Ask-Me-Anything Wildfires

Featured image

Question

Australina bushfires: The country has a long history of dealing with fires using the indigenous method of hazard reduction. I believe it is similar to the prescribed burningin the U.S. Although it might not be enough to counter all of the increased fires that the country is witnessing, there is some debate now around as to whether the practice has any benefits at all. How do you think individual property owners should look at such contradicting scientific studies?

Answer

Thank you for the great question. Let’s start by explaining briefly what the indigenous method of hazard reduction in Australia is. The aboriginal people in Australia, like in many other places around the world, believe that everything in the environment is interconnected, and that there is kinship between plants, animals, insects, the weather. Therefore when they use fire to regulate the environment, it seems that they do this according to the connections they find in this kinship system. The small fires they start have a specific purpose - for the health of particular animals or plants (to control invasive weeds or beetles, for example). This type of burning is called cultural burning and it is based upon the collective knowledge of the environment of people who have lived on that particular land for generations. Prescribed burning, a practice in Europe and Northern America, is used to reduce fire fuel. This means that it main purpose is to remove most of the biomass that a potential fire would consume in order to grow big. This biomass consist of grass, small bushes, fallen and rotting trees and tree branches. Prescribed burning differs from cultural burning as it only concentrates on fuel reduction, i.e. biomass reduction, and not the health of the system.

The current fires in the U.S and the 2019 bushfires in Austria are massive in size, and driven by climate change. Wildfires and bushfires are a natural phenomenon. Unfortunately, climate change makes them become bigger and more deadly and because of this, we now use the term megafires to describe them.

I believe that there is a lot of truth behind the collective knowledge of the people who work the land. My grand-parents were farmers, and I - as a city-born child - lack tons of knowledge about the environment, the forest, the trees, irrigation, and so on. My grand-parent are much more connected to the natural world than I am and I listen to their advice when it comes to farming and picking berries in the woods. I believe that there is a truth to the collective knowledge of the indigenous people in Australia, and we can use this knowledge to prepare the natural world so that when bushfires start, they can be controlled faster.

The megafires, of course, would need more interventions like this than the usual. Unfortunately, as more people flock to the cities, less people are left in the country side to walk and work the land, which also means we have less people available for controlled burning. And because of climate change, we need more people not less.

It is difficult for me to give advice to individual property owners. The creation of defensible spaces is a practice which has shown proven results. I wonder however which scientific studies you find contradicting. It would be amazing if you could share the links to these studies here, so we can read them and discuss them in more details.


Question

Australian bushfires: Given that traditional measure might not be enough (do let me know if you think otherwise), what are your views on new technologies such as retardant gels or the REFCL program? The issue I see with these is that understanding the full efficacy of these solutions and impact on ecosystems might take more time than we currently have.

Answer I am afraid I do not feel expert enough to comment on retardant gel usage.

REFCL is a safety switch device which is installed on power lines to reduce the risk of wildfires/bushifres. It automatically cuts of the power of power lines in which seems to be faulty. Sparks always fly around power lines. A faulty power line might be one whose lines touch the ground or the surrounding vegetation. Should the power line be faulty, then the sparks might come in contact to the surrounding vegetation and start a fire. REFCL seems to be able to automatically cut the power of faulty power lines so whenever the line touches vegetation or the ground, sparks do not fly off it.


Question

I came across some polls where a significant share of respondents said that they believed people will simply adapt to the increased number of fires. Are there any scientific studies to support the possibility of this happening in an economically sustainable manner?

Answer

I hav not looked for such studies yet, and I would like to ask whether the other participants in the discussion have read something about the topic.

Secondly, the fires emit fumes. These fumes travel thousands of kilometers away - and across oceans - to dim the daylight in both the country side and in cities. The fumes carry micro particles which when inhales, stay in the lungs forever (as all airborne micro particles do). These may lead to health complications for the population.

Moreover,. wildfires and bushfires cause big financial losses. PG&E (a utility company in California lost went into bankruptcy because of wildfires). Family businesses might need to close as well.

When we speak about increased number of wildfires and us adapting to it, we need to see the forest for the trees. We need to understand that wildfires affect global warming, the people’s health and the business.


Question

You have talked about defensible spaces in the way your company (Nina Space) deals with mitigating wildfires. Can you tell us more on what this means and how your company deals with wildfires?

We would also like to know more about the current situation in Portugal as well with re to wildfires.

Answer

We took a lot of time to get a deep understanding of the problems of wildfires. Our company is created to solve this environmental problem. We chose to make in a for-profit but it could have also been an NGO or followed some other format. Here is what we discovered for Europe and North America:

Defensible Spaces Large-scale defensible space mitigation efforts are our best defense against wildfires that we can implement so we see results now. Other strategies include cultural burning, prescribed burning, bringing people back to the countryside, increasing flora biodiversity, goat firefighters, technological solutions - such as REFCL switch for reducing risk of fires started by sparks flying off powe-lines, retardant gels.

Research shows that increased flora biodiversity has the greatest impact potential in reducing wildfire risk. It would takes us 20 or so years to see the effects of this mitigation measure if we started planting now - and we have not really started yet.

After speaking to many environmental and forestry experts, and fire-fighters, we kept hearing the term defensible space.

Defensible space is a vegetation-free bubble around assets in the countryside. As asset could be someone’s house, a road, a power-line, a highway, a railway, a village, or a commercial asset - commercial forests, warehouses, etc. Defensible spaces in most cases are regulated by law and follow specific rules: read more here. Defensible spaces are not ideal as they promote vegetation removal, and we want to keep adults tree rooted and healthy in order to capture CO2 from the atmosphere, however we have collected examples in which some assets were in the middle of a fire and did not burn. In this case, human and animal life is prioritized over vegetation.

Thankfully, the regulations across Europe and North America are the same, which means that whatever solution we find for 1 continent, we can transfer for the other.

What we do at Nina Space

We analyse satellite images. We read the science behind the instruments that takes satellite images, and understood the following: a. satellite images can capture more than what the visible eye can see -> this means that satellites help us see the invisible here on Earth. b. we can filter what we see on satellite images. We can use filters so that we see only the vegetation on Earth - visualized usually in shades of green - and cancel out all the rest from the image - water, cities, roads, clouds. This way we can have a picture of this is the state of vegetation on Earth right now - how healthy it is and what type it is (bushes v.s. forest v.s. pasture).

  1. Then we can compare these pictures of Earth every week and detect the differences - a lot of trees have been cut here, there seem to be drought there…

Using these capabilities of satellite image analysis, we offer a solution to 2 problems :

  1. Creating defensible spaces in expensive - €1200 per hectare, on average. Imagine that a company or a municipality have budget for only 30% of the defensible spaces they need to build every year. This is the reality we live in. We help them prioritize which defensible spaces they should create, and which they will leave for the next year.

  2. When it is decided which ones to create, they need to be created - e.g. the vegetation there needs to be cut and trimmed. This is usually done by a third party provider as it is muscle-intensive, difficult and dangerous task (think of falling trees). They paying party, the business or municipality, sometimes do not have visibility on what part of the work has been completed and where. It is also expensive to send their own personnel on site to inspect the defensible space. We can detect this by comparing satellite images over time, and show these images to all involved parties as proof.


Question

How is wildfire risk incorporated into carbon markets/incentives for trees as a carbon removal solution? From my rudimentary understanding it appears that there may be some conflict of interest — as I understand it credits are generally earned through preserving trees (ie. extended rotations) whereas fire management approaches may warrant short-term reduction of trees (ie. prescribed burns, thinning) for long term benefit of prevented wildfires. Perhaps the question is how have the markets/incentives been designed to work for us in the long term.

When seeing the size/extent of recent wildfires releasing presumably hundreds of years of stored carbon in a single season and knowing that fires are only expected to increase in intensity and frequency, my gut reaction is to question the viability of using trees as a carbon removal solution in fire prone regions. Is this valid? Would love to hear any thoughts you have on this.

Answer

Prescribed burning usually does not reduce the number of trees - but rather burn the biomass laying on the ground around trees so in case of fire, this fire cannot climb to the top of the trees and become uncontrollable.

Defensible spaces and thinning are two practices that indeed reduce the number of trees.

I just quickly googled to see how to best answer your question, and this is what I found. Most of the time, high wildfire risk regions have drier vegetation. Drier vegetation means that there is less water in the soil, and in the trees and the rest of the flora in general. If you read this PDF, you can see how trees absorb carbon:

carbon + water + light energy = glucose + oxygen + water

My guess would be that if there is less water on the left side of the equation, less carbon would be stored. I am not an expert in carbon capture, so this might be a wrong guess.

Moreover, using forests as carbon sinks works on a global level. There might be a fire in California releasing CO2 in the atmosphere, and this carbon can be absorbed by forests in Africa and Indonesia.

** Follow Up Question to this**

I just read your response and I still have the same question as Ning Jeng. Just because carbon could be used by a tree on the other side of the planet, doesn’t mean the overall numbers don’t go up when a tree or forest is burned.

I am still learning about wildfires watching my home state burn to the ground (so I admittedly I get a bit emotional here), but from what I understand California hasn’t been doing prescribed burns (or thinning?) for years, so the amount of forests available to burn is actually much higher than in the past. Basically – we have way more trees. We like to think of more trees as good, but if they are going to start burning and causing more trees to burn (for example a connecting corridor), then this isn’t exactly ideal.

I also question the use of carbon storage in fire-prone forests because they could very easily go up in smoke, reversing years of work done by the trees. My own interest in Ning’s question, though, would be less about fire management implementation as a conflict of interest (though that is a good question) and more about how to incorporate (un)known losses into the pricing.

** Follow Up Answer**

From what I understood, you seems worries that prescribed burning burns more trees. Prescribed burning does not burn trees. It removes/burns the biomass lying on the forest floor -> e.g. forest understory. You can read a bit more about it here. Cleaning accumulated dead/rotting biomass off the forest floor prevents the fire from climbing the trees. Fires are deemed uncontrollable when their reach the top of the trees. When the rotting biomass and small bushes are removed from the forest floor, it is more difficult for the fires to reach the tree tops and therefore these fires are more easily controlled by firefighters.

A problem that California, such as Portugal have, is that there are many eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus burns much faster than other tree species and its leaves (even burning) can be carried by wind miles away (sometimes helping the fire spread like this).

What you call a connecting corridor sounds to me like the forest paths which need to be cleaned in order for vehicles to reach the remote corners of the forests. Firefigthing trucks can then be brought closer to the fires, and routine inspections by the foresty personnel managing the land can be performed.

As for carbon storage, I am not an expert on this and my guess would be as good as yours. Regardless whether we see the forests as carbon sinks or not, there must be forests and trees in fire prone regions. Where there are trees, the temperatures are slightly lower, there is more biodiversity (good for reducing fire risk), more chances of better water distribution, among others.