26 May 2009, 1:31pm
Forestry education
by admin

Towards a True Science of Fire

An interesting article appeared last week in Science Mag entitled Fire in the Earth System.

It was written by a flock of folks: David M. J. S. Bowman, Jennifer K. Balch, Paulo Artaxo, William J. Bond, Jean M. Carlson, Mark A. Cochrane, Carla M. D’Antonio, Ruth S. DeFries, John C. Doyle, Sandy P. Harrison, Fay H. Johnston, Jon E. Keeley, Meg A. Krawchuk, Christian A. Kull, J. Brad Marston, Max A. Moritz, I. Colin Prentice, Christopher I. Roos, Andrew C. Scott, Thomas W. Swetnam, Guido R. van der Werf, and Stephen J. Pyne.

The paper arose from a conference held at UC Santa Barbara, Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. Everybody in attendance got their name on the paper. Of some interest is that one author, Dr. Stephen J. Pyne, Regents Professor at Arizona State University, School of Life Sciences, did not even attend (he had to cancel due to pressing family matters).

Despite his absence, the paper calls for the development of “a coordinated and holistic fire science,” a theme that Pyne has promoted for many years.

The paper is [here]. Much of it is global warming gibberish. But the essential idea — that the study of exogenous (outdoor) fire needs a more formal discipline — is quite valid.

That discipline MUST recognize that fire is more than a physical process: it is both biological and cultural.

Fire is biological because fuels are biological, and fire doesn’t happen without fuel. (There are some exceptions such as volcanic eruptions and solar combustion by nuclear fusion, but when a forest burns, the stuff that burns is biomass). Hence fire study should be an outgrowth of biology.

And fire is cultural. Humans are the only animal that makes fire. Anthropogenic fire is ancient and has had significant influence on Earthly ecosystems for tens of thousands of years.

The spread of highly flammable savannas, where hominids originated, likely contributed to their eventual mastery of fire. The hominid fossil record suggests that cooked food may have appeared as early as 1.9 Ma, although reliable evidence for controlled fire use does not appear in the archaeological record until after 400,000 years ago, with evidence of regular use much later. The routine domestic use of fire began around 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, … and hunter-gatherers used fire to reduce fuels and manage wildlife and plants beginning tens of thousands of years ago.

Steve Pyne wrote compellingly about the need for a new scientific discipline of fire in his 2006 essay, The Wrath of Kuhn: Meditations on Fire Philosophy [here].

What I do urge is a lusty attempt to center fire within biology. … What is needed is to assert that in its essence it is biologically constructed and to elaborate that proposition into a unifying theory that can range from genes to the biosphere. Today fire remains a sidebar in the life sciences. It should be on the commanding heights.

Pyne has written over 20 books, most of them pertaining to fire, including the best (perhaps only) textbook on fire, Introduction to Wildland Fire, 2nd ed. (New York: Wiley, 1996).

The spin of the Science article emphasizes “catastrophe, carbon, and climate” (Pyne’s words). The motivation behind that was to entice the editors at Science with “popular” themes. But the real meat may be hidden as a result. Dr. Pyne wrote to me:

The real issues, I think, are getting fire into some formal scholarship and getting people at the core of fire scholarship. I’ll repeat myself: the only fire department at a university is the one that sends emergency vehicles when an alarm sounds.

The Science article is a group paper and possibly suffers from the too-many-cooks syndrome. Hopefully discerning SOSF readers can navigate through the brush of distracting pontification about global warming etc. and discover the heart of the argument: that fire is a multi-faceted phenomenon that affects lives and landscapes, and so deserves a more focused albeit holistic scientific approach.

26 May 2009, 7:29pm
by John M.

I have mixed feelings about establishing an academic discipline dealing with vegetative fire, at least at this time. I have spent almost 60 years in and around free burning fire and have gone from the youthful “aren’t we heros” to the “let’s use fire for management” view of this physical/chemical force. I would support, now that I am in my rocking chair years, more academic study of fire if I was sure there was a chance this academic effort would be scientific, not another exercise in finding another research grant. I would also be more comfortable if the cultural issues of fire were part of the research mix.

However, at this point in time I am of the belief we have enough knowledge about fire to use it and control it to a large degree. What is lacking is a public and political understanding of this force that reaches beyond the television news and the drama of flames. I believe few political types and fewer citizens have even a sliver of knowledge about fire, its power, its destructiveness, its benefits or its danger to humans and its long lasting impact on the land — and neither group has a clue of what is required to control or to use fire.

So I might vote for more academic study after we assess what we know, arm wrestle over the social and political implications of living with fire, and figure out how we much we will need in the way of water, wood and air to support 400 million or more people. However, establishing this base line has about the same chance of happening as Oregonians pumping their own gas.

I’ll settle in the short term for the land management agencies putting away their childish views of fire and returning to control of fires that have no documented reason to burn.

26 May 2009, 8:21pm
by Mike

What we face is a growing failure by science and management to deal with fire in any responsible manner. In recent years academics have really stuck their heads in the sand, first by glorifying the destruction, and now blaming our fire crisis on non-existent global warming.

The operative paradigm is the physical one — ignoring the fuels and throwing massive amounts of money, often unsuccessfully, at megafires after they have blown up.

The biologists are largely gobsmacked, chattering about the “historical range of variability” when they have no concept of actual forest histories. They have adopted a political line of “reintroducing fire” and then ignored the extreme debilitation of the environment when a real fire roasts it.

The “environmentalists” have shut down whole economies in the name of “saving the old-growth,” and then turn their backs when fires kill old-growth and convert vast tracts of heritage forest to tick brush.

Cities are now burning down (San Diego, Santa Barbara, etc.) and nobody seemingly has a clue why or what to do about it. The “fire community” has all but abandoned firefighting, advising residents to run like hell because the taxpayer-funded fire establishment is powerless to save a single twig let alone a neighborhood.

Somewhere in all that mess is a rational approach that looks at the true causes of fire (it’s the fuels), understanding that the only way to manage fire is to manage the fuels ahead of time.

History, biology, and culture are required to get a grip on this crisis. When the gummit, at the behest of sue-happy Bambi worshipers, shut down land management, when junk science ignored empirical evidence, when fire engineers supplanted land managers, then the whole system collapsed.

Now the hysterical global warming alarmists are running the show, guaranteeing that people without a clue will engender more and more megafire holocausts.

There has to be a better way. Stacking up tragedy upon tragedy isn’t it.

You are correct that most academics are in it for the funding, and will say and do anything to score a grant. The word “prostitutes” comes to mind.

But we need to get a grip on the crisis somehow. Maybe Pyne’s ideas are too forgiving of the rampant academic lack of integrity. Maybe we need not only a new science of fire, but a new scientific establishment somehow divorced from the welfare trough.

26 May 2009, 10:23pm
by Bob Zybach

Mike and John:

As you know, I do have an academic degree in fire, having received my PhD from Oregon State University in part for my research on “The Great Fires: Indian Burning and Catastrophic Forest Fire Patterns of the Oregon Coast Range, 1491-1951.”

Let me assure you, it was not for the money — which has been largely nonexistent. In fact, I still owe several tens of thousands for the loans needed to complete this research.

The degree was multidisciplinary, involving the very meteorological, biological and cultural components described by each of you, and by Pyne.

Interestingly, Pyne was not a required reading in any of my courses (although I relied heavily on his work for my research), while Agee’s book on Fire Return Intervals and Natural Fire Cycles was required in two classes. Pyne knows what he’s talking about. Agee invents Numerological projections based on tree ring misinterpretations. (Guess which one gets the most funding.)

Yes, I think we do need a formal academic discipline involving fire. I personally know that most of my findings have been routinely rejected by the USFS and the Joint Fire Sciences Program, despite my academic credentials and despite 20+ years practical experience with prescribed fires and with reforesting wildfires. That is because my findings are not in accord with the work of Jerry Franklin, James Agee, and those with little or no understanding of the cultural aspects of fire.

The lack of academics in this discipline makes it relatively easy for charlatans to get funding and press by claiming “Climate Change” (nee “Global Warming”) as a causal effect of wildfire — without needing to consult my findings or Pyne’s, which show no such thing. It’s the fuel; as shown by legitimate research, predictions, and results regarding the Tillamook Fires over 50 years ago.

So, as it now stands, legitimate studies of wildfire go mostly unfunded (Kat Anderson will back this, too), while crazy, unfounded theories gather millions — and help to create policies costing taxpayers billions.

This is one way “consensus” is reached in “science” — by funding popular claims of apocalypse, while withholding legitimate research funding from scientific disciplines that can readily challenge and/or disprove such claims.

We do need academic studies along the lines proposed by Pyne and others. These studies need to be challenged along scientifically accepted guidelines. We also need to stop wasting our money, forests, and communities on the bogus “science” promoting Global Warming hysteria the past few years. Hopefully, these are two sides of the same coin.

27 May 2009, 11:01pm
by YPmule

Do we really want to trust people with matches in our forests?

Prescribed burn jumps containment lines
Updated: May 22nd, 2009

Forest Service crews have runaway fire near Challis under control

Central Idaho’s first wildfire of the season was the result of a prescribed burn that jumped containment lines earlier this week.

The blaze took off early in the afternoon on Tuesday, May 19, in the Garden Creek drainage east of Challis, a news release from the Salmon-Challis National Forest states. The fire was being managed by a crew of 12 firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service.

High wind gusts of up to 47 miles per hour that resulted from a cold front moving through the area fanned the flames. The blaze moved to the south of the containment lines circling the 70-acre planned fire area, the news release states.

Additional fire crews and engines were called in to assist in controlling the runaway blaze.

According to the Forest Service, the fire has already been contained. The fire will be mopped up and monitored through the Memorial Day weekend by a 12-member fire crew from the Salmon-Challis as well as two fire engines. Two hotshot crews from the Boise National Forest that were called in to help out will be leaving the fire today, Friday, May 22.

In all, the fire is about 200 acres in size, the Forest Service reports. It is located primarily on Forest Service lands southeast of the Garden Creek Road in the Keystone Gulch area. According to the news release, weather forecasts for the next few days indicate a slight to 30 percent chance of precipitation for the area.

Source: http://www.mtexpress.com/vu_breaking_story.php?bid=7246

27 May 2009, 11:15pm
by Mike

The prescription sucked and failure resulted.

It is tragic that USFS personnel are so sadly ignorant about forest ecology and development. It really is the fault of disinformation and mis-education. If they knew the slightest thing about how our forests grew and developed, they would not be setting our forests on fire so ham-handedly, without proper preparation, at the wrong time of the year, in high winds. Ignorance is not bliss.

28 May 2009, 9:48am
by Larry H.

I saw this document released by NIFC early this year called the “Quadrennial Fire Review” and while it is lengthy and dry, they minimize the significance of timber projects that reduce fuel loads. They lump WFU’s in with mechanical thinnings as accomplisments in fuels treatments. Obviously, these “fire gods” are pressing for more money spent on wildfires and a greater reliance on WFU’s to manage fuel loadings. The report says that we will be seeing fire seasons reaching an average of 10-12 million acres each year. Sadly, I don’t see any progress towards sensible science-based forest management.


28 May 2009, 12:42pm
by Mike

Larry — it’s on my To Review list. I sent in comments when the QFR was in draft form last Fall, but they were ignored and discarded.

Another defect is the call for Australian-style “Leave Early Or Stay And Defend,” which puts the onus of fire protection on residents while the paid firefighters ditch their responsibilities. Tragically, LEOSAD in Oz led to over 200 deaths in February.

28 May 2009, 1:11pm
by Larry H.

Maybe Christian Dior and Armani will come up with designer Nomex, just for rich SoCal and Vail celebrity landowners! Especially with so many camera crews around covering one of the most cliched and spectacular of news stories around. How many celebrities contribute to groups like the Sierra Club, Natural Resource Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity? They really don’t seem to see the big picture, or even care, because they can afford expensive fire insurance.

200 deaths may just be a drop in the bucket when a town like Big Bear gets burned over and all routes of escape are blocked. It seems that only a tragic loss of hundreds of lives can change this path we are on.



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