How do wildfires affect the smell, taste and texture of bread? Wildfire Loaf is an ongoing research project to taste-test and genetically sequence sourdough starters made from smoke-tainted wheat. Climate change is increasing the number and severity of wildfires and this has direct implications for the ways that food products are farmed, assessed, processed and eaten. As we make connections across scales—from the microbial to the planetary—we are asking: what is the future of this iconic and commodified ingredient?
Wildfires impact many landscapes including the agricultural lands that are used to grow wheat. For the WILDFIRE LOAF project we are particularly interested in locations and moments where wildfires on or near wheat fields have impacted the crop, either by direct burning or through smoke taint. Wheat is graded before it is sold based on a number of factors, smoke taint being one of them. If increased fires will increase the number of crops with smoke taint, then value will decrease.
We have recently contacted the USDA to start the process of locating samples of smoke-tainted wheat to begin our testing and research into sequencing their microbial communities.
What is the ecology of fire? There are many types of fire that affect agricultural lands. The delineation is simple: a wildfire or brush fire is unplanned, unwanted, and uncontrolled. An agricultural burn is planned, wanted, and controlled.
Where are there wildfires? We are using this NASA Fire Map to track wildfires around the globe over time.
Where is wheat grown? We are using a variety of resources to track wheat production in different regions of the world. As new wildfires arise on agricultural land, we look for local tools to aid our research.
—In the US, we are using this interactive map.
—For the European Union, we are using this data browser.
Obtaining smoke tainted wheat will likely be a difficult task considering that most smoke tainted crops are considered waste. For this logistical reason, our investigation will start in locations where wheat and fire overlap with places that we live or where we have an established network of contacts. As we progress we may try to learn more about and include sites that we are less familiar with.
We need to find wheat affected by wildfires to conduct our experiments. We’re looking into these three recent wildfires that have impacted the harvest of wheat starting in 2018:
A. Oregon, United States: The 2018 Substation Fire
Over 50,000 acres were charred, destroying an estimated $5 million worth of soft white wheat just a few weeks into harvest season. Ripe wheat burns hot and fast because it’s dried out to less than 10% moisture this time of year before it’s harvested. Each crop takes two years to grow. This damaged 3% of Oregon’s $186 million wheat crop in 2018.
- CAUSE OF FIRE: this fire was man made
- WHEAT VARIETY AFFECTED: Soft White Winter
- USE: This variety used to make ramen noodles, steamed breads and flatbreads.
- MAP: Wheat Map
- REGIONAL INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION: Oregon Wheat Industry
B. Oise, France: The July 2019 Fire
More than 500 acres of wheat burned in this wildfire in the midst of harvest season. France is the European Union’s largest grain producer and exporter. Oise is the fifth largest producing department of soft wheat in France. The 2019/20 harvest of soft wheat fell 21% due to weather woes due to heavy rains in autumn and a drought in spring that caused sowing difficulties.
- CAUSE OF FIRE: a heatwave started this fire
- WHEAT VARIETY AFFECTED: Soft White
- USE: This variety is mostly used to make breads and crackers.
- MAP: Wheat Map
- REGIONAL INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION: French Wheat Industry
C. Perth, Australia: The February 2021 Wooroloo Fire
In early February, over 26,000 acres burned north east of the Perth central business district in the Wooroloo bushfire. It spread to several Shires in the wheatbelt including: Mundaring, Chittering, Northam and the City of Swan. Scientists have recently started researching the vast diversity of microbes, bacteria and fungi that are present in smoke plumes. This is difficult research to conduct as you need to know everything that fueled the fire, how long it burned, how severely it burned, and then find a way to capture samples. We’re just beginning to understand how smoke taint may be touchable and tastable.
- CAUSE OF FIRE: extreme heat started this brushfire
- WHEAT VARIETY AFFECTED: This region grows Australian Hard, Australian Premium White, Australian Standard Noodle, and Australian Standard White wheats.
- USE: These varieties are used to make breads, noodles, steamed and flat breads.
- MAP: Wheat Map
- REGIONAL INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION: Australian Wheat Industry
Often our research turns up more questions than answers. Here are a few we are starting to look into:
1. What happens to wheat that has been smoke tainted or worse yet burned? How is it analyzed and graded?
2. Can smoke-tainted wheat still be used to make bread that is safe to eat?
3. What happens to agricultural lands ravaged by wildfire and how are they restored for farming? How long does this process take?
4. How far away are affected agricultural lands? How far from a fire does wheat need to be grown to not be smoke tainted?