Southwest fire season is lasting longer and getting worse, says researchers. Firefighters To do have a trick up their sleeve: prescribed or planned burns.
Los Alamos National Laboratory is creating a tool that uses physics and data modeling to predict how a prescribed burn might behave before it is ignited. But, in hot and dry weather, it is more difficult to control them.
KUNM spoke with lead scientist Rod Linn to find out more.
Rod Linn: Prescribed burn planning usually begins around a set of objectives. These could reduce the risk of catastrophic forest fires or they could benefit the environment. How can these goals be achieved safely? For most prescribed fire plans, this is a process by which experts weigh these various factors and try to understand the conditions under which they can safely achieve their objectives. The other big constraint they often look at is where do they put the smoke from their fires? They try to avoid putting smoke in communities, for example, or on critical infrastructure.
KUNM: Can you tell me more about this tool that you are developing and which is called QUIC-fire? How it works? And what does this mean for forest management here in the South West, in particular?
LINEN: Thus, QUIC-fire is a tool that was developed by the Los Alamos National Laboratoryin partnership with the US Forest Service, great woodsand now the United States Geological Survey. The goal of QUIC-fire has been to capture or represent the most critical physical phenomena that determine fire behavior, so that we can model or simulate prescribed fires. Prescribed burns are extremely difficult because they are often carried out under mild conditions. This is a bit counter-intuitive to most people, because in mild conditions most people would think this would be the easy time to model or simulate a fire or predict where a fire is going to go. And in reality, these are often more difficult to simulate or predict than stronger fires. This is because fluctuation and winds, i.e. gusting, or vegetation variability can mean a lot more in moderate fire conditions.
The other element is when the winds change, unexpectedly or expectedly, which can cause big changes in fire behavior, both wildfires and prescribed fires. Thus, the prescribed fire planning process always includes an effort to understand how conditions will change over the course of the day or over the duration of that fire.
KUNM: With everything we know to be true about fire seasons essentially going out the window, how does fire modeling adapt to the unpredictability of climate change right now?
LINEN: As you mentioned, with climate change or changing conditions, combined with changing ecosystem conditions that are in part caused by the exclusion of fire for almost a century, we have to work harder to anticipate the behavior of fire in various ecosystems. It’s especially difficult if you start thinking about adding other disturbances such as insect or bark beetle outbreaks that kill trees and change ecosystem conditions. This translates into a need for fire behavior models or fire forecasting tools. They are built from an understanding of the basic physical phenomenology that fuels the fires, because this basic physics does not change, even when conditions change. Whereas if you have simply observed a fire in the past under one set of conditions, that is no guarantee that the fire will behave exactly the same under future conditions, be it a change climate or altered fuel accumulation. What we’re really trying to do in the area of fire behavior modeling is to tie our predictions and simulation tools much more to the fundamental physics that react to these changing fire conditions.
KUNM: All right, thank you for taking the time to join us today.
LINEN: Thank you.