Causes of Fire Worseness- Help Complete This List!

In August and September 2007, a lightning strike sparked the 48,000-acre Castle Rock wildfire near Ketchum, Idaho. Cheatgrass helped fuel the fire. Photo © Kari Greer via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters on Flickr

Before we start looking at press coverage, we need to list all the possible causes of worseness. Ideally, an article would say “fires are worse as defined by this criterion” and “causes for worseness are complex, and these are the factors that may be involved.” Right now I’d like to ask for help in making a complete list of these factors. Granted, it’s made more difficult by vagueness on what exactly is meant by “worseness” but still, I think we can take a stab at it. Here are a few that I’ve picked up:

1. Past Fire Suppression
2. Drought, and heat or combinations of the above (some proportion x, of which is climate change) both as they impact
a) fuel conditions
b) suppression activities

3. Increased length of fire season (some proportion x of which is climate change, but various 2nd order causes, including other climate patterns, more human ignitions, changes in species, and so on)
4. Non-native species with different fire-related characteristics than previous occupants of the landscape.
5. Changes in native fuels (e.g. more dead trees or changes in canopy structure or species composition??)

6. More people living in the WUI (so infrastructure needs protection)
7. Tourism is more important economically, but smoke and closures impact that.
8. More people living and visiting the woods means more human-caused ignitions.

Suppression Management and Policy
9. Changes in policy (WFU), strategies and tactics.

I became more aware of 4 recently due to an article in New Scientist here. But there are many other articles around.

INVASIVE species of grass are making wildfires in the US up to twice as large and three times as frequent.

One species, cheatgrass, is now widespread in California and was involved in last year’s Thomas Fire, the largest recorded in the state until the Mendocino Complex Fire now burning (see Converted 747 flies to the rescue in battling California’s giant fire).

Like cheatgrass, many of the invaders are finer than native species, and so ignite more easily, and occupy space within and between patches of native grass. Other invaders, such as silk reed, grow more than 3 metres high and can spread fire into trees.

Emily Fusco at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst presented preliminary results of her study last week in New Orleans at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. She analysed the impact of nine widespread alien grasses in areas of the US they have invaded.

Fusco combined this information with ground and satellite fire records, comparing fire frequency and size in infested habitats versus comparable but uninvaded habitats. She found all the invasive species except one made fires more frequent, and all but two made fires larger.

There are also different potential causes for some of the factors listed above. For example, non-Native species extending the fire season as in this NPR story.

Jeanne Chambers of the U.S. Forest Service is another combatant in the war on cheatgrass. She says in Nevada, they’re seeing fires burning as late as November and as early as January.

“That really has never happened in the past. When we have dry conditions and we have cheatgrass in the understory, we have fuels that can allow those fires to burn almost any time of the year.”

But back to my list, does anyone have other “worseness causes” to add?

19 thoughts on “Causes of Fire Worseness- Help Complete This List!”

  1. Under social/economic factors should add transmission lines and infrastructure for power delivery. Several recent large fires were either started by power lines or exacerbated by line arcing that can occur during a fire. This is a huge problem in California. See these articles for back ground:

    • Sue Britting: – “Under social/economic factors should add transmission lines and infrastructure for power delivery.”
      San Diego County has had a few major fires started by powerlines. Appears to be a major factor especially during high winds in backcountry rural areas.

      Last year over here in Europe, Wind turbines started fires in Spain and Portugal. Here is one wind turbine fire that happened in Portela Portugal, reported early this year 2018. This has already happened in San Diego County a few years back near heavy chaparral country around Boulivard and Acorn Casino and Campo. The only fortunately thing is that there was no Santa Ana wind event happening at those times.

      • Yes, San Diego County and elsewhere.

        For example:

        Downed power lines and falling tree limbs set off Northern California’s wine country fire siege, investigators say.

        “Downed power lines owned by PG&E and falling tree limbs largely were responsible for setting off the deadly siege of fires that ripped through Northern California’s wine country in October, Cal Fire investigators said Friday.

        The findings covered a dozen blazes in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Humboldt, Butte and Mendocino counties — three of which accounted for a combined 19 deaths.”(SOURCE: June 2018)

    • Thanks, Sue, and thanks for the links. With all the litigation, it will be interesting to see whether it’s attributed to changes in quantity/design of infrastructure, poor maintenance including vegetation management, or impossibility of design for certain conditions or ????
      Please keep us posted!

      Sidenote: During the recent EADM workshop in Denver, power company representatives were much in evidence. Their idea to improve EADM was to have one large EIS for all vegetation management activities across Forests so they would not have separate NEPA decisions for each forest/activity. Don’t know how that works in other places.

  2. Some thoughts from my experience as a USFS Red carded crew boss and Fire Information Officer on an overhead team.
    1. Are transmission lines or wind turbines a cause of worse fires? Seems to me they are simply an ignition source and thus do not contribute to worse fire conditions, behavior, etc. any more than a cigarette butt influences fire behavior.

    2. IF we’d like to see these types of factors included in news media accounts then THE LIST OF FACTORS OR CRITERIA MUST BECOME PART OF THE TALKING POINTS AND VOCABULARY OF EACH FIRE INFORMATION OFFICER (FIO). The FIO, or whatever the current title, is the person who interfaces with the media.

    • Old Woodsman: – “1. Are transmission lines or wind turbines a cause of worse fires? Seems to me they are simply an ignition source and thus do not contribute to worse fire conditions, behavior, etc. any more than a cigarette butt influences fire behavior.”

      I’ve been watching and following all the wildfires over there and aside from transmission lines and wind turbines, most ALL have been human caused. Cranston Fire – Nut case arsonist from Temecula. Holy Fire, nut case arsonist from Cleveland National Forest resident. Mill Creek 1 Fire Human. Carr Fire cause human. Hirz Fire cause human. A nut case from Denmark who started multiple fires (141 counts of arson), etc. Few lightning fires, but nothing with the destructive volume of the human caused.

      Now if you take away all the human stupidity, how bad are the wildfires started by nature ?

    • I find it odd that the public is intensely concerned over the causes of such fires, and, especially, if it was human-caused, or arson. Some of those people even seem to call accidental ignitions “arson”. They also seem to want to severely punish the person who caused it.

      That seems to help America decide whether to consider a fire to be ‘catastrophic’, or, “natural and beneficial”. The results are often the same.

  3. The #1 reason is removal of sound forest management from the majority of our federal forests resulting in excessive stand density leading to increased ladder and ground fuels accompanying increased stem proximity while at the same time making control burns an increasingly less suitable tool without 1st undertaking very expensive fuels reduction projects beforehand.

  4. Livestock grazing shifts the plant community composition from palatable grasses and forbs (which carry fast-moving surface fire with lower flame lengths) toward unpalatable conifers (which have longer flame lengths and more heat per unit area). This is contrary to fuel management goals which urge us to avoid creating more ladder fuels. Livestock decrease the abundance of fine fuels which are necessary to carry periodic, low intensity surface fires. This reduces the frequency of fires, but increases their severity. See Kirsten Stade, MS, and Mark Salvo, JD. 2009. Ponderosa Pine in Peril: Assessing Public Lands Livestock Grazing in Ponderosa Pine Forests. Wild Earth Guardians; Belsky, A.J., Blumenthal, D.M., “Effects of Livestock Grazing on Stand Dynamics and Soils in Upland Forest of the Interior West,” Conservation Biology, 11(2), April 1997.

    • I’ve seen it both ways.. depends on where you are. W/out grazing long grasses dry out and provide more fuels. With grazing/less fuel. I’ll add “past grazing practices” and “current grazing practices”.

  5. I see a hole here you could drive a truck through, Sharon. And I have a feeling it won’t be popular among certain, not to be named, commenter/contributors.
    The political weaponization of science research.
    Honk honk!

    • Weaponization of research, eh?
      Isn’t that exactly what the Pentagon does?

      Eric seems to be implying that some research is biased. Hmmm,, guess what the forestry schools at the universities where i got my grad and undergrad degrees did research. They certainly were NOT completely unbiased.

      To imply that research by scientists affiliated with an environmental group is biased without also acknowledging that other research entities may be biased is disingenuous.

      BTW- one of my work study jobs was on the U. Maine logging crew and I got a scholarship from a chainsaw manufacturer. I used to lay out clearcuts for the USFS.

    • Eric- Is that a cause for “worse” fires? Am I being too literal? When science folks play politics I’m not sure it has any effect in the physical world.


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