Paw'd Defiance

Winter, Spring, Summer, Fire and Fall

June 03, 2019 UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Maureen Kennedy Season 1 Episode 11
Paw'd Defiance
Winter, Spring, Summer, Fire and Fall
Chapters
Paw'd Defiance
Winter, Spring, Summer, Fire and Fall
Jun 03, 2019 Season 1 Episode 11
UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Maureen Kennedy

Wildfire season is here. During each of the past two summers a thick blanket of smoke from wildfires covered large parts of Western Washington. Thousands of wildfires in the American West and Canada burned millions of acres. UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Maureen Kennedy talks about how climate change has contributed to a prolonged fire season. She'll also talk about the role of fire in forests and how fire suppression practices that were created to protect forests lead to larger and more destructive wildfires.

Show Notes Transcript

Wildfire season is here. During each of the past two summers a thick blanket of smoke from wildfires covered large parts of Western Washington. Thousands of wildfires in the American West and Canada burned millions of acres. UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Maureen Kennedy talks about how climate change has contributed to a prolonged fire season. She'll also talk about the role of fire in forests and how fire suppression practices that were created to protect forests lead to larger and more destructive wildfires.

Cristostomo:

With the warming climate, we have what we call an increase in the fire season. And so just like the other seasons we think of in the year, there's a particular time of year when it's dry enough and warm enough for fires to occur. And that time of year is starting to get longer and longer. From UW Tacoma, this is Paw'd Defiance.

Music:

[Intro music]

Cristostomo:

Welcome to Paw'd Defiance, where we don't lecture, but we do educate. I'm your host, Maria Cristostomo. Today on the Paw'd, We're here with with assistant professor Maureen Kennedy . A thick blanket of smoke covered parts of Western Washington during each of the past two summers. We'll talk with Dr. Kennedy about how these fires spread, world climate change, and what we can expect in the future. We're so happy to have Maureen Kennedy . Can you introduce yourself?

Dr. Kennedy:

Yeah, so I am an assistant professor on the UW Tacoma campus; I'm in the sciences and mathematics. And I study wildfire and forest management. And I look at things in a quantitative sense, so looking at statistical modeling and computer modeling, using field data and simulations to try and understand how wildfire might happen in the future, and understand how we might better manage our forests in the context of wildfire and climate change.

Cristostomo:

So what made you decide to study wildfires?

Dr. Kennedy:

When I got my PhD, I was studying old growth forest canopies using a modeling system, and I had a side project looking at what's called multi objective optimization, which sounds a little technical, but we could use a similar modeling system to study forest management. And so I got a side project looking at fuels treatment distributions for forest management in the context of wildfires. And I think we'll talk a little bit later about fuels treatments in general. And that got attention, when I got my PhD, from a forest service scientist; the forest service has a lab in Seattle called the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory. And so when I finished my PhD I started working with them on forest management and fire science. And that's how I started studying wildfire in detail. And that was about 11 years ago.

Cristostomo:

Can you tell us a little more about your research?

Dr. Kennedy:

So for the past 11 years, I've been doing a lot of research with respect to wildfires. And so we really take two tracks for my research: We look at wildfires as they're actually happening, And we can go in after a wildfire and study and take measurements on the ground to look at how any forest management practices might have modified the way the wildfire behaved or the way the wildfire spread. And then some other work that I do is we use computer simulation modeling to actually simulate how we think wildfires might change in the future and how that might interact with different properties of the ecosystem such as water dynamics or nutrient dynamics or vegetation dynamics.

Cristostomo:

I want to talk more about the fires that we've seen recently. Can you talk about why those fires have been going on?

Dr. Kennedy:

Yeah, so there's an easy answer and a complicated answer to that question. And we have to remember, in the Western United States in particular, we have what we call fire prone systems. And so historically we had a lot of wildfires that occurred in our area, in our region, particularly on the Eastern side of the mountains where it's really, really dry most of the time. And the US Forest Service decided, about almost a hundred years ago actually, that wildfires were a threat to all this vast natural resource of timber that we really wanted to conserve for the benefit of our people. Because we need the timber in order to build and to develop, and for resources. And so they decided that we have to suppress all of the wildfires. And so in the past hundred years, that was the official policy of the U S government. If a fire was detected, we would immediately attack it and try to basically suppress it or put it out by 10:00 AM. And so we enjoyed really great success with that, particularly in the 1900s, where we were able to successfully suppress most of the fires. And those of us who grew up in that time period were used to not having wildfires because in general we were able to prevent the wildfires that might have naturally occurred. And so what happened is we actually created an abnormal situation. We created an unnatural situation for our forests, because we were preventing the wildfires that those forests have all adapted to and evolved under a sort of a "wildfire regime." By preventing that, that feels normal to us, but to the forest, it doesn't feel normal. And so we've actually created an abnormal situation, and it's gotten to the point where we can't control it anymore. And the forest fires now are basically the fires reasserting itself on the forest. And it's trying to return to what historically would have been more normal. But since we interfered in the middle, even though fire itself is normal, the kinds of fires that we're seeing may not necessarily be normal. Does that make sense?

Cristostomo:

Yeah, that makes sense. That makes sense, totally. So we see more fires now than in previous years?

Dr. Kennedy:

Definitely. So because we were able to suppress so many fires, we are now seeing an increase in what we would say annual area burned. And so the total area that is burned by wildfire in a given year has definitely been increasing in the last few decades. That's a little bit due to the fact that we had been suppressing wildfires, which has created this fuels build up in these forests that usually, if we had more frequent wildfire, the fire itself would take care of the fuels, and we wouldn't have this massive buildup of fuels. And the other side of that is climate change. We do have potentially, with the warming climate, what we call an increase in the fire season. And so just like the other seasons we think of in the year, there's a particular time of year when it's dry enough and warm enough for fires to occur. And that time of year is starting to get longer and longer. Scientists actually documented this in different systems that it is getting longer and longer, which means we have more time available for fires to occur, which means it's more likely for more fires to occur.

Cristostomo:

Is there a difference between fires on the East coast versus fires on the West coast?

Dr. Kennedy:

So there's a different history. They definitely get fires throughout the country. There's a different history in forest management in the different parts of the country, and there's a different kind of vegetation in different parts of the country. And so here we have a lot of the conifer evergreen type trees. So Douglas firs, grand firs, Cedars , pine trees, and so on. And in the Eastern United States they have some more of the deciduous species. That's why they have those gorgeous, beautiful fall colors, right? That we get too, but not as much as they do. But every region in the U S actually has the ability for fire. If there's vegetation, there's an ability for fire. And particularly in the Southeast of the United States, i n Florida, they actually have a long history of wildfire and they also have a long history of prescribed fire. So they've actually been setting natural fires as a management policy in the Southeastern United States for the last few decades. T hey're like a small pocket where t here actually have been a lot of fires, but they've been mostly under control.

Cristostomo:

I read an article about you and the stuff that you've been doing at UWT, and you mentioned salience. Can you expand on that?

Dr. Kennedy:

Yeah, so this idea of salience, so I'm working with a, what we call an interdisciplinary group out of UC Santa Barbara. So we have a political scientist, an economist, some biophysical scientists who do the modeling, and what the social scientists are researching is this idea that if we think of salience, that means that something that occurs really really close in proximity to me in time and space, it really grabs my attention. And so for example, if I'm living in California near where that very tragic campfire happened last summer, where a lot of people lost their homes, a lot of people died, a lot of firefighters died, that's something that's going to be prominent in my brain. And it's really gonna affect my decision making for the next few years. Because I'm giving this sort of really high amount of weight to that really what we call salient event because it happened right here, right in front of me. And that's going to drive my decision making. And so the idea of salience is that if there is sort of a big wildfire right next to or nearby my home, that is given disproportionate weight, we say, in my decision making, which means I might be more driven to ask for something like a forest management action. And so what they found, they actually found empirically, so they used some data to discover that they can actually measure that. So the probability of a forest management action, the probability of a fuels treatment is higher near communities that recently experienced a really large wildfire. And so the idea is that those communities are more, are asking for the fuels treatment or at the very least they're not trying to prevent fuels treatments, but that then that effect goes away after a few years. And so once it sort of fades from your memory, then you might not be as eager to have people come in and cut the trees around your home, for example. And so that's the idea of salience is it might actually cause us to not appropriately allocate our resources, because as human beings, our decision making is driven by things that are right in front of us, and that might not be the best way to actually make decisions.

Music:

[Transition music]

Cristostomo:

Hello everyone. I know we're talking about fire, but I want to switch gears for a moment to discuss water. UW Tacoma associate professor Jim Gawel has teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency to study arsenic levels in local lakes . The arsenic is a holdover from the ASARCO smelter that operated on the shores of Commencement Bay for nearly a hundred years. You can learn more about this project by visiting the UW Tacoma website and typing " diving for data" into the search bar.

Music:

[Transition music]

Cristostomo:

Can you talk about some of the things that we can do to improve, and not cause wildfires? So we do have to remember that we need to let go of the idea that we can prevent wildfires. We need to let go of the idea that we can actually stop wildfires from happening in forests. Where there's fuels, it's gonna burn. And so that's one of the first things that we really need to understand, is we need to learn how to coexist with wildfires. And I'm borrowing a phrase from a recent paper by a colleague, and it's literally called, it's literally titled Coexisting With Wildfire. And so we're not gonna prevent wildfires, but there are some things we can do to make them less hazardous, to make them less risky to human beings. And the primary management action that we can do is the fuels treatment. So I've been alluding to that earlier in our conversation. And so the idea of a fuels treatment is that we know that historically wildfires would go in and clear out all the fuels, all those things that can burn on the forest. Wildfires would just naturally take care of that in some of our forest ecosystems. When we prevented the wildfires from occurring, those fuels weren't being cleared out, they built up, and now we have way more fuels in some systems than we really should have naturally. And so one thing we can do is we can go in and mechanically remove those fuels. And so we can go in and cut out the smaller trees to create less fuels, to have larger spacing between the larger trees, so they're less likely to set each other on fire. And then if we follow that up by a controlled burn where we set fire purposefully under safe conditions to get rid of the grasses and the twigs and the branches and things that might've fallen while we were harvesting the trees, then in theory we could create those conditions that the wildfires previously would have created themselves. So if a fire does burn through there, it'll still burn through it, but it'll be much less hot. It will be much less intense and we would better be able to control it and prevent it from encountering, say, homes, and prevent it from encountering other sorts of things like watersheds, where we have our water sources. We might be able to sort of direct where the fire is more likely to go and prevent it from impacting some of our important natural resources without actually preventing the fire altogether. And so that's one of the things that we can do. Another thing that we can do is we have homes that we call Wildland Urban Interface homes, or WUI. And so if you are in a home that is near some of these forests that have a high hazard potential for wildfire, you can do some things in your own home to make it safer if a fire were to come through. Things like clearing all the trees and flammable materials within say a 30 meter distance from your house, for example. Making sure that your roof is not made of flammable materials, and every year clearing all those needles and leaves that might've fallen on your roof so that there's really nothing flammable on your house, so that if some just random ember was floating away from the fire, your house wouldn't be the unlucky one to catch that ember and then catch fire. Not having your woodpile up against your home, having your woodpile away from the home if you're heating your home with a wood fireplace for example. And so there are things we can do to make fires less hazardous, but there's nothing we can do to prevent them altogether. Are we expecting more fires in the future?

Dr. Kennedy:

So we're definitely expecting more fires in the future, but just like everything else, it's kind of a complicated question. And so in general, we are expecting increased annual area burned and we're already experiencing it. And so we're feeling increased wildfires currently and we do expect that trend to continue into the future. But that's not necessarily true everywhere for all systems. And there could be some feedbacks. And so for example, in places that are already dry in the summer it's not necessarily going to impact them as much as say on the West side where things are usually wetter during the summer. And so one of the big fears currently in Washington state, and it actually happened this year, we had some fires on the West side of the cascades where we haven't necessarily observed them as often because of climate change because we have lower snow pack . The West side that has a ton of fuels naturally, but it's usually so wet, it's not available to burn, is actually drying out earlier, and drying out more, and becoming available to burn. And it's possible that those forests might actually burn more than they have historically. They definitely burned historically, just not very often. And so there is a fear right now, and a fairly credible one, that those might actually have increased fire activity because of climate change, because of the potential for decreased snow pack and increasing drought.

Cristostomo:

So I want to talk more about how the President criticized California's fire management policy. What do you think fire managers think about?

Dr. Kennedy:

I don't want to really get into any particular, let's say that was actually a tweet that happened last summer. I mean we can talk about fire management in general. So the policy of the fire management are actually fairly complicated. I've said this word several times, because it's difficult. So fire management is relatively complex. So if we take, for example, if we stay in Washington state, if we consider all the forests and all the lands in the state, a lot of them are owned by the U S government. And so those are national forests. Those are the national parks. For example, Bureau of Land Management owns a lot of the land. And so we have public lands that are managed by the federal government. We have our own statewide department of natural resources. So that's the DNR that owns a lot of lands that are put into a public trust. So think about your state parks for example. And then we have a lot of timber lands, privately owned by timber companies. We have a lot of tribal lands for indigenous peoples and they're doing their own forest management. And then we have a lot of private lands that aren't necessarily being used for resources. Think about people's large properties that they actually live on and own. And then we also have lands owned by nongovernmental organizations, things like the Nature Conservancy or Trust For Public Lands. They also own a lot of the fair amount of the forested lands in our state. And so when you talk about forest management policy, each one of those individual entities are all managing their own lands. And so they're going to have different kinds of priorities and objectives when they're trying to manage their own individual lands. And so for example, the DNR actually has a fiduciary responsibility to extract economic benefit from the land. And so they do need to extract timber. They do need to make money cause that goes into funding some of our education. The forest service, the US Forest Service also historically was harvesting timber, but they also are responsible for a lot of the lands management and particular fuels reduction treatments. And then the park service has their own set of priorities, right? They're more about conservation. They're more about actually preserving the land for public recreation, for example. And there's also wilderness areas that can't be touched in general at all. And then obviously timber companies, they're about resource extraction and economic benefit. And then individual private homeowners, they might be more interested in recreation or aesthetics. And so when we're managing our lands, we have to consider all of those different priorities. All of those people are working under different regulatory frameworks, right? So they have different bosses, right? The US Forest Service is answering to the federal government. The DNR is answering to the state government. And all of these landscapes are neighbors. And so you have state state lands, DNR lands that leads into forest service national forest, that leads into say a national park, for example. And so if you're trying to manage across the whole state, you have to have all of those individual agencies actually collaborating. They actually have to coordinate because otherwise if I'm doing one thing and someone else is doing something completely different, how can I be successful? The fire doesn't care. That is crossing from state lands to federal lands. And so that's one thing. And so that was a very long way of just saying that it's hard because you have to have coordination amongst different agencies and bureaucracies, which of course when has it ever been easy for different agencies to actually even talk to each other? And so that part of it is really difficult. So in terms of forest management, really you also can't consider it without considering that long history where a century ago the federal government made that decision to suppress all the wildfires, everything that we're experiencing now, that might be one of the most consequential land management decisions in our country because a lot of what we're experiencing now results from that previous forest management policy, which really was in the spirit of conservation. They really wanted to conserve our natural resources and they saw wildfire as a threat to those natural resources. And so they wanted to make sure that we could keep them. It really was a conservation mentality. And so that's a little bit ironic because now that's the big threat to our current forest system. And so that's one thing. Suppressing all the wildfires is a land management policy that possibly has backfired a little bit. And then another piece of it is, right now our main tool is fuels treatments where we should be extracting those smaller fuels and allowing for prescribed fire. But that's really difficult to do. And so it's really expensive to go in and take out wood. And if you're only taking out the small fuels, which is what you need to make a fuels treatment successful, those aren't the ones that could be made into two by fours, for example. They're not what we'd call merchantable timber. And so you don't get much economic benefit from taking out the small trees, right? You get the most economic benefit from taking out the biggest trees. But those are the ones that are resilient and resistant to wildfire. And so those are the ones we want to keep on the landscape. And so it's really expensive cause we get a little bit of money back, but it's a net cost.

Cristostomo:

So it's more expensive to do the removal of the trees than what you'd get by selling them?

:

Yes, exactly. Exactly. And then if you think about setting a fire on purpose, that's a really risky proposition because you do sort of have a narrow window where you say, okay, I think it's safe now to set this fire and we can control it. But it's possible that maybe the wind might shift and the fire might become out of control. So it's a risky proposition. And there were some really high profile, very rare events where controlled fires did get out of control and they did, I believe, burn down some homes. And so you really have to be sure that you're in that proper window to do the prescribed fire. But even then, when you're setting the fire, you're making smoke. And so that has really potential air quality implications because I mean around here, the last few summers it's been really miserable with all the smoke. And in this case, the agency is creating the smoke on purpose. And it's hard to communicate, okay, you need to accept a little smoke now because it might prevent more smoke later. Because the agency is creating the smoke on purpose. Like you can not have the smoke in the air right now if you so choose. And so all of those things make it really difficult to do the kinds of forest management we think we need to do. And so blaming things on a single forest management agency is just, it just doesn't make sense. It has to be a coordinated effort.

Cristostomo:

I mean, it makes sense. Like everything has a consequence. But like you said, it's better to have this small smoke now than have way worse smoking later.

:

Yeah. We hope. And our ability to even treat the acres of forest that we think we need to is really, really inhibited. We would have to commit a lot more resources into forest management. And another thing that we can actually do is wildfire itself is a really effective fuels treatment, and so if we allowed more wildfires to burn, if it's safe, if we know that it's far away from say, human property and human lives, if we allow those wildfires to burn, then that naturally removes fuels. The natural system we think can possibly reset itself depending on the conditions. There's a lot of conditions under which this wouldn't happen and some conditions under which it would, but this will create a system that is what we would call resilient to wildfire. So if we can sort of reintroduce wildfire into some of t hese systems, then when wildfires occur, they're going to be less dangerous. And we can let them burn without incurring that kind of risk is sort of the theory behind that. But again, it's really difficult because people see the smoke, and fire i s very scary naturally and for good reason, right? We don't want to be anywhere near wildfire, or fire of any kind,. really. And so it's difficult to even get permission to allow a fire to burn because of those same risks that you have in a prescribed fire. But that is a really cost effective way to reduce fuels, because you literally s aved money because you're not fighting the wildfire. Fighting wildfires i s incredibly expensive. And so if there are places where you can let it burn safely, you prevent the cost of fighting the wildfire and then you don't have to go in and pay the money to do the fuels treatment yourself. And so that really is perhaps one of the best ways, if the f ire i s burning i n a place where it's safe, which isn't always the case.

Cristostomo:

Yeah. And that makes sense. Um, there's already wildfires in Canada right now, what are your thoughts on that?

:

We are definitely getting fires earlier than we might expect. And this is just like when you hear any scientist talking about climate change, they always have the caveat like we can't, climate change doesn't cause any individual event, what climate change does is it changes the distribution or the probability of different events. They make things more likely than they were before. And so when you see, when you hear about earlier wildfires on the West side of the cascades or earlier wildfires in Canada, what that means is we can't say climate change caused that to happen, but it makes it more likely, like we said, it increases the fire season. It increases the time over which wildfires may occur, which then increases the likelihood that you get more wildfires. And what people are saying right now in California, there is no fire season, because now it's pretty much all year because it's so dry and so warm all year. For the most part the fires can occur at any time, which of course is going to increase the number of fires that you get.

Cristostomo:

True. Um, what can the public do?

:

So some things that the public can do, is if you live in wildfire prone areas, so in the wildland urban interface, to really develop a community plan. And so this is part of that coexisting with wildfire. And so develop resources for your community and education for your community to make your individual homes and your communities what we call fire-wise or fire safe. And that again has to do with clearing vegetation around homes. Actually if you're doing a new development, if the homes are further apart, there's less likely to be structure to structure ignitions. And so in community planning, trying to make it understanding that you are in a wildfire prone area, which means eventually sometime in the next several centuries a wildfire is going to come through. So what can you do to make your community safer against that wildfire? Clearing the vegetation around individual homes, making sure the homes are made out of fireproof materials, and having a community plan for evacuation, for example. How do we know when this inevitable wildfire is going to come? What can we do beforehand to keep the property safe? And then at the time, what can we do to keep the people safe? And so having plans like that can really make a difference in terms of human lives and property. The other thing people can do is educate themselves, obviously, about fuels, treatments, educate themselves about forest management and wildfire. Sort of understand again that fires are inevitable. We can't prevent them. So how can we actually reduce the risk of wildfire, not prevent wildfires but reduce the risk from and the hazard from wildfires. And then you can support funding for forest management. And so Washington state just came out with a 20 year forest management strategic plan for the East side forests and on reading it, it sounds like it's using the best science that we know for forest management. It's emphasizing the collaborative coordinated agency approach, which is absolutely what we need. But now it needs the funding, right? It needs the money to actually enact the plan. And so something the public can do is that if they feel like this is a good idea, talk to your legislators. There's so many dimensions, there's the science of it, but the science can only take you so far. You need the resources to implement the science. And so if you put pressure on your legislators, then you can possibly help to fund to keep the forest more healthy.

Music:

[Outtro music]

Cristostomo:

thank you to our guest, and a big thank you to our senior lecturer, Nicole Blair for letting us play your music on the show. Thank you to Mooney , our recording studio, and thank you for joining us today. Be sure to subscribe and go to iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and Pocket Casts.