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

Myanmar Fighting Poses Dilemma for China

To gain some insight into conflict, VOA’s Steve Herman spoke with Min Zaw Oo, director of ceasefire negotiation and implementation at Myanmar Peace Center More

Australia Concerned Over Islamic State 'Brides'

Canberra believes there are between 30 and 40 Australian women who have taken part in terror attacks or are supporting the Islamic State terror network More

Recreational Marijuana Use Now Legal in Washington, DC

Law allows adults 21 and over to privately possess and smoke 0.05 kilogram of pot, and to grow small amounts of the plant 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.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More