Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Scorched Earth

"We now have year-round fire seasons, and you can say it couldn't get worse than that."
"We expect from the changes that it can get worse."
Matt Jolly, United States Forest Service

"Recently, the job [of fire-fighting] has become increasingly difficult due to the effects of climate change, chronic droughts and a constrained budget environment in Washington."
Tom Violsack, U.S. Agriculture Secretary

"It's a wonderful new world, where I can live anywhere I want. I want to live in the woods, but the woods are now flammable, much more flammable than they used to be."
"It adds up to more people dying, more houses burning, and agencies devoting more than half of their fire budget to defending homes."
Ray Rasker, Headwaters Economics, fire prevention consultants
Photo published for At least half of Canadian city evacuated as wildfire engulfs homes
The world has been alerted to a new reality. Call it yet another symptom of Climate Change. Wildfires continue to ignite in the American West now during the fall, and even during the winter months where once high summer was the critical time for wildfires. Wildfire season has come sooner than ever in Canada, and wildfires now burn without let-up in Australia, for a period of up to a year, increasingly difficult to extinguish.

It is not only wildfires, of course, but in some parts of the world torrential rain that brings mudslides and floods engulfing homes and towns. There is something to be said about common-sense municipal bylaws that forbid building in environmentally vulnerable places like floodplains and like heavily forested areas where clearly threats will arise from time to time. This is called a proactive approach, instead of being reactive.
Photo published for Mayor issues warnings as fire situation in Fort McMurray intensifies
Fort McMurray, Alberta, May 2016, CBC News

There is less moisture in some geographies on the land, and drier landscapes are ripe for spontaneous fires when lightning strikes. Spring seasons warmer than usual pull moisture into the air and in turn shrub, brush and grass is turned into kindling; the perfect environment for raging, unstoppable wildfires. Traditionally when fires have erupted all stops are pulled out for fire crews to extinguish them expeditiously.

Only in the last few years have scientists in botanical studies and foresters begun to realize that nature knows what she is doing when a wildfire consumes a tract of forest past its prime(climax) and it burns down to the ground so that natural regeneration can take place. Of course without a fire natural regeneration takes place as well, and often the corpses of old growth trees become nurseries for their successors.

But in these climax forested areas overgrown forests also present the perfect medium for a wildfire to thrive. Four million hectares burned last year in the United States, setting a record. The costs associated with fighting those fires also rose exponentially, from $240 million in 1985 to $2 billion last year alone. Seven firefighters died and 4,500 homes burned in 2015 wildfires.

"I'm worried about a runaway fire season", Randy Jandt, a fire ecologist with the Alaska Fire Science Consortium admitted. Dry conditions leading to fires that burn out of control of any human agency no matter how well co-ordinated and skilled represents a nightmare of substantial proportions, costly in the loss of timber, of natural spaces and wildlife havens, and in firefighting services.
Photo published for All of Fort McMurray evacuated as wildfire intensifies
Mandatory evacuation, May 3, 2016, Fort McMurray, Alberta, CBC

Thee is no general agreement, however, on best practices to be followed in response to the ongoing and exacerbated problem. There are some fire ecologists who insist fires should take their natural course and in the process clear out the thick, dry brush on the forest floor. And though it sounds sensible, there's a hitch in that plan as greater numbers of people move into wild lands now protected by firefighters because of their presence.

In February, the state of Hawaii used up all its annual funding allocation set aside for wildfire response, and the busy summer fire season hasn't even arrived yet. Concentrated efforts on safeguarding communities and watersheds are increasingly the choice of fire crews. In so doing they also decrease the risks they face in fighting fires.

Instructors at the Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy emphasized the "indirect attack" strategy representing the safest and most common method to confront the large, hot and volatile blazes of today. Crews carve out a fire line which is a buffer zone devoid of anything combustible and distanced from the fire's edge.

The vegetation standing between the fire and the fire line is then burned, the process depriving the flames of the fuel it needs to sustain the fire. According to Dan Steward, a supervisor at the academy, fires were small enough 20 years earlier so that dirt trails (or old cart tracks) like those used by all-terrain vehicles, were sufficient to stop the wildfires.

"Now, you can put a six-lane highway between our crew and the fire and, still, the fire will jump it", he commented.

Photo published for Fort McMurray evacuated as wildfire destroys homes, threatens downtown
Wildfire destroys homes, threatens downtown as Fort McMurray evacuated, May 3, 2016, CBC News

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