Inside the Firestorm

This is for those who insist that we don’t need to use forest management to reduce the risk of catastrophic loss to wildfire. Several people have expressed unscientific views on this site to the effect that ‘Wildfire is climate driven and no amount of controlled burns and or thinning can have any impact on total acreage burned since it is all due to global warming (drought and high winds)’ Hopefully this will bring them to their senses and open their minds to the possibility that they are flat out wrong.

Several of us have tried to explain that global warming only makes the need for managing stand density even more important. We have also tried to explain that what many see as climate driven firestorms are instead micro climate created by the fire. Hence the need to use the appropriate forest management tools to reduce the risk of an ignition spreading at a rate that will create its own weather and to provide opportunities for crown fires to return to the ground in order to allow the fire to be controlled as is appropriate for the specific situation.

I have rightly or wrongly gotten the impression that some here don’t really respect the research done on wildfire for at least the last 80 years. My reason for saying this is the applause they afford to people who come up with conclusions contrary to the science but don’t bother to reconcile their suppositions/theories, based on cherry picked incidents, with the established and well replicated science.

So here is an article that should give you a better understanding of and respect for the work behind the real science and how it corroborates what some of us have repeatedly stated here and elsewhere so, obviously, the principles described here are not new – They are just getting a whole lot more attention as technology has advanced to the point where tools are now available to make precise measurements on what has only been repeatedly observed before. This is a pretty intense read and well worth reading in its entirety.

1) ‘“It looked,” says Kingsmill, “like a nuclear bomb.”
Undaunted, Kingsmill and the pilot decided to do what no research aircraft had done: Fly directly through the plume.’

2) ‘For decades, scientists have focused on the ways that topography and fuels, such as the trees, grass or houses consumed by flames, shape fire behavior, in part because these things can be studied even when a fire isn’t burning. But this line of inquiry has offered only partial answers to why certain blazes, like the Pioneer Fire, lash out in dangerous and unexpected ways — a problem magnified by severe drought, heat and decades of fire suppression.’

3) ‘“The plume is orders of magnitude harder to study than the stuff on the ground,” says Brian Potter, a meteorologist with the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory in Seattle who sometimes works with Clements. Indeed, it took a global conflagration much darker than any forest fire to even begin laying the foundations of this work. Kingsmill’s observation about the bomb, it turns out, isn’t far off.’
–> Here the article dives off into the beginning of fire study as it began in the early ’40’s in preparation for the British bombing of Hamburg, Germany on July 27, 1943 when ‘42,000 people died, and another 37,000 were injured’

4) ‘these old experiments, finished by 1970, are still a key source of knowledge about extreme fire behaviors. Until recently, technology was simply too limited to reveal much more about the specific mechanisms by which a fire plume might feed a firestorm, let alone how beasts like fire tornadoes and fireballs form.’

5) ‘His instrument towers, deployed in carefully controlled fires, provided yet more unprecedented and precise measurements: how winds accelerate and draft into an advancing flame front, the heat and turbulence above the flames, and the speed of the rising hot air.’

6) ‘Clements wanted to capture the whole phenomenon — to look inside the opaque mass of an entire fire plume from a distance, and see all of its parts swirling at once. In 2011, he found his lens: a technology called Doppler lidar.’

7) ‘The team’s insight about the Bald and Eiler fires has implications for predicting smoke and air quality — a constant concern for communities near large fires. It also impacted the fires themselves. Even though both fires existed in the same atmospheric environment of pressures and winds, and burned across similar terrain, they were spreading in opposite directions that day — Bald to the south, and Eiler to the north. This denser current of cold air and smoke was actually pulling the Bald Fire in the opposite direction of what was predicted based on wind alone.’

8) ‘Coen works at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, where she studies fire’s inner workings. In September 1998, she spent several hours aboard a Hercules C-130 aircraft as it circled over Glacier National Park. The McDonald Creek Fire was marching up a steep slope at roughly three feet per second. Its smoke obscured the advancing flames, but infrared video cameras mounted outside the plane recorded what was happening underneath. It was only later, as Coen looked through individual frames of that video, that she noticed something strange: At one point, a jet of flame seemed to shoot ahead of the fire. It lasted only a second or two, but left a trail of newly ignited vegetation in front of the fire. Not until Coen calculated the size of the pixels and the time between frames could she appreciate its true significance.
The jet had surged 100 yards ahead of the fire’s front, advancing 100 mph — “like a flamethrower,” she says. It was 10 times faster than the local wind — generated, somehow, by the fire’s own internal tumult.
Coen called it the “finger of death,” and for her it brought to mind the unconfirmed reports of fireballs that occasionally circulated among firefighters.
She had never seen such a thing, but as she examined footage of other fires, she was surprised to find fire jets again and again.’

9) ‘Finney’s slow-motion videos show that these rolling eddies exist in pairs within the fire. They roll in opposite directions, coupled like interlocking gears. Their combined motion periodically pushes down on the advancing front of the fire, causing flames to lick downward and forward, ahead of the fire.
Finney believes that these forward flame-licks are scaled-down versions of the “fingers of death” that Coen has seen in wildfires — possibly even related to the fireballs said to have shot out of buildings during the 1943 Hamburg firestorm.
Coen has actually documented similar flame-rollers in real wildfires using infrared video. But she believes that the finger of death also requires another factor. As bushes and trees are heated by an approaching fire, their decomposing cellulose releases hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and other flammable gases in a process called pyrolysis.
Coen and Shankar Mahalingam, a fluid-dynamics engineer at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, believe that rolling currents can mix these flammable gases with oxygen-rich air. “The dangerous situation is when the fire is going up on a hill,” says Mahalingam. “Maybe there are pyrolysis products that have accumulated” in front of the fire and mixed with fire-boosting oxygen. As the flame licks forward into this invisible tinderbox, it ignites a blowtorch. … These same buoyant gases also supply the momentum that drives a fire whirl to spin once it is triggered. And on a much larger scale, they are what pushes a fire plume ever higher in the sky, powering the in-drafts that keep the fire burning below.’

10) ‘what drew Potter’s interest was the water. Concentrations of water vapor rose 10 to 20 times higher than the surrounding air.
Water is a major product of combustion, second only to carbon dioxide. It forms as oxygen binds to the hydrogen atoms in wood, gasoline or just about any other fuel — creating hydrogen oxide, otherwise known as H2O. Burning four pounds of perfectly dry wood releases a pound or two of water. …
And yet water vapor fuels the strongest updrafts in nature, says Potter, from thunderstorms to tornadoes to hurricanes. As moist air rises during these storms, the water vapor condenses into cloud droplets, releasing a small amount of heat that keeps the air slightly warmer than its surroundings, so it continues to rise. “Water,” he says, “is the difference between a weak updraft and a really powerful updraft.”’

11) ‘He believes that water was pivotal in fueling the firestorm that swept through the suburbs of Canberra, the Australian capital, on Jan. 18, 2003.
The fire consumed 200,000 acres of drought-stricken territory that day, isolating the city under a glowing haze of Halloween orange. Remote infrared scans suggest that during a single 10-minute period, it released heat equivalent to 22,000 tons of TNT — 50 percent more than the energy unleashed by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.’

12) ‘When N2UW flew through the plume of the Pioneer Fire in 2016, its instruments registered updrafts of 80 to 100 miles per hour. Yet at that elevation, 8,000 feet above the flames, the interior of the plume was only 3 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding air, meaning that its buoyant stampede through the atmosphere was powered by a density difference of just about 1 percent.
In other words, given the right atmospheric conditions, a few degrees of warmth and extra buoyancy could spell the difference between a plume that pushes 40,000 feet up, into the stratosphere, powering a vicious blaze on the ground — as Pioneer did — and one whose smoke never escapes the top of the boundary layer at 3,000 feet, leaving the fire stunted, like a weather-beaten dwarf tree gasping for life at timberline.’

13) ‘Clements’s trained eye began to pick out some basic structures: a 40 mph downdraft next to a 60 mph updraft signified a turbulent eddy on the edge of the plume. Hot air pushing up past cooler, stationary air had set in motion a tumbling, horizontal vortex — the sort of thing that could easily have accounted for the plane’s brief freefall. Those blotchy radar pictures may finally allow us to see through wildfire’s impulsive, chaotic veneer’

Yes, professional wildfire researchers, the in air observations of pilots of spotters and retardant dropping planes and the on the ground observations of fire crews that point the researchers in various directions all deserve our respect. They actually put their lives on the line as opposed to those who disdain their commitment and repeatedly validated science.

Contact the author if you want references or check back in some previous postings on this site for some related references. I post this without references because it jives with the known and validated science that I have critically studied since I first started my forestry education in 1963.

13 thoughts on “Inside the Firestorm”

  1. Gil,
    Thanks for this article on beginning a better understanding of the dynamics of extreme fire behavior (that is, the effects) of Anthropogenic Climate Disruption (ACD).

    ACD of course, is the actual cause of the problem.

    And according to an international consensus of scientists, there are two primary factors to consider here —
    1) carbon, methane, and other GHG emissions which get accelerated by coal, oil, natural gas and biomass emissions from logging and leasing on national forests by the USFS and other federal land managers; and

    2) the forest degradation on national forests by the USFS (through logging and other land use changes on federal lands) which severely diminish the carbon sink, and sequestration capacities necessary to capture and contain the accelerating emissions triggering irreversible catastrophic ACD.

    You seem to be unaware or directly contradicting these factors arguing the urgent necessity of large scale fuel reductions on our NFS will be efficacious in addressing extreme conditions of wildfire causation.

    I missed the conclusion that suggests fire behavior under extreme dought and high winds being altered by large scale fuel reduction treatments.

    In other words, merely treating the effects of a problem by fuel treatments will be meaningless if we aren’t aggressively addressing the cause of the problem. Unfortunately, the USFS management policies are principally contributing to and accelerating the causation of ACD.

    • The West Fork Complex in southern Colorado started out as scattered lightning strikes, which then crept around for about a week, before exploding into the massive firestorm it came to be. Yes, even after a week of burning, the fire was a mere 150 acres but, the Forest Service wanted “more fire on the ground” to burn up the vast dead spruce forests. Ironically, this fire took away resources that would have gone to the tragic Yarnall Hill Fire, which was also the product of letting fires burn.

      As I have been saying for years, letting fires burn in the middle of fire seasons is not a smart thing to do. Eventually, fire conditions will ‘blow up’ and the fire will generate its own extreme weather. Ummm, if you haven’t discovered this concept yet, then you haven’t been looking at the problem objectively.

      EDIT: Here’s a video of the Westfork firestorm. I think it speaks for itself but, remember that it stayed small for over a week, before blowing up into this Then, there’s always the problems with “column collapse”, too!

    • David

      You also seem to have missed a major point which is that firestorms create their own weather regardless of whether or not ACD is a factor.

      Especially in times of “extreme dought and high winds”, the risk of catastrophic loss can be reduced by strategic placement of fuel reduction treatments.

      Are you suggesting that all catastrophic fires begin with high wind? If so, you didn’t read the article very closely where even in present days a great number of fires don’t start out with high wind. Instead the fires, crawl on the ground until they find an opportunity to climb to the crown where the process of creating their own high winds begins and takes over all other factors, no thanks to ACD. Where ACD comes in is in making it easier for on the ground fires to climb into the crown when there is a fuel ladder between the ground and the tree crowns. On that basis we can say that ACD requires that the relatively fuel free spaces between the ground and the crowns and between adjacent trees must be greater than would be required in non ACD conditions. That does not suggest to me that we should do nothing until mankind has reversed ACD as you seem to imply. It tells me that we need to use strategic thinning and controlled burns to limit the damage to human health and the health of the species that live in the forests thereby providing improved sustainability for all species.

      What you also missed is that catastrophic fire losses unleash tremendous amounts of CO2 and other GHG ahead of the fire. If fact, once the fire creates its own climate, the fire super heats the fuels in advance of its direction through a process known as pyrolysis which releases the highly combustible gases from the fuels and drys the fuels more than any drought would dry them. So once a fire crowns and creates its own weather, ACD is irrelevant from that point on.

      What you also missed is that over the long term, all trees die and release their carbon and other GHG which is then recycled. An unsustainable short term solution is not helpful if it makes the long term results worse. The fallacy of your thinking is that if we store enough carbon in forests it will solve the problem. What is wrong with that is that if you store all the carbon physically possible in forests – they will become a raging inferno and undo all that you were trying to accomplish whether it was storing carbon, protecting watersheds and endangered species or whatever.

      ACD is not the cause of the problem it is but one of many contributors to the problem. Solving the problem requires a total system approach which includes strategically reducing forest fuels on sites with excessive density in locations where it has the most impact which is where mankind comes in contact with forests and intentionally or unintentionally causes 50% of the acreage lost to wildfires as noted in a previous post on this site. Another part of the solution, which we agree on, is to continually reduce our dependence on non-renewable resources extracted from below ground where those GHG won’t add to the total above ground GHG.

  2. Part of the answer is getting the USFS and the other agencies that manage forest lands to comply with that part of 16 U.S.C. § 475 that says “. . . for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows,” something the Service and others have put considerable research effort into and have achieved significant increases in water availability to water bodies in the affected drainage.

    “Side effects” include increased disease resistance, increased insect tolerance, and increased fire resiliency.

    The basic approach is pretty simple. Manage for optimal stem spacing as determined by species and age class.

    Yes, I’m aware that this is a purpose for which a forest MAY be managed, making it optional. My focus is that it is a PERMISSABLE purpose, meaning that no additional legislation is required, and that the agencies can turn on a dime (if they wish) and make it so.

    The statute applies in pari materia to other agencies with forest management responsibilities. In pari materia is a canon of construction that means laws on the same subject in the same matter may be construed with reference to one another. The subject is forest management, and the matter is wildfire prevention.

    As it happens, an executive order was signed on March 13th requiring comprehensive planning for the reorganization of the executive branch agencies. A public participation opportunity opened on April 12th soliciting interested party recommendations for what goes into that plan, with the director of the Office of Management and Budget tasked with responsibility for developing the plan. That opportunity closes on June 12, 2017. You can access an online form where you can put in your recommendations at

    Regardless of your political preferences for who sits in the Oval Office, the OPPORTUNITY to make a difference in forest management is sitting right in front of all of us. We should take the administration up on its offer, so that we don’t leave that stone unturned.

    • The 19th-century Congress was mostly interested in “holding back floods or reducing their severity,” not increasing water flows. Protecting forested watersheds from deforestation, denuding, clearcutting, etc., was the Act’s focus. With that history in mind, it’s an uphill argument to assert that the Organic Act requires the Forest Service to affirmatively reduce stem density. Just sayin’ . . .


    “Our results suggest that as moisture stress increases in the southwestern USA due to
    warming (Seager et al. 2007; Williams et al. 2013), large fire occurrence may decrease in
    some fuel-limited ecosystems. Many model projections of global fire response to climate
    change use multi-decadal climate Bnormals^ and lack inter-annual or intra-annual climate
    variability (e.g., Krawchuk et al. 2009; Moritz et al. 2012). We demonstrate that inter- and
    intra-annual climate variability is an important control for large fire occurrence and fire
    seasonality in a semi-arid, monsoon-affected region of southwestern North America.
    Accurate projections of inter- and intra-annual moisture variability will likely be important
    to accurately model future fire in the southwestern USA, particularly due to the bimodal
    precipitation regime and a likely future increase in biomass limitations on fire occurrence (i.e.,
    requiring wet conditions to produce fuels to burn). In the future, in semi-arid regions such as
    the southwestern USA, prolonged droughts driven by warming could decrease fire activity due
    to biomass limitations.”

  4. The extreme fires that Gil describes are NOT the ones we can do anything about. They will burn through canopies whether they are thin or thick. There is ALWAYS enough fuels to carry fire when conditions include high temps, low humidity, and high winds.

    The lower intensity fires, the ones we can control, are the ones we should let burn. That is where the most ecological work can be done with the lowest cost in both dollars and habitat trade-offs.

    The lecturing about science is inappropriate. The pro-logging crowd is far more guilty of cherry-picking and ignoring new information when it arises.

    If you want “favorable conditions of water flow” start by reducing road density and road-stream crossing density.

    • I think it’s not so clear when exactly scientists (who of course don’t agree) think that fuel treatments will or will not help on different types of “extreme” fires.

      • Then again, if we didn’t let them become extreme enough to make their own weather, we’d have much fewer problems with firestorms. The Rim Fire started on a normal summer morning, with normal winds and normal humidity. The Forest Service knew that, one day, a fire would come out of the Tuolumne River canyon but, they didn’t do much about it. Once again, we see the Forest Service not doing enough in fuels reductions and prescribed burning, due to a lack of political push. Neither side seems to want a larger and more effective Agency.

    • 2ndOutLaw

      Surprise, surprise, we disagree. You, like David Beebe, are wong – Plz read my reply to his first comment above.

      Re: “The extreme fires that Gil describes are NOT the ones we can do anything about. They will burn through canopies whether they are thin or thick. There is ALWAYS enough fuels to carry fire when conditions include high temps, low humidity, and high winds.”
      –> Your use of “ALWAYS” shows that you are misinformed or worse – again, read my reply to David above.
      –> You fail to recognize that a great many fires are not extreme when they start and only become extreme after finding sufficient fuel to “burn through canopies”.
      –> So you think that because some fires start out with “high temps, low humidity, and high winds” we shouldn’t do anything to lower risk in spite of the fact that a great many fires don’t start out with high temps, low humidity, and especially not high winds? But then, you’d know that if you’d have read the article closely. Your logic is equivalent to someone suggesting that you quit practicing law because there is a good probability that you might be charged with malfeasance with expenses well beyond your insurance coverage and financial means.

      Re: “The lower intensity fires, the ones we can control, are the ones we should let burn.”
      –> One size does not fit all – Your use of “the ones we can control” implies you have some super knowledge that allows you to definitively determine that ‘we can let this fire go. It won’t get out of control.’ This shows that you have no idea about what you are talking about and have ignored countless evidence to the contrary given on this site. again, read my reply to David above.

      Re: “The lecturing about science is inappropriate. The pro-logging crowd is far more guilty of cherry-picking and ignoring new information when it arises”
      –> As I explained elsewhere on this site, I am not “the pro-logging crowd”. I have earned my retirement and don’t have to please anyone but the law to maintain my income stream. You, on the other hand, refuse to identify yourself but, based on your alias and your unwillingness to divulge who/what you are, I presume you have a vested interest in supporting your point of view. So the “lecturing about science is” appropriate until you reveal who you are and why you resort to unsubstantiated generalities rather than science.

  5. I tried to read this, but couldn’t get past the first sentence.

    “This is for those who insist that we don’t need to use forest management to reduce the risk of catastrophic loss to wildfire.”

    Who are these people Gil? Can you name names and point out examples of people “who insist that we don’t need to use forest management to reduce the risk of catastrophic loss to wildfire?” Thanks.

    P.S. Ok, I confess that I also started to read the second sentence “Several people have expressed unscientific views on this site….” but then figured…Oh, heck, just forget it.

    • Matthew, your blinders and selective memory loss work extremely well. Why don’t you go through all of the threads and prove me wrong. Oops! That won’t be necessary if you start with the first comment in this thread. Then there is the comment made by you or whoever about thinings by themselves not doing any good. Then there are all of your post other people’s opinion pieces & run threads saying it doesn’t matter, ’cause catastrophic fires are good. Does that jog your biased memory?

      Sorry, but your bluster didn’t work.


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