Fire

Climate Change and Wildfires: What’s the Connection?

By Krystnell A. Storr

Forest fire and rising smoke

Forest fire

For me, fire comes from the end of a match or the flick of a lighter—a controllable little ball of fury the size of a fingertip. For others, it is the transformation of the towering pine trees that surround homes and roadways into a horde of fiery giants. Its march, dangerous and unruly, has made one thing very clear: the rise of wildfire activity in the U.S. is an important scientific and environmental issue—one that that is being amplified by the effects of climate change.

To determine an amount of wildfire activity in a given year, scientists measure the area burned.  The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports that in 2012 alone, 67,774 wildland fires burned through more than nine million acres of U.S. land, three times more than the five-year averages from a few decades ago.

Wildfires are unpredictable and containing them can be challenging and dangerous. According to the NIFC, last year the total direct costs of fire suppression exceeded 1.9 billion dollars nationwide. But that’s not all: wildfires are a major source of airborne pollutants such as fine particulate matter that can lead to serious health issues.

In a study funded by EPA, scientists are modeling projections of wildfire activity fifty years from now. The study takes into account the possible effects of global warming—changing vegetation and less precipitation—in areas already prone to wildfire activity, to determine how future fires may affect air quality.

Using past data, the team built models that link wildfire activity to meteorological conditions. The scientists estimate that by the year 2050, wildfire activity is expected to double in the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains Forest, and the Eastern Rockies/Great Plains regions.

The team showed that we may experience shorter springs and warmer summers that in turn would mean prolonged periods of wildfire activity. According to the study, the combination of a longer fire season and an increase in the acreage burned could have impacts far beyond the immediate fire zone, negatively affecting visibility in national parks and wilderness areas and worsening the air quality.

Results of the study have been published online in the scientific journal Atmospheric Environment.

Although a number of wildfire smoke forecasting methods are available, there is no systematic program aimed to lessen the public health burden in nearby communities. In another study, EPA scientists are evaluating the possibility of using smoke forecasts to help societies cope with and recover from wildfires. Understanding how climate change impacts the frequency and severity of wildfires, and in turn our environment and health, is one of the Agency’s priorities and an issue we should all be concerned about.

About the Author: Krystnell A. Storr is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Fire in the Sky: Emergency Response

A loud thump woke me up. I looked at my startled husband as he yelled, “Let’s go get the kids.” I stood as our concrete house shook, and grabbed an iron post from the bed to keep my stance. “An earthquake,” I mustered as we exited our room and noticed the hour:12:25 a.m. In the hallway, my eldest daughter hugged me while asking what was going on. Fortunately, our youngest children did not wake up. In our dining room, the window screens were on the floor and the chandelier was swinging from side to side. My brother-in-law phoned to say there was fire in the sky. My immediate thoughts were about an airplane accident. I opened our dining room side door to find the sky changing colors from red to orange to violet. We looked for a radio and soon learned the cause of such chaos: fire at the Caribbean Petroleum (CAPECO) tank farm less than a mile from our home.

image of fire at petroleum plantWhat was a long awaited weekend all year long – we were holding our Halloween party – turned into an emergency response for me. Within ten minutes of the explosion, I called our Response and Remediation Branch Chief who in turn called the National Response Center.

As a public affairs specialist in the San Juan office of EPA, I had dealt with minor emergencies; this, however, was a real environmental threat since various drums containing jet fuel, Bunker C, diesel and other petroleum derivatives were on fire. The CAPECO facility is located on Road #28 in an area that encompasses three towns: Guaynabo, Bayamon and Cataño and is next to Fort Buchanan, a large military base. The San Juan Bay is two miles away and wetlands and minor water bodies are nearby. The reason this emergency hit home is because, aside from living nearby the facility, I drive down this very same road at 5 am to go to the gym at Fort Buchanan. The tanks are visible from the road.

The first few hours were frantic as federal, state and municipal agencies tried to contain the fire and activate all emergency protocols to ensure the citizens in this largely populated area were not affected. An Incident Command Center was established within 18 hours at a sports facility in San Juan, and we were deployed to work. The media and citizens needed accurate information. We worked hard to provide it.

I must say I have learned more from this experience than I have before in my seven years at EPA. While the fire is out, now the real work begins. I will keep you posted.

About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Incendio en el cielo: respuesta a una emergencia

Un fuerte estallido me sacó de la cama. Miré a mi sorprendido esposo que gritaba, “vamos a buscar a los nenes”. Me paré mientras nuestra casa de concreto se estremecía y agarré el pilar de hierro de la cama para no tambalear. “Un terremoto”, logré decir mientras salíamos de nuestra habitación y noté la hora: la 12:25 de la madrugada. En el pasillo, mi hija mayor me abrazó mientras preguntaba lo que estaba pasando. Afortunadamente, mis hijos menores no se despertaron. En nuestro comedor, las mallas metálicas que cubrían las ventanas cayeron todas al piso y la lámpara colgante se jamaqueaba de lado a lado. Mi cuñado llamó por teléfono y nos dijo que había un incendio en el cielo. De inmediato pensé que se trataba de un accidente aéreo. Abrí la puerta lateral de la casa y vi cómo cambiaba el cielo de colores de rojo a anaranjado y violeta. Buscamos una radio y nos enteramos enseguida de la causa del caos: un fuego en la instalación de tanques de almacenamiento de petróleo de la compañía Caribbean Petroleum (CAPECO, por sus siglas en inglés) que queda a menos de una milla de nuestro hogar.

image of fire at petroleum plantEl fin de semana que tanto habíamos anhelado durante casi un año—la celebración de nuestra fiesta de Halloween, se convirtió para mí en una respuesta a una emergencia. A los diez minutos de la explosión, llamé al jefe de nuestra oficina de respuesta y remediación de emergencias quien a su vez se comunicó con el Centro Nacional de Respuesta a Emergencias.

Como especialista en asuntos públicos en la oficina de la EPA en San Juan, he tenido que trabajar en emergencias de menor escala. Sin embargo, esta se trataba de una verdadera amenaza ambiental ya que varios tanques contenían combustible para aviones, Bunker C, diésel y otros derivados de petróleo que estaban ardiendo en llamas. La instalación de CAPECO está localizada en la Carretera #28 en un área que abarca tres pueblos: Guaynabo, Bayamón y Cataño y se encuentra frente a una base militar grande, el Fuerte Buchanan. La Bahía de San Juan está a tan sólo dos millas de distancia y varios humedales y cuerpos de agua de menor escala se encuentran alrededor. Por esa razón, la emergencia me tocó muy de cerca, a parte del hecho de que vivo cerca de la instalación, sino también porque viajo por esa misma carretera a las cinco da la mañana cuando voy al gimnasio en el Fuerte Buchanan. Los tanques son visibles de la carretera.

Las primeras horas fueron frenéticas mientras las agencias federales, estatales y municipales trataron de contener el fuego y activaron todos los protocolos de emergencia para asegurar que los ciudadanos en esa región altamente poblada no fueran afectados. Un Centro de Comando de Incidentes fue establecido a las 18 horas del evento en un centro deportivo en San Juan y fuimos desplegados allí para trabajar. Los medios y la ciudadanía necesitan información exacta. Nosotros trabajamos arduamente para brindarla.

Tengo que decir que aprendí más de esta experiencia de lo que había aprendido en mis siete años con la EPA. Aunque apagamos ya el fuego, ahora el trabajo real comienza. Los mantendré informados.

Sobre la autor: Brenda Reyes Tomassini se unió a la EPA en el 2002. Labora como especialista de relaciones públicas en la oficina de EPA en San Juan, Puerto Rico donde también maneja asuntos comunitarios para la División de Protección Ambiental del Caribe.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Science Wednesday: Mapping Forest “Fuels”

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Todd Erdody is a MS student at the University of Washington College of Forest Resources. His work is funded by an EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Research Fellowship.

image of man in haard hat feeding a large fireBefore starting my graduate education in the fall of 2007, I was working as a fire monitor and firefighter in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California. I was headed for a graduate program in remote sensing and forestry with a college-funded fellowship and no set thesis topic. I spent a good part of that summer thinking about potential research topics as I ignited prescribed fires and fought, monitored, and mapped wildfires.

I realized that I wanted to build on existing research at the University of Washington to find better ways to estimate canopy “fuels”— small-diameter branches and foliage (leaves) that will burn in a wildfire.

Existing fuels maps are made from coarse-resolution vegetation maps and satellite imagery. By using high-resolution, remote sensing data such as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and digital imagery, perhaps canopy fuels could be mapped more accurately and efficiently. Through improved fuels mapping, smoke and harmful particulate matter production from wildfires could be more accurately assessed.image of man on mountain viewing smoke from a distant fire

Since I was only funded for my first year of graduate school, I was looking for assistance. I was very grateful to receive the EPA STAR fellowship for the 2008/2009 academic year. Aside from helping me in my second year of graduate education and enabling me to focus on my work, it gives me the resources needed to attend a variety of conferences to present my research.

I wanted to focus my research on a fire-prone ecosystem, so I chose to work in the forests dominated by Ponderosa pines in eastern Washington State. I am currently building regression models for canopy fuel metrics and will eventually produce maps of canopy fuel loading. My goal is to be able to use these models in similar forest types throughout the Northwest.

Others have done similar work in the forests of western Washington and, although I am using existing methods, the real difference is that I am creating models in ecosystems that will frequently burn. The applications for this research are far-reaching in terms of both geography and planning. I envision forest managers using high-resolution remote sensing technologies to map fuels more effectively and create maps for use in wildfire and smoke modeling programs.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.