The intensity of the deadly wildfires in Northern California can be attributed, in part, to a lack of controlled fires, which can help thin the forest and reduce the amount of fuel for a fire, says a Virginia Tech expert who researchers the impacts of wildland fire on ecosystem processes.
"The amount of fuel in place is excessive and can create very hazardous fire conditions when drought conditions are present," said Adam Coates, an assistant professor of forest fire ecology and management in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. "Dry conditions and unfavorable winds, near 75 miles per hour, in areas with heavy, natural fuel loads have created erratic fire behavior that is not desirable for fire suppression."
On the front lines
Coates calls the men and women fighting the California fires truly heroes for what they do.
"They face exhaustion due to the amount of time they are working in rough, rugged terrain. The work is challenging, not only on the body, but also on the mind. Constant changes in wind and humidity create alternations in fire behavior on a minute-by-minute basis and those changes must constantly be evaluated," said Coates. "In most cases, many of these firefighters have traveled from out-of-state and will spend quite a bit of time away from their daily jobs, families and loved ones."
"I believe one of the most important facets of recovery may be the human response to these fires. There are ways we can build more effectively to prevent catastrophic loss of life and property," said Coates. "It is important that we learn from these and other fires and insure that we are building in areas and living in areas that are not primed for wildfires."
Professor Coates' research focuses on topics such as restoration ecology, fuels, fire behavior, silviculture, soils, wildlife habitat, and water quality.