IAWF RECEIVES PASSIONATE RESPONSES TO CLIMATE POSITION PAPER
The IAWF asked members for feedback on its position paper on climate change, which comprised the cover story in the Q4-2021 issue of Wildfire. Here are the responses.
Q: On a scale of 1-5, how much do you agree with the IAWF climate change position statement?
A: Average 4.5
Q: How likely are you to use the position paper as a reference guide for your own work or education?
A: Average 4
- To help address some of the issues raised in this position paper the IAWF should create another membership level for “community” members, so that local communities can become more engaged in the issues and learning within the global fire community. These could be for non-practitioner/ non-research people with a greater interest in Wildland fire.
- There are some pieces where the tense shifts from “this is happening” to “this may/will happen”; maybe this is due to research evidence but keeping the “this is happening and will keep happening” framing throughout would strengthen some spots I think there needs to be more prominent mention of the fact that natural disasters, including fire, already disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities and people, particularly those who are POC, lower-income, rent houses, etc. There should be a call-to-action piece that specifically calls out the need to address this in how we respond to wildfires, implement prescribed fires, build resilient communities, etc.
- I would like to see the volunteer fire service’s role in wildland fire prevention and suppression addressed. It would be nice to know the true cost savings the volunteer firefighter is to this country. How many wildland fires do VFDs put out, and on who’s land? How many hours do they spend doing fire prevention work? How much money do they spend on wildfire? How often are they doing IA on federal lands?
- Unless I missed it, I think we should address the root causes that will exacerbate the wildfire problem, such as the movement of insect and disease throughout the forests of the world that cause the decline of forest health, which provides a ready fuel source. The spread of non-native species which alter the eco systems, which in turn causes an imbalance in the forest health, as well as displaces the native flora and fauna.
- How the fire community can and should join with broader, larger efforts to advocate for the large-scale actions needed to genuinely address our climate crisis.
- Workshopping around reimagining the fire workforce and communicating this with policy and decision makers.
G’day from Australia,
I have read email asking for feedback on the position statement on climate change and saw the feedback page. Rather than just ticking a box, I felt the need to provide detailed feedback.
In summary the position paper is desperately needed. It misses the mark in a number of areas. Basically, the impact of climate change on wildland fire is a lot more serious than you are stating. A lot.
Here are my detailed comments. I hope they are useful. More background is available if needed.
Cheers, Rick McRae
Bushfire Research Group
School of Science | UNSW Canberra
UNIVERSITY OF NEW SOUTH WALES
I. Human-induced climate change and the risk
This section misses the mark. It is not just warming – there are other major processes underway. The ability of the oceans to absorb heat is changing, causing major anomalies in SSTAs. These in turn affect the moisture content of weather systems affecting nearby continental areas and have been clear precursors to all major wildfire events of recent years.
Even the smoke discussion misses the big picture for eastern Australia. Climate change-driven changes in weather systems and their interactions with terrain have created mechanisms to expose communities to smoke types not normal encountered on the surface. Canberra had the worst air quality in the world in early 2020, so I’ve breathed this.
III. Climate, weather and fire
It is not just a matter of fire seasons getting longer – it is more complex than that. Using MODIS hotspot data, McRae (2019) showed that in different part of eastern Australia seasons are getting earlier and later in a complex pattern, but are evolving into a more uniform overall spatial pattern. This creates resource sharing problems.
In a real sense it is no longer just a problem of fire seasons. Black Summer sensu lato started in the Tasmanian central plateau in February 2019 and in the eastern Victorian high country in March 2019. The same extraordinary activity pattern continued after a “winter break”, resuming in August in Queensland. This is unprecedented.
It is easy to say that Black Summer was due to global warming. However true that may be, it provides no useful insights. Black Summer started with a persistent pattern of cool sea surface temperature anomalies west of Australia. This ensured dry air moving in with the synoptic circulation. Differential heating between the land and sea in the south-east drove the formation complex, branched trough-lines and delayed cold front passage. This was the context within which record heat acted to form dangerous fire conditions.
It must be stated loud and clear that Black Summer was completely unprecedented. Peterson, et al. (2021) makes this clear. There is no ability to put probabilities of reccurrence on this. What is clear is that we must pay heed to messages from British Columbia where the heat dome led to massive fire escalation and an unprecedented pyrogenic lightning event. There is a small jump from a complex branched trough to a heat dome. To have had a set of violent pyro-convective plumes rotating in an anti-clockwise fashion in a meso-scale synoptic system should make all fire services nervous.
Fire regimes, ecosystem change and fuel management
In south-east Australia we are seeing forest stands stressed by climate change – repeated impacts of Blow-Up Fire Events (BUFEs), extreme drought, hailstorms, and susceptibility to insect or fungal attack. Forest fire danger forecasts use a Drought Factor derived from a Drought Index. Two are in widespread use: Keetch-Byram Drought Index and Soil Dryness Index. Both require a contextual input: average annual rainfall for the former and canopy type for the latter. Both inputs are now reflecting climate change – declines in AAR and change in stand type to a more arid type. The net result for both is that, for example, a 15 millimetre rainfall event will have greater impact on Drought Factor (fine fuel availability) for longer. Through this mechanism, climate change can reduce forest fire danger. Neither dynamic is currently embedded in the official fire weather forecasting infrastructure.
The discussion of the role of prescribed burning (PB) is flawed. In the lead-up to Black Summer our forests were subjected to extreme drought. BoM NDVI anomaly maps put vast tracts at between 3 and 5 sigma from the mean. The entire structure of forest and woodland stands decayed “to duff.” Shrub layers disappeared; grass layers did the same. Canopies died back. The impact on stand flammable biomass was vastly greater than even the best conceivable PB program, and over the entire landscape. And then we had the worst fires ever recorded. This shows that there is a non-linear relationship between fuel reduction and risk as contextual severity increases. As normal fire risk increases, the impact of PB kicks in and goes up. After a threshold is passed, that total risk escalates drastically while the impact of PB decays to minor levels. In SE Australia during Black Summer, the effects of PB were limited to a reduction of intensity from one year old burning only. We cannot make a claim to be able to mitigate the impacts of any future replay of Black Summer through fuel management.
Another impact of the previous point is that any carefully planned indigenous landscape management is at jeopardy if another Black Summer event occurs. Entire ecosystems that do not experience fire were trashed by Black Summer. Carefully crafted fire regimes were reset.
Again arising from the previous point, we cannot discuss global wildfire problems from an Anglo/Franco-centric perspective. A massive La Nina in place now as the austral Summer commences indicates a potential for the next BS event to be near the southern edge of Amazonia. How do we – IAWF – help prevent (or, more realistically, mitigate) a looming global catastrophe?
Weather: While weather parameters will change due to climate change, we need to focus on the context. Is the profile dryness changing? Is the convective cap changing? As things warm. Is the LCL going up or down? Many of the questions asked decades ago by pioneers like Don Haines remain to be fully answered.
Support systems: The biggest challenge globally is that the international sharing of key resources, whether it be FBANs, incident management specialists, or Large Air Tankers we are near the limits of sustainability.
Calls to action
The Vision: IAWF seeks to safely and effectively extinguish wildfires, when necessary; to use prescribed and wildland fire when possible to meet protection and land and resource management objectives; to manage natural resources through progressive fuel reduction to increase landscape resilience; and to create fire adapted communities that can accept shared responsibility for addressing how to co-exist with smoke and wildland fire.
In my view this is a seriously flawed statement. Let me explain.
Climate change is pushing us into a context where wildfire suppression is no longer the means to mitigate threats to our communities and our environment. I was in the IMT for the first major climate change impact on an Australian city – the 2003 Canberra wildfires. The enquiries after these fires listened carefully to experts, many of whom had a conflict of interest arising from the income streams from Governments and the forestry sector to carry out PB. Despite the implementation of the usual raft of systems upgrades. had rains been delayed a week, a full replay of 2003 was expected in early February 2020.
While there may be discussions around probability of repeat analyses from climate change scientists, the context for both 2003 and 2020 is clear. I maintain the Australian pyroCb register. From 1978 to 2001 Australia had experienced between 2 and 4 pyroCbs in total. After 2003 there was consternation that we had reached 16 in total. It now stands at 114, with a doubling during Black Summer alone. That is the context.
Whether it is in SE Australia, California or the Mediterranean we are seeing more and more news footage of towns razed by wildfires. Risk reduction will have to evolve. If a BUFE occurs, the IAP should have the incident objective as “Save lives.” The best way to achieve this is to forecast BUFEs. Work is rapidly progressing on this, but with a serious handicap.
Ninety-plus per cent of fires are steady state fires – if you know the weather, terrain and fuel, then you can (mostly) make an unambiguous prediction of fire behaviour. These fires cause a limited amount of damage because firefighters have career-long training and experience with them, excellent resources and systems. Dynamic fires are coupled with the atmosphere and have feedback mechanisms in play allowing rapid escalation. In Australia these are less than five per cent of fires and cause over 95 per cent of the damage. In Canberra, in 80 years of steady-state fire activity we lost no houses, but in one day of dynamic fire activity we lost 512.
And yet dynamic fires get less than five pre cent of the attention at the industry level. I expect the same is true in the United States, as it was in Canada when I was there as an FBAN in 2017. In fact much of the potentially relevant research confounds the two types of fire, producing meaningless results.
Action 1. Increase prescribed burning
Increase PB! What more can I say? McRae and Sharples (2015) showed that prior PB had limited effectiveness again BUFEs.
The vast majority of MODIS hotspots recorded in Australia are in the tropical savannah belt. The numbers dwarf those of other parts on the continent. There is little commonality between tropical and temperate fire management, and it should not be oversold.
Further, in recent years the world has seen the first ever confirmed tropical pyroCbs (in Bolivia), indicating a potentially serious escalation of tropical fire risks to communities not accustomed to dynamic fire behaviour.
Action 2. Shared responsibility
While this is true, it needs to be carefully targeted. I have been heavily involved in three of the worst extreme wildfire outbreaks, 2003 in Canberra, 2017 in British Columbia and 2019 in SE Australia. These have things in common: the community feels helpless because things evolve so quickly that their plans cannot keep up; and a significant involvement by the military and other external agencies due to swamping of fire service’s capabilities. At time when climate change is having its fullest impact, the tagline is actually “shared helplessness.”
Action 3: Reimagine and invest in the wildland fire management workforce and systems
As I said earlier there are two types of fire, and steady-state fires are well managed by career firefighters. This should never be belittled or reduced. It is not obsolete. What we MUST do is add a career overlay for dynamic fires. We must not imagine that extra burning-out is a useful tool for dynamic fires. During Black Summer, fire crews doing burn-out operations under the auspices of the IAP created some of the most intense fire activity ever observed. We need to be able to switch between offensive and defensive IAPs. In defensive mode no-one should be allowed to use a drip-torch. We do not yet know if “overwhelming force” has a role during dynamic fire behaviour.
Analysis of Black Summer shows spatiotemporal patterns that could be used to set appropriate IAP types in place. It shows the inevitability of dynamic fires in rugged landscape doing what they wish and ignoring what we throw at them. Large Air Tankers then serve only to save individual structures – hardly cost effective when the entire landscape is threatened.
Action 5. Create opportunities for continuous improvement and adaptive management Much of what is written for this action is not justified.
The rate of change is speeding up. Record fire outbreaks, globally, have been logged in 2001,2009, 2017 then 2019. 2021 came close. How do we get the science done in time to drive useful lessons-learned? How do we share them globally? How do we coordinate the science? In Australia, the United States, Canada or Europe, papers are strongly biased to citing papers from the same region. We use different key modelling platforms. Sharples (2019) extended the Australian concept that fire danger is really wind speed divided by fuel moisture content to include Canadian fuels.
A decade ago, we published a paper (Sharples, et al., 2010) that showed that foehn winds affect fire danger in Australia. Four years ago, two damaging, foehn-driven BUFEs showed what can result. Black Summer produced over 40 more foehn-driven BUFEs. If ever there was a clear case for international exchange of skills, lessons and science this is it.