Global Fire Emission Database, and other thoughts on forest fires and Metro Vancouver

Smoke, downtown Vancouver obscuredVancouverites awoke Sunday morning to what some referred to a “post-apocalyptic” light from forest fires drifting over the urban area.

Here are some musings on the topic, including basic math of a forest fire, the climate change connection, health impacts, and some links for more information on wild fires and forest fires.

The smoke in the air became the topic of much media coverage and personal conversations. Urban residents here are rarely so directly exposed to the reality of forest fires. We can feel the smoke with our bodies. Health authorities issued air quality advisories, especially for the young, elderly and vulnerable. People curtailed their outdoor activities.

smoke clearingMedia coverage generally did not look into deeper aspects of the issues, and did not make the connection to global trends. But every nanoparticle of carbon floating in the air and inhaled into your lungs was until just hours ago a part of a functioning forest ecosystem — which has suddenly lost a major part of its carbon absorption capacity and is now a major source of carbon in the atmosphere. Besides the tragic loss of life and property from fires, the devastation of functioning ecosystems is also tragic, especially with human-caused fires being so common. Evidence suggests things are going to get worse globally. And big parts of North America’s west coast have entered a mega drought.

1. BASIC MATH OF A FOREST FIRE

Let’s suppose a forest fire starts with a cigarette. That is a point source. A glass of water could put it out. Within a few moments it is a meter in diameter. Let’s say that it would take one cubic meter of water to douse. Then for every meter of additional diameter, the edge (perimeter) of the fire expands by 6.28 meters (2πr). Let’s say you need one cubic meter of water to put out each meter of the perimeter of the fire. Clear day in Grandview WoodlandBy the time it reaches 80 hectares like the Old Sechelt Mine fire (first detected Thurs. July 2) after two nights, the edge is 505 meters from the starting point and you have a perimeter of 3,171 meters, requiring 3,171 cubic meters of water (weighting 1,000 kg, or one metric ton, equal to a water cube measuring 14.7 meters on each side, or about the size of a four-storeybuilding). (Reported area 150 hectares at 4 pm on July 6, four days after detection.) You can see how a fire that could have been put out with a cup of water now needs 12 million cups of water to stop just two days later. Clearly, the sooner a fire is detected and stopped, the less risk to human life, property, and the environment.

The ability to respond quickly depends on having intelligent systems, and the required personnel and infrastructure. And the proper budget. New drone technology might come in handy, but we’ll get into that another day (for now, this is an interesting read: Fighting Forest Fires Before They Get Big—With Drones, Wired Magazine, June 2015). Most coverage regarding drones for fire fighting has emphasized fire detection. But what about the potential for actually fighting fires with drone technology? Can the sophisticated technology of war be re-applied to kill the “beast” of a fire, instead of human life?

The parallel between early response to a forest fire and early response to climate change also merits mention. More than two decades ago, scientists were pointing out that the cost and difficulty of changing course to mitigate climate change would increase over time. Yet here we are in 2015 and still bickering globally over serious commitments to fight climate change — with the next major global climate conference set for December 2015 in Paris. Some say it is already too late to stop catastrophic climate change. But the human spirit will not give up the fight — much work remains. Perhaps young people with brilliant new ideas will make things happen.

2. CLIMATE CHANGE

Scientists have been stating that a warmer planet will mean more wildfires. Here are some references. 

Climate change to blame for so many Sask. wildfires, says expert: Sask. prof. says dry weather, winds, and lightning a bad combination (by Amanda Marcotte, CBC News, 2-Jul-2015). Excerpt: Why is Saskatchewan seeing so many wildfires this year? “In a short answer, climate change,” Toddi Steelman told CBC Saskatchewan’s Blue Sky. Steelman is the executive director of the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan and is one of the leading experts in the country on wildfires. She says climate change is leading to higher temperatures, and more arid conditions which make the sky ripe for dry lightning. “It means that thunderheads roll through but they don’t drop any rain. They just produce a lot of lightning.” “When we get dry conditions, high temps, big winds in combination with dry lightning it really sets up for multiple fire starts.” 

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/climate-change-to-blame-for-so-many-sask-wildfires-says-expert-1.3136209

Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Wildfire Risks? (Union of Concerned Scientists): http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/impacts/global-warming-and-wildfire.html#.VZoY_Pl_NBc

NASA – Climate Models Project Increase in U.S. Wildfire Riskhttp://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/climate-fire.html

Wildfires projected to worsen with climate change, via Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences: http://www.seas.harvard.edu/news/2013/08/wildfires-projected-worsen-with-climate-change

3. HEALTH IMPLICATIONS

Here is an excerpt from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group 2, page 729.

11.5.3.2. Acute Air Pollution Episodes: Wildfires, which occur more commonly following heat waves and drought, release particulate matter and other toxic substances that may affect large numbers of people for days to months (Finlay et al., 2012; Handmer et al., 2012). …. One study of worldwide premature mortality attributable to air pollution from forest fires estimated there were 339,000 deaths per year (range 260,000 to 600,000) (Johnston et al., 2012).

4. GLOBAL FIRE EMISSIONS DATABASE (GFED)

http://www.globalfiredata.org/index.html

Some people may be interested in the ability to connect the dots and stay abreast of information regarding fire emissions as part of the global carbon cycle. They will be interested to discover that this database exists. Excerpt from intro page: Fires are an important source of atmospheric trace gases and aerosols and they are the most important disturbance agent on a global scale. In addition, deforestation and tropical peatland fires and areas that see an increase in the frequency of fires add to the build-up of atmospheric CO2 ..We have combined satellite information on fire activity and vegetation productivity to estimate gridded monthly burned area and fire emissions, as well as scalars that can be used to calculate higher temporal resolution emissions. Most of the resulting datasets are downloadable from this website for use in large-scale atmospheric and biogeochemical studies.

5. USEFUL RESOURCES IN CANADA

Wildfires of Note – BC Wildfire Service – Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations – Province of British Columbia

http://bcwildfire.ca/hprScripts/WildfireNews/OneFire.asp

British Columbia weather radar

http://www.accuweather.com/en/ca/british-columbia/weather-radar

Weather Satellite Images and Animation

http://weather.gc.ca/satellite/index_e.html

The following additions are thanks to CBC.

Please visit this page on the CBC website for more useful information.

The provincial wildfire management branch posts updates on the largest fires here.

A map of wildfires across Canada is also published by Natural Resources Canada

Campfire bans and fire danger ratings are also posted by the branch.

Air quality updates:

The forest fires north of Whistler have triggered Environment Canada air quality advisories for Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, Sunshine Coast and the south and east coasts of Vancouver Island.

“Winds will shift to an onshore flow so that cleaner marine air should move in from the west today,” according to Environment Canada.

An air quality advisory is also in place for the Fort St. John area in Northern B.C.

The province also publishes air quailty readings for specific cities and regions on the B.C. Air Quality website

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