Protect Our Winters Trail Alliance On Navigating Fire Season

Trail runners have an up close and personal view of rapidly changing and increasingly devastating fire seasons across the United States. As trail runners, it is on trails we recreate and find our happy place. Many trails are drying out and becoming more susceptible to burning. On smoke-filled days, our lungs are screaming, “Please don’t run when the air quality is inhospitable.” Ultimately our decision, not just as runners, but as humans who are conscientious about caring for Mother Earth, can do something about it.

We might be a small group of passionate outdoor recreation enthusiasts, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the power to band together and tackle larger issues that directly affect the way we recreate, such as the changing fire seasons. Protect Our Winters (POW), an organization in the outdoor sports space has lobbied and pushed for years to empower the outdoor community as climate change activists.

POW-affiliated trail runners such as Leadville 100 Champion Claire Gallagher, two-time World Mountain, and Trail Running Champion Grayson Murphy, “Every Single Street” project creator Ricky Gates and many influential figures in our sport, have been raising awareness and making positive changes on these issues for over a decade.

In the following article, I interview both Mel Briggs, Team Captain of POW Trail Alliance, and Neil Lareau, member of POW Science Alliance, and professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Nevada Reno, to provide both athletic and scientific perspectives on the topic of changing fire seasons.

Mel Briggs. Photo by: Protect Our Winters

Mel Briggs Team Captain of POW Trail Alliance

[TAYTE POLLMANN How might a shifting wildfire season affect the summer trail racing schedule? Is this something you’re actively thinking about as you schedule races?
[MEL BRIGGS] With shifting and longer wildfire seasons, there is no guarantee that a race will happen. The likelihood of races getting canceled due to fires and their smoke is much higher now than it was 10 years ago. Some events have changed their dates to avoid the risk of cancellation, and races have to often skip a year or change their courses to go around previous fire damage. As runners plan out their calendar year for racing, it’s safer to schedule races earlier and later in the season than what might be normal to avoid the possibility of race cancellation, and trying to train through wildfire smoke.

[TAYTE] What can runners and race directors do to minimize the wildfire problem? Are there ways to improve our trail etiquette that can better combat wildfires?
[MEL] Trail runners and race organizers tend to be good stewards of the trails they use. A lot of trail race organizations do trail work to maintain race courses, and it’s even a way for athletes to gain entry or lottery into some races. In conjunction with doing that trail work, organizers could meet with the local forest service and management employees to see what they can do in their trail work to help mitigate fire risk. The work can serve a dual purpose.

[TAYTE] As an athlete, how involved are you both in the athlete space and the political space taking stances and making changes for environmental issues?
[MEL] I’m pretty open about my stance on environmental issues, and I live in Oregon, a state where these environmental issues are a top priority. Living in the high desert, some of the places I train have been affected by wildfires. And it’s not just in the summer that the forest is burning either. It takes a year or two for outdoor recreation areas to get cleaned up after a fire, and sometimes even longer due to trail erosion afterward. Once those affected areas open back up, they are usually much more exposed causing them to be warmer and drier due to the lack of trees in the area. As an athlete who uses these places a lot, I’m able to share these stories on a more personal level – about how it’s affecting what I do on a daily basis. POW has given me the space where I can be involved as an athlete and in the political space, and that’s been really valuable.

[TAYTE] On this somber topic of wildfires, is there any positive story or a hopeful note with which we can leave our readers?
[MEL] The recent Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) bill is a good example of positivity in climate action, and there are smaller examples of this in states and counties across the country. We need to keep working towards big-scale systemic actions to keep the momentum rolling. The Outdoor State consists of roughly 170 million people. That’s a lot of people who have the ability to shift the response to climate change. We need to keep showing up in big ways, and I encourage everyone to get involved in their local and state politics as it relates to climate initiatives to protect the places we live and experiences we love. And if you don’t know what to do or where to start, look into becoming a member of Team POW and take POW’s free online educational series called Finding Common Ground: How to be a Climate Advocate. It’s an impactful community, providing you with the tools you need to become an effective advocate.

Neil Lareau. Photo: University of Nevada, Reno

Neil Lareau, member of POW Science Alliance, professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Nevada Reno; Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from the University of Utah

[TAYTE POLLMANN] When is the typical wildfire season in the United States and how are we seeing this shifting?
[NEIL LAREAU] There are many different regional variations in “fire season” throughout the U.S. Traditionally the east and northeast see a spring fire season, the pre-green-up period, where fuels can still be quite dry. In the Southwest, there is a large variability, but it is also focused on the late spring (May), then shuts off when the “monsoon” begins in the summer (July/August). For much of the West, the high-impact fire season typically ramps up in mid-July, crescendoing into the fall when a combination of very dry fuels and increased winds (think Santa Ana winds) can cause devastating fires. The primary shift that we’re seeing right now is the lengthening of the fire seasons, such that there are more days conducive to active fire throughout the year and an increase in the number of days prone to extreme fire conditions. This is a global phenomenon primarily driven by the warming of the atmosphere.

[TAYTE] Is there such a thing as a natural wildfire season that is beneficial for the environment? Or is it all human-caused?
[DR. NEIL] Fire is an intrinsic and valuable component of many ecosystems. Many forests and grasslands have co-evolved with fire, and most of the western U.S. needs fire to be part of the landscape. That will not change, nor should it. What is changing are two things, (1) humans now cause the majority of ignitions in some places, especially California, which puts more fire onto the landscape during critical fire weather conditions and (2) the way in which forests are burning is changing, with more and more acres burned at high severity. While some high severity fire is to be expected, what we’re seeing now is the climate-fueled drying of fuels and extreme summer heat, coupled with historically problematic fire suppression approaches, leading to explosive wildfires that devastate portions of the landscape.

[TAYTE] Aside from the obvious uncomfortable smoke in our lungs and ugly gray skies, how else do wildfires harm the environment and basic ways of living?
[DR. NEIL] The increase in severe wildfires coupled with increasing heat and summer aridity is leading to changes in forests and ecosystems. The forests and ecosystems that burned will be different from the forests and ecosystems that replace them, which in some locations means a loss of the places that we love and value. In California, for example, there has been a profound loss in deep and shady forests in the Sierra Nevada over the past 5-10 years, with the real prospect of those forests never returning to their prefire state. That means more open shrubland, which itself is likely to be hotter and drier. For runners, bikers, and hikers this means a real change to the landscapes that we recreate in. This also affects industries, including the timber industry that have been heavily hit in some areas (e.g., the northern Sierra Nevada)

[TAYTE] On this somber topic of wildfires, is there any positive story or a hopeful note with which we can leave our readers?
[DR. NEIL] While it’s tempting to end on a positive note, I think the reality is that we need to be prepared for the increasing role and impact of wildfires in our daily lives. We need to think about how to make our communities resilient to fire, to live with fire, moving forward. This includes everything from building codes to community lead efforts at reducing fire risk, including placing more “good fire” onto the landscape to protect our communities and resources. We also need to rapidly engage with large-scale systemic change in our energy portfolio to slow, and ultimately stop, the flooding of the atmosphere with climate warming CO2. One pathway to do that is to engage politically to support the development of renewable energy and transmission infrastructure.

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