Attacking fires by air often does no good, expert says
More than three-quarters of air attacks on wildfires are ineffective, according to internal data from the fire command in the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia, whose head researcher is calling for major changes in how the warming world battles its blazes.
The frenetic summer season, which has included a record-breaking 80 firestorms around the globe, has seen governments from Turkey to California bombing massive fire fronts with payloads of water dropped from planes.
This makes for great media footage and provides cover for local politicians — at the cost of sacrificing resources to no clear end, said Marc Castellnou, senior fire analyst with the Corps of Firefighters of Catalonia.
“You’re public servants, people pay taxes, you have to try,” Castellnou said. “But we’re fighting against the sort of fires where if you try, you will lose a lot.”
That’s especially relevant in light of the U.S. Forest Service’s announcement earlier this month, after criticism from Calif. Gavin Newsom (D), that it would no longer be “managing fires for resource benefit” — firefighter speak for halting the practice of leaving remote fires to burn.
This is backwards, Castellnou said — instead, by acknowledging our weakness in the face of the new era, he argued, we can actually open up a way through it.
The use of planes in firefighting illustrates the problem. Earlier this month, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Or.) asked the White House about a reported scarcity of jet fuel needed to keep the planes aloft, The Hill reported.
Those planes are useful against small- or medium-sized fires, which don’t have a lot of energy behind them, Castellnou said. They’re especially useful during the first attack on a fire and in support of firefighters on the ground who are clearing the containment line to keep the fire inside.
But during a sufficiently large fire, Castellnou said, “That’s not useful at all. Of course politicians and people want to see planes flying, but they don’t work if you don’t have people underneath, and you don’t put people to work [underneath] during a firestorm.”
The effectiveness of missions to drop water on fires varied, he said.
“In extreme fires, maybe it’s none. In easy fires, maybe all.” But on average, his fire service found, only 23 percent of them did any good.
In Chile in January 2017, at the dawn of the current age of firestorms, Castellnou watched a Boeing 747 drop enormous payloads of water on a massive firestorm — then fly away, to return six hours later.
“It gives you a dramatic picture, and it shows you’re trying your best,” he said. “But it doesn’t help a lot.” A rule of thumb, he said, applicable from Siberia to Santa Monica, is that if it’s a very hot day and the plane is flying by daylight, “that’s not really a proper strategy.”
Firefighters and politicians are failing to be transparent with the public about the limits of their abilities in the face of the growing problem, he said, which has led to unrealistic expectations and wasted resources.
“People still don’t understand what’s happening,” Castellnou said. They judge the effectiveness of the response to a fire “on the amount of surface burned or houses lost. Instead of as a change happening to the landscape, and asking how we are adjusting or helping that to happen or accepting that.”
That change is partly climate, which is causing forests to migrate further from the equator, with burning along the edges of transitioning ecosystems. But it’s partly the legacy of generations of wholesale fire suppression, which has left much of the world’s forests to burn under the worst conditions.
“The Bolivian Chaco is burning right now, just beside what burned in 2018,” Castellnou said. “What was saved then is burning now.” Conversely, the burn scars from past fires have proven invaluable assets in containing current ones.
In the face of enormous fires, Castellnou said, “the practice is changing. We’re becoming more defensive. If we see that kind of fire, we don’t attack it, we just try to contain it. We give distance.”
Earlier this week, a fire team Castellnou was advising in the Chaco lost control of a fire and retreated 30 miles, trading space for the time to “build lines to hold the fire inside that perimeter, ” instead of attacking it head-on.
Even this had been “thinking too small,” Castellnou said: They assumed the fire would cover only 12 miles a day, giving them three days to build the line.
Instead, it got there in two and jumped the line.
“We should have given more space to the fire if we wanted to have proper containment strategies.”
In California — or even in Castellnou’s native Catalonia — the temptation would be to attack that fire with aircraft, Castellnou said, to avoid giving land up to burn.
“It’s still not well understood that, ‘OK, for the next four hours we’ll not fight the fire, because it won’t be efficient to do that. We’ll save our efforts for the right moment and be efficient,'” he said.
Husbanding resources for the, say, 23 percent of the time when they’ll be effective opens up the possibility for lasting change, Castellnou said.
Take the notion of prescribed burning, which is widely believed to be a key part of any long-term solution to the firestorm problem.
“We should be doing prescribed burns early or late in the season. But late in the season, everyone will be so tired, and no one will be ready to burn,” he said.
“There’s no reason to use crews now [on uncontrollable fires], when they can’t do anything,” he went on. “They’ll be more useful later.”
He wasn’t immune to this, Castellnou admitted: He recalled one fire this summer where he called in water strikes on a daytime fire when he knew they’d make no headway until nightfall. When night came, they battled the fire down, but he was haunted by the waste of time, resource and manpower that day that would have been more useful after sunset.
Frustration is growing in the fire corps he works with around the world, Castellnou said, who feel that “you can’t do your job properly, but that society is blaming us even for doing our jobs,” which sometimes involved fighting impossible battles to protect fuel-laden communities from firestorms — and then losing.
“They’re the people who send firefighters to court — ‘They were here, they didn’t do enough.’ They don’t understand. They pay their taxes so firefighters will put it out.”
That focus on what was being lost, Castellnou believes, encourages wasted resources — and distracts from the great importance of what a more sensitive fire management could offer the landscape and focusing on how “your actions will help society live better on that landscape tomorrow.”
“We are looking at it as a loss — but we are creating tomorrow’s landscape, and you can’t create a new landscape out of that defensive mindset,” he said.