News / USA

High-Intensity 'Megafires' a New Global Danger

High-Intensity 'Megafires' a New Global Dangeri
X
November 27, 2013 6:25 AM
Australia, Indonesia, Russia, Greece - these are just a few countries where massive wildfires have broken out in recent years. In the western United States, three brutal blazes devastated parts of the region just this summer. VOA’s Mark Snowiss reports.

High-Intensity 'Megafires' a New Global Danger

In many parts of the world, the prevalence of massive, high-intensity wildfires that were rare only a couple decades ago has been increasing at an alarming rate.
 
Australia’s 2009 Black Saturday fires, the deadliest civil disaster in that country’s history, killed 173 people, destroyed more than 2,030 houses and incinerated whole towns. In 2010, several hundred fires in Russia burned about 2.3 million hectares and covered Moscow with toxic smoke.
 
Over the past several years, similar catastrophic wildfires have occurred in numerous countries, including Greece, Israel, Indonesia, Canada, Botswana and Brazil. In the United States, at least nine states have suffered their worst wildfires on record since 1998.
 
While ignition sources vary (some of the fires were set deliberately for agricultural purposes), fire scientists say most so-called megafires stem from a combination of climate change-induced drought, land use and human mismanagement that has combined to turn landscapes into tinderboxes.
 
"It’s almost like the return of the ancient plague - we’ve recreated the conditions that make massive fires possible, and they are revisiting us in very harmful ways," said Arizona State University's Stephen Pyne.
x

The term “megafire” was coined about a dozen years ago in the United States to illustrate the fact that only 1-2 percent of all wildfires had come to account for more than 85 percent of costs and burned area. Similar trends are happening elsewhere.
 
"In the western United States, we have larger fires occurring over a longer period of time. The fire season - what we have to deal with - is really changing," said Bill Kaage, Wildland Fire Operations Director for the U.S. Park Service at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho.
 
The numbers are startling. According to the NIFC, 82,591 wildfires in the U.S. burned nearly 1.2 million hectares in 1985. Yet it took only 67,774 fires to consume more than 3.7 million hectares in 2012 - more than a threefold increase.
 
Drought, Land Use and Fuel
 
A 2011 United Nations report that examined eight recent megafires cited the "cumulative effects of global warming," particularly the onset of "more pervasive, worldwide drought," as a factor in all but one of the fires. Hot, dry, windy conditions also contributed to their intensity.
 
x
Another key element is how land is used, including decades spent protecting sprawling new communities in the developed world's fire-prone areas by aggressively putting out all wildfires.
 
That policy, called suppression, is politically safe, but has failed in every country naturally prone to fire that has tried it, according to ASU’s Pyne, a fire historian.
 
"As a temporary fix, when you’re facing a nominal fiscal emergency, or some other issue, when the smoke is on the horizon, and the TV cameras are out, it seems like an easy solution to call in the troops, bring in the airplanes and the helicopters, bomb it away, and then the problem is gone. All we’ve done is put it off," said Pyne.
 
In other words, suppression creates more dangerous fires later by allowing the build-up of fuel - lower vegetation that can carry fire to the crowns of taller trees.
 
"Where fires used to burn low-intensity and clean the forest, now they’re burning high-intensity and destroying the forest," said Oregon forester Marc Barnes.
 
  • This ponderosa pine forest shows how fire has played its natural role. The trees are spaced widely enough to allow them to survive low-intensity fires and there is little lower vegetation. (National Interagency Fire Center)
  • This pine forest has too many young shrubs and trees, which would allow fire to burn hot and high enough to kill many of the more mature trees. (National Interagency Fire Center)
  • This forest is thickly overgrown and has an unnaturally high amount of biomass, or fuel. A low-intensity fire here would likely grow into a crown fire, killing almost all of these trees. (National Interagency Fire Center)

Land use changes in Greece and Portugal, brought on by economic development, have been dramatic. In those nations, fuel build-up has occurred as migrants move into - not out of - cities, leaving large tracts of formerly cared-for land untended.
 
The Soviet collapse offers yet another scenario, said Pyne, as "Russia and [the successor states of the USSR] have been unable to muster the kind of large-scale fire response they had before."
 
Rising Costs
 
In 1985, the U.S. government spent $240 million putting out wildland fires on public and private lands. By 2012, these suppression costs had risen eightfold, to $1.9 billion.
 
Total federal appropriations for wildland fire management have more than doubled since the late 1990s, averaging $2.9 billion annually in recent years.
 
A key factor driving up costs is the expansion of residential development - exurban sprawl - in and near wildlands, an area often called the wildland-urban interface.
 
​Since 1970, rural and low-density housing communities in these areas have grown by more than 50 percent, according to fire ecologist and former U.S. Forest Service firefighter Crystal Kolden, writing in The Washington Post.
 
Numerous studies cite fuel build-up and drought - resulting in less snowpack and drier forests - as other major factors creating more intense fire seasons. Additionally, firefighting resources, such as air support, crews and equipment, are becoming more expensive.
x

However, costs also are represented in lost lives and property, ecological damage and increased greenhouse gas emissions.
 
In June 2013, the Black Forest fire in Colorado destroyed 511 houses. Weeks later, Arizona’s Yarnell Hill fire killed 19 highly trained firefighters, members of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots.
 
Nearly simultaneously, wildfires in Indonesia - illegally set to convert forest and peat lands into palm oil plantations - sent thick haze billowing across borders, leading to one of Southeast Asia's worst air pollution crises.
 
The Way Forward
 
In 2009, the U.S. Congress passed the Flame Act, which mandated a National Cohesive Strategy to fight wildfires, a move Pyne called "bold, but underfunded."
 
The legislation attempts to coordinate all levels of government, private landowners and NGOs to, as he wrote, "protect against bad fires, promote good ones, and assemble a workforce and the resources to do so."
 
Barnes cited Oregon's Applegate Partnership as an example of a local non-profit he called "the future for dealing with these issues in the rural West."
 
Florida, in the southeastern U.S., and Western Australia state offer more examples where - despite severe drought - firefighting costs and damages have been greatly reduced. The U.N. report cited "prescribed burn projects" and "other community-based fire management initiatives" as key factors.
 
Calls also are increasing for communities in fire-prone areas to retrofit buildings with fire-resistant materials, impose fire taxes and zoning reforms, and for insurance companies to either charge more to protect homes in vulnerable landscapes or abandon them entirely.
 
U.S. government priorities - and funding - need to shift away from suppression and into such preventive measures, including fuel reduction, Barnes said.
 
"Otherwise, we’re going to see increasingly bigger fires, spend more money and get a lot less done because so much of [the federal wildland fire] budgets are eclipsed by the money for suppression," he said.
 
Kaage acknowledged the federal deficit has forced agencies like his to cut their relatively small hazardous fuel reduction budgets - despite recent policy reforms that recognize the essential role fire plays in sustaining natural ecosystems.
 
"That's a choice we've had to make to ensure we have the engines and the crews available to us for a response. But that doesn't mean we can't be smart about where we treat the fuels and how we treat them to prepare for the arrival of fire," he said.

Mark Snowiss

Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

You May Like

Conflicts Engulf Christians in Mideast

Research finds an increase in faith-based hostilities, and Christians are facing persecution in a growing number of countries in the region More

Chinese Americans: Don’t Call Us 'Model Minority'

Label points to collective achievement, but some say it triggers resentment, unrealistic expectations More

Iran Bolsters Surveillance of Phones, Internet

Does increased monitoring suggest the government is nervous? More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Polish Ghetto

When the Nazi army moved into the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid