By Lindsay R. Mohlere
With most of the Northwest still damp from record rainfall and snow, the 2017 fire season (normally scheduled to begin July 1) is expected to be a shade less severe than last year’s season, which produced more than 2,500 wildfires that torched 510,000 acres. The 10-year average is 4,100 wildfires with 750,000 acres burned.
Nationwide, there were more than 67,000 wildfires, which burned nearly 5.5 million acres. In 2015 over 10 million acres went up in smoke. According to 247wallst.com, the leading states where wildfire has caused the most damage are Idaho, Oregon, California, and Washington, respectively.
People Influence Severity of Fire Season
Forest Service experts warn that the end of the drought throughout the region doesn’t necessarily mean a reduction in the number of fires or the severity of fire season. Increased precipitation has boosted the growth of grasses, bushes, and other flora and will result in an increase of fuels once the weather begins to dry out. As August heats up, so does the risk.
Unfortunately, the real key to a hot or mild fire season is the human element. Either by accident or, more appropriately, stupidity, it is estimated that 80 to 90 percent of all wildfires are caused by humans. In Oregon and Washington, more than 2,000 fires were started by people. The rest were started by lightning.
Human-caused fires are the result of campfires not properly extinguished, burning debris, tossed cigarette butts, and intentional acts of arson, to name a few. Unintentional heat and sparks from vehicles and equipment are also seen as major contributors.
Researchers Bethany Bradley of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Jennifer Balch of the University of Colorado-Boulder report in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that, “Humans are expanding fires into more locations and environmental conditions than lightning is able to reach.” Additionally, the WUI (Wildland/Urban Interface) along with climate change and years of forest mismanagement are a big part of the equation.
Fire and climate experts are keeping their fingers crossed for a mild fire season, but predicting what will happen is like flipping a coin or gazing into a crystal ball.
To mitigate the human element, we could all be more careful and aware, but you all know that’s almost impossible. Dumb is dumb. And again, you can’t fix stupid.
No Good News on New Fire Shelters
Work on developing a new, more effective fire shelter for wildland firefighters by the beginning of the 2018 fire season has sort of fizzled out.
Sometimes referred to as “Shake & Bake Tents,” fire shelters are considered the last resort for wildland firefighters who get trapped by a fire and face a burnover. The tent-like structures are manufactured with an outer layer of aluminum foil, backed by a silica weave designed to reflect heat away from the shelter. An inner layer of foil laminated to fiberglass is separated from the outer sheet by a layer of air. The shelter reflects about 95 percent of radiant heat (like you’re standing next to a campfire), but absorbs nearly all the convective heat generated by direct contact with the fire.
According to the Forest Service, fire shelters have saved more than 300 lives since the agency listed them as required gear in 1977. The current design, developed as a result of the deaths of 14 firefighters during Colorado’s Storm King fire in 1997, was introduced in 2002 and has gone through several updates.
New efforts to redesign and improve fire shelters began in earnest after the deadly 2013 Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona. Nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed when the fire overran their position and their fire shelters failed.
NASA Teams with MTDC
At that point, NASA and the Missoula Technology and Development Center joined forces to form CHIEFS (Convective Heating Improvement for Emergency Fire Shelters) to develop an upgraded emergency shelter for wildland firefighters. NASA pinned their hopes on decades of experience developing flexible heat shields for space re-entry. They expected the new design to be ready by fire season 2018.
The effort to make a new fire shelter that will last longer as the fire burns around them and to withstand direct flames has stumbled. With the current fire shelter design, firefighters can survive 500-degree radiant heat for approximately one hour, but 2,000-degree direct flame cooks the shelter in about a minute. The goal is to withstand convective heat for longer than two minutes.
So far, prototypes have not been able to outperform the current iteration. Primarily, the CHIEFS project has been set back because they have not found suitable material that can withstand the heat and flame for longer periods of time, have a better adhesive between the layers, and be as lightweight (4.5 pounds) as the existing shelter.
There are several promising materials slated to go through the research and testing protocols, but a new prototype that meets the goals of the Forest Service is, unfortunately, not going to happen by its projected completion deadline.
While the Forest Service has invested $200,000 to $500,000 in the project so far, creating a new, improved fire shelter should remain a priority. While deploying a fire shelter might be the last thing every wildland firefighter would ever want to do, they still need a shelter that offers greater ease of deployment, lighter weight, and at least double the protection.
Fighting wildfires is a dangerous job, but zero tolerance for death and injury is the rule.
What’s Burning NOW!
As of June 15, 2017:
Several prescribed fires are being tended in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
Arizona has the most wildfires burning in the U.S. The Associated Press reports that at least 80 square miles are burning across the state. Several other major fires are burning in New Mexico, and Georgia.
That’s a wrap. Stay safe out there!
(Talkback - TWfirecolumn@gmail.com)
(Source: InciWeb, ODF, WA/DNR, NWCC, USFS, AP, NIFC)
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