Today’s wildfire modeling ‘just sucks’ for flames fueled by climate change

How scientists use models to understand blazes — and where those models fall short.

 

Over Labor Day weekend in the Pacific Northwest, high winds fanned wildfire ignitions in drought-ridden forests west of the Cascades. In a matter of hours, small fires erupted into about a dozen major blazes, destroying entire communities, displacing tens of thousands of residents and killing 10 people in Oregon and Washington.

The scale of the conflagrations, and the speed at which they grew, surprised even seasoned wildfire researchers. The scientific models used to predict and understand fires worked well in previous decades, but given current conditions across the West, trying to use them now “just sucks,” said David Saah, an environmental scientist at the University of San Francisco and a leader of the Pyregence Consortium, a team developing new wildfire models. “You know how we keep saying climate change is going to change everything? We’re there, we’re in it (and) we don’t know how to quantify it. We’re trying to figure it out.”

Izel Ramos-Gonzalez, 7, looks at the damage in her grandmother’s backyard in Phoenix, Oregon, after the Almeda Fire swept through the Southern part of the state in September.

Fire has always been part of Western ecosystems; many animals and plants evolved to depend on periodic burns. And for thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have used fire to help keep forests healthy by reducing excess brush and encouraging new growth, a practice that continues today. But after a century of fire suppression — and with a rapidly changing climate that is drying out forests — Western wildfires are now much larger and more intense than before.

In the typically wet western Cascades, wildfires require certain conditions to grow: low humidity and powerful easterly winds. By early September, a 10-month drought had set the stage for dangerous blazes, and unusually dry and strong winds followed: Near Salem, Oregon, sensors logged the lowest combination of relative humidity and highest wind speed ever recorded at that location, said Larry O’Neill, the Oregon state climatologist. These conditions contributed to the “explosive” growth of the Santiam Fire, later renamed the Beachie Creek Fire, which has burned nearly 200,000 acres, destroyed thousands of homes and buildings in the towns of Detroit, Mill City, Gates and Santiam River, and killed five people, including Oregon environmentalist George Atiyeh. “(That) combination of conditions is essentially unheard of,” O’Neill said. But it might become more common in the future, thanks to climate change. Scientists are “very concerned” about the possibility that such rare wind events could become “more frequent or extreme,” O’Neill said.

When authorities are faced with major decisions — how to best protect homes and lives, and when to issue evacuation notices — they need to know how fast-moving, hot and severe a specific fire is likely to be, and where its perimeter might lie in the days ahead. For now, most state incident commanders and U.S. Forest Service firefighters rely on short-term wildfire models, computer-based calculations that forecast how a blaze might behave. The Rothermel surface fire spread model, developed in 1972, is the basis of many of the models used today. The basic inputs rely on knowing three main elements that drive wildfires: topography, weather and fuel flammability.

“You know how we keep saying climate change is going to change everything? We’re there, we’re in it (and) we don’t know how to quantify it. We’re trying to figure it out.”

But the unusual easterly wind added an unexpected element to attempts to model the Labor Day fires, said Meg Krawchuk, a fire and landscape ecologist at Oregon State University. “Rare events are hard to model because you have so few cases to build and learn from,” she said. And wind in particular can stymie Rothermel-style models. Strong gusts can topple power lines, igniting new fires that build on the heat and vapor in the atmosphere, spawning an inferno large enough to create its own weather. When that happens, the original inputs are no longer accurate — and neither are the model’s results.

Understanding such complicated interactions requires a new kind of model. Coupled, or physics-based, models, for example, explicitly examine the interaction, or coupling, between fire behavior and the atmosphere. These models, which are expensive to run, are still being developed; right now they primarily live in “research land,” said Saah. They address the feedback cycle of what a fire consumes, how the heat released from that consumption impacts the atmosphere, how that in turn affects the weather, and how that weather then impacts the fire’s behavior. “The (Rothermel-based) models don’t capture that,” Saah said.

A third type of wildfire model, used for long-term planning and research, looks at general wildfire activity on a scale of decades rather than days. These statistical models look at long-term vegetation and climatological patterns and how they interact in a particular place, then project what wildfires will look like in 50 or 100 years. The inputs are based on historical data, and as climate change dries out the West and increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, wildfires will also change, making modeling them more difficult. “When you want to build large-scale systems models, you need lots and lots and lots of observations,” Saah said, something scientists don't yet have, as climate change alters conditions in ways they haven't seen before. "So that’s why people are freaking out."

Victoria Petersen is an intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.