wildfires currently tracked by RedZone.