Monday, October 22, 2007

Earth, Wind, and Fire

This morning, Chief blogged about the Washington Post's series of articles on global warming, the fourth of which is in that paper today. The article, by Doug Stark, is about the speed at which the polar ice caps are melting because of rising temperatures, the dire effect that is having on animal and plant life in the Arctic and Antarctic, and the implications for human life worldwide as a result of rising sea levels.

But melting ice caps and rising sea levels are not the only environmental changes attributable to atmospheric warming. Last night, 60 Minutes' Scott Pelley had a segment about "mega-fires," caused by warming temperatures, that are raging through forest lands in the Western part of the country:

Every year you can count on forest fires in the West like hurricanes in the East, but recently there has been an enormous change in Western fires. In truth, we've never seen anything like them in recorded history. It appears we're living in a new age of mega-fires -- forest infernos ten times bigger than the fires we're used to seeing.
60 Minutes joined up with Tom Boatner, who after 30 years on the fire line, is now the chief of fire operations for the federal government.

"A fire of this size and this intensity in this country would have been extremely rare 15, 20 years they're commonplace these days," Boatner says.

"Ten years ago, if you had a 100,000 acre fire, you were talking about a huge fire. And if we had one or two of those a year, that was probably unusual. Now we talk about 200,000 acre fires like it's just another day at the office. It's been a huge change," he says.

Asked what the biggest fires now are, Boatner says, "We’ve had, I believe, two fires this summer that have been over 500,000 acres, half a million acres, and one of those was over 600,000 acres."

"You wouldn’t have expected to see this how recently?" Pelley asks.

"We got records going back to 1960 of the acres burned in America. So, that's 47 fire seasons. Seven of the 10 busiest fire seasons have been since 1999," Boatner says.

We stand to lose the better part of America's forests to these monster fires:
"Where do you think all this is headed?" Pelley asks,

"As fires continue to burn, these mega-fires continue to burn, we may see ultimately a majority, maybe more than half of the forest land converting to other forest, other types of ecosystems," Swetnam says.

"Wait a minute. Did you just say that there's a reasonable chance we could lose half of the forests in the West?" Pelley asks.

"Yes, within some decades to a century, as warming continues, and we continue to get large scale fires," Swetnam replies.

Swetnam says that this is what we have to look forward to. He estimates, in the Southwest alone, nearly two million acres of forest are gone and won't come back for centuries. The hotshots are already planning for the next fire season. In 2006, the feds spent $2 billion on fire fighting, seven times more than just ten years ago.

Global warming skeptics? Not among the men who are fighting these fires:
"You know, there are a lot of people who don't believe in climate change," Pelley remarks.

"You won't find them on the fire line in the American West anymore," Tom Boatner says. "'Cause we've had climate change beat into us over the last ten or fifteen years. We know what we’re seeing, and we're dealing with a period of climate, in terms of temperature and humidity and drought that's different than anything people have seen in our lifetimes."

I don't know if climate change has anything to do with the fires that are burning up large parts of Southern California right now, but it certainly sounds like the number and intensity of those fires is up significantly compared to other years. According to Reuters, 10 separate fires are burning uncontrolled from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

Joe Gandelman lives in the area:
The skies in Lebec, right outside “The Grapevine” incline that takes travelers upwards towards Los Angeles, are bright blue at the center — and speckled with increasingly darker shadings of brown stemming from the bottom of the horizon.

The winds blow — winds strong enough to fan spreading fires. Which is what they’re doing.

Starting as far North as Stockton, you see more emergency vehicles such as firefighting trucks on the road as usual. And the further down towards L.A. you drive, the more you see a virtual caravan of emergency fire trucks — often pale green trucks. One count at one point: six of them.

Inside the Starbucks here in Lebec — the busiest Starbucks in North America –you can see ash alongside the trim of the cafe’s walls. You can feel the accumulating ash on the floor. The laptop on which this is being written has a notable coat of ash on the keys and surface, because each time a customer walks in, more ash blows in.

In Malibu, radio reports chronicle yet another Mother Nature crisis for a city favored by fat-cat business people and movie stars who apparently don’t bother reading newspapers and don’t realize what a risky place it can be if you want to hold onto your property for a long period of time. In San Diego, many local schools have been canceled for the day due to fires spreading there. The I-15 highway that leads from San Diego all the way North (the road you take to Vegas) was closed for a while today. Now it is open again (but for how long?).

We won’t use the trite phrase “it’s deja vu all over again” but Southern Californians have been there, done that, seen the region suffer a massive financial and environmental blow, with property destroyed, families homes wiped out, shelters popping up to house displaced residents, and forests burned black with horrific tales of animals dying in fires or being trapped to bleed to death on wire fences as they fled in terror. This summer some resident friends noted that the naysayers were wrong..why, you could now see the burned-out areas steadily turning green again. Will the fire put them back to singed square one?

It hasn’t reached that stage yet…again…but there are fears it will. The fires have the potential — as Southern California residents learned several years ago — to damage the region for years.

1 comment:

Chief said...

I take an interest in forest fires for several reasons beyond the destructive power they have.

The last 15 years of my working life was with the U.S. Forest Service which is the lead U.S. fire fighting agency. And I spent 17 days in August of 2000 in Hamilton, Montana assisting in the effort to suppress the Skalkaho Complex of fires. Burned about 175,000 acres. At the peak of the effort there were over 1000 firefighters in this fire, which was one of 30 or 40 or 50 fires that year.

I saw part of that show last night. Wildland firefighters certainly have my respect. Fire can be an awesome enemy. Unpredictible.

I think anyone would be a fool to claim that global warming had no relation to the cause in the increase in size and frequency of the fires. There may not be any evidence linking the two, but common sense tells me that there might be a connection