USA – Burning down the South

Burning down the South

13 June 2007

published by

by Scott Henry

The wildfires that have swept through the Okefenokee this year are the largest in the lower 48 states in nearly a century. Do they portend a hotter future?

Like many natural disasters, the largest wildfire in Georgia history would normally be considered the love child of random happenstance and extraordinary opportunity.Joeff DavisCITY HAZE: One Atlantic Center was almost invisible through the smoke that blew into the city. The state sees an average of 8,000 forest and brush fires a year, but the vast majority are doused before they can burn an acre. The typical wildfire can be contained by a single ranger armed with a fire plow.

But not the fire that started April 16 along Sweat Farm Road, an unpaved forest-access route five miles southwest of Waycross in mostly rural Ware County. High winds toppled a tree into a power line, fanning the resulting sparks to ignite nearby brush left dry by the lack of rain. The same winds then urged the flames deep into the surrounding longleaf and loblolly pine forests.

The air itself was arid, with no hint of the humidity that usually accompanies the beginning of the oppressive South Georgia summer. Only a mile or so from the edge of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the sandy soil of the forest floor was parched; low-lying areas that usually held standing water or moist ground were bone-dry, and the swamp grasses and saw palmetto were browned and brittle from months of prolonged drought.

The strong winds, dry vegetation and low humidity had combined to create a near-perfect storm of wildfire conditions in the southeast corner of Georgia. Local forest rangers stood ready around the clock, but there was no way to predict when or where fire might strike. When the Sweat Farm Road fire burst into life, it raged through 18,000 acres in its first day – roughly 26 square miles.

Two months later, the fire has consumed more than 600,000 acres on both sides of the Georgia/Florida border, including most of the Okefenokee and tens of thousands of acres of commercial pine forests. Ware County is 300 miles from Atlanta, about as far south as you can travel without leaving Georgia, but metro residents haven’t needed to watch the news to realize how mind-blowingly enormous the fire has become. On several mornings last month, the haze of campfire-scented smoke that settled over intown neighborhoods and southern suburbs forced asthma sufferers indoors and kept the downtown skyline and the runways at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport suspended in a sooty brown fog.

Fire has been a seasonal threat in southeast Georgia ever since pine plantations began to replace cotton and tobacco as the area’s primary cash crop. The last great Georgia wildfires were a half-century ago, when a series of blazes in and around the Okefenokee began at the height of summer in 1954 and burned for a year.

But some climatologists wonder if this current fire – now deemed the largest wildfire in the lower 48 states since 1918 – can properly be classified as an entirely natural disaster. In future decades, they say, we may look back at the events of 2007 as the first real evidence of the impact of global warming on Georgia.

Is the fire ravaging Ware County simply part of a long-term environmental cycle, like a 100-year flood or a volcanic eruption? Or is it the first wave of a California-style wildfire season that will become an annual occurrence in Georgia? And, if so, is there anything we can do about it?

“Wildfires are normal,” NASA’s James Hansen tellsCL. “But the number and intensity of fires is expected to increase with global warming. The data shows that this is already happening, especially in the Western United States.”

Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Hansen is considered by many to be the original whistle-blower on the atmospheric “greenhouse effect” during congressional hearings in the 1980s and has been a well-known inside-the-government critic of the Bush administration’s response to the threat of global warming.

Hansen, however, is speaking here about wildfires in general. To ask a scientist whether the Georgia wildfires in particular were brought about in part by global warming is like asking a homicide detective if a recent murder could be the first in a string of serial killings. The logical response would be, “Wait till a few more people have been murdered and ask me again.”

GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE is already being blamed for longer and more destructive wildfire seasons in several Western states. A study published last year showed that, since the mid-’80s, spring weather has arrived earlier, summers have been hotter, and forests have, on average, been drier — all leading to larger, more intense wildfires, says Dan Cayan, director of the Climate Research Division of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and one of the study’s co-authors.

According to Cayan, there’s no way to know yet if the Georgia fires are linked to global warming. “But if climate models are accurate, we should expect further warming, which should result in more frequent fires,” he says.

Another well-known climatologist, however, disputes the entire notion of linking the South Georgia – or any – wildfires to climate change, even theoretically.

Jim O’Brien, retired director of the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies at Florida State University, insists that, for starters, existing global-warming models are not precise enough to predict or explain regional weather patterns – a position that already puts him at odds with scientists such as Cayan who are doing just that.

“The challenge for the next decade is to downscale our models to the regional level,” he says.

O’Brien says there’s a simpler explanation for the drought conditions that sparked the Georgia wildfires. The Southeast is extra crispy now in large part because last summer’s hurricane season was a fizzle. An unexpected El Niño episode had the effect of suppressing the atmospheric convection that allows tropical storms to grow, meaning South Georgia received much less rainfall than usual.

Finally, O’Brien says we can’t blame the fires on warming trends because the Southeast is actually a few degrees cooler now than it was a couple centuries ago. Part of the reason is because land that was cleared for farming doesn’t trap as much heat as the swamps the farms replaced. Also, a blanket of the same sulfate-rich smog that produces acid rain has had the effect of shielding the Southeast from some of the sunlight that hammers the Southwest – difficult as that may be to believe for anyone who’s sweated out a summer in Macon or Valdosta.


Jen KolbWILD FIRE: The fires that have swept through the Okefenokee have devoured nearly 900 square miles over the past two months.But environmental regulation in recent decades has succeeded in reducing the amount of sulfates released into the atmosphere, which means the regional cooling effect is not only slowing but reversing, says Ron Neilson, a bioclimatologist with the U.S. Forest Service. 

Neilson, widely considered one of the leading world experts on the subject of climate change, says there’s ample evidence to predict that Georgia will become hotter and drier over the coming century, making the state an ever-bigger target for wildfires.

In the short term, however, the country is likely to see more rain – part of a cycle Neilson has ominously dubbed “early green-up, later brown-down.”

“As the planet heats up, that increases evaporation,” he explains. “The water has to come back down, so there will be increased rainfall.”

The rain promotes the growth of vegetation – the “green-up” – which, in turn, draws more moisture out of the soil. As warming continues, however, the semipermanent high-pressure weather cells covering the planet are expected to expand, with much of the rainfall occurring at the edges of those cells, leaving their cores drier.

Since, during summer months, the Southeast is at the center of such a cell – called the Bermuda high – Georgia will gradually, and perhaps irreversibly, lose rainfall to the Northeast and Canada, cuing the “brown-down.” As the state becomes hotter and drier, wildfires will become more frequent and more intense. Damage to drought-weakened trees from disease and pine beetles would then worsen.

Eventually, some plants would simply stop growing here as the ecosystem becomes less hospitable. Out West, Neilson says, where forests of the indigenous pinon-juniper are slowly disappearing, the die-off is already happening.

THE CLIMATE MODELS that have been created in the past few years are built on vast amounts of data and are “extraordinarily complex,” Neilson says. They track changes in weather patterns since the beginning of the last century, and forecast future trends by taking into account the effects of global warming that most scientists agree began in the 1970s.

At least one prominent model predicts a series of massive, decadelong droughts for the Southeast that could transform much of South Georgia into a vast savanna – a sparse, sprawling grassland dotted with scattered trees. It’s worth noting, he says, that the area is at the same subtropical latitude as Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and southern Iraq. By the turn of the century, the lower part of the state could resemble the open prairies of Iowa or Kansas.

Or, Neilson says, the pine forests could enter a burn-and-rebirth cycle, disappearing and reviving over the course of decades. South Georgia is especially susceptible to uncontrollable burning because its flatness presents no natural impediments to the spread of wildfire.

In any case, he says, “The fires that are occurring there now tend to be consistent with the type of fires we would anticipate becoming more commonplace,” as global warming continues. And the fires themselves help hasten climate change through the smoke that releases vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

As for O’Brien’s argument that the current wildfires are the byproduct of last year’s El Niño, Neilson agrees – but says that doesn’t negate the influence of global climate change. Even age-old weather fluctuations, such as El Niño, can no longer be looked at in isolation.

“It’s difficult to say whether any particular weather event is linked to global warming and interdecadal variations,” Neilson says. “But current weather patterns over North America are affected by global warming. Any particular event is driven both by natural variability and planetary warming.”

Neilson has helped author several major reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations-sanctioned body recognized by the scientific community as providing the authoritative analysis of the status of global warming. The group’s latest report, “Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” released in April, describes a future plagued by near-biblical calamity.

Confirming that global warming is a man-made phenomenon, the study predicts a rise in average worldwide temperature of 3 to 5 degrees over the next century, resulting in the loss of coastal wetlands; harsher droughts, punctuated by severe floods; greater acidity in the oceans; widespread famine and water shortages; and a mass die-off of animal and plant species.


Scott HenryRISING SMOKE: The smoke from the fires in the Okefenokee traveled 300 miles north to blanket Atlanta.Climatologist Len Druyan, however, says he and his colleagues realized the IPCC report had reached some inaccurate conclusions where Georgia is concerned. The future will, he says, be even bleaker than predicted. 

“The models they used simulate precipitation too frequently in summer months for the Eastern United States,” says Druyan, director of the Columbia University Center for Climate Systems Research. “So the overall effect is a cold bias in the data. We find the difference is much higher temperatures.”

The unpredictability of tropical storms makes seasonal climate forecasts for the Southeast less certain than for other parts of the country, Druyan concedes. Still, he says, he hasn’t encountered any serious challenges to a widely read study he co-authored with NASA climate researcher Barry Lynn. Published in April in the Journal of Climate, the study grabbed headlines with predictions of average daily highs of 104 degrees during Georgia summers in the 2080s. To get a sense for what that feels like, visit Phoenix in mid-July. The highest temperature ever recorded in Georgia was a scalding 112 degrees in August 1983.

“Keep in mind that 104 is an average high,” Druyan stresses. “That means some days, it might only get up to 100, but other days it could reach 110.”

NEARLY THREE WEEKS after the start of the Sweat Farm Road fire, a lightning strike ignited a second large-scale blaze deep in the middle of the Okefenokee. A few weeks later, the so-called Bugaboo Scrub fire merged with its still-burning sibling to become the largest wildfire in the history of the lower 48 states.

Seen from the top of a 100-foot fire lookout tower a few miles west of Waycross, the South Georgia landscape is a flat, green carpet of pine crowns reaching nearly uninterrupted to the horizon in all directions. To the south, a long wall of chalky gray smoke rises from the trees until it blends into the clouds overhead.

It’s only when you drive the narrow, dusty forest roads that crisscross the county with such evocative names as Fire Break Road that you notice the tall, ramrod-straight pines are planted in tight, neat rows as far as the eye can see.

In sections of the forest where fire had swept through weeks before, the tree trunks are charred up to eye level, but a fresh layer of auburn pine needles covers the blackened ground, and shocks of bright green ferns line the roadsides. These areas are ripe candidates for a reburn, should the wind change. Some parts of the forest have been swept by fire three times already.

It’s important to note that containing a fire is not the same as controlling it. A primary reason the wildfire has been able to reach its epic size is that, inside the boundaries of the wildlife refuge, no one is lifting a finger to put it out.

Blaine Eckberg, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Okefenokee and other national properties, explains that because wildfire is a naturally occurring part of the forest life cycle, the time-honored policy is to let fire run its course.


Scott HenryFIRE WARNING: The lack of rain from the past hurricane season helped stoke the wildfires.Besides, he adds, the inaccessible, alligator-infested swamp is too hostile an environment for firefighting. 

“Things grow back quickly in the Okefenokee,” says Eckberg, who recently spent a two-week tour of duty in the Joint Information Center, a multiagency fire-intelligence hub housed in a spare office in the rear of the Waycross Chamber of Commerce building.

“We think the fire ultimately will have benefits for the swamp and pine forests,” he says.

While the fire could damage the habitat for such threatened species as the red-cockaded woodpecker, the gopher tortoise and the Eastern indigo snake, Eckberg says it will be a boon for ‘gators and fish because it will clear the swamp of built-up organic debris and reduce acidity in the water. The biggest downside of the fire inside the refuge, he says, is the replacement cost of canoe docks, boardwalks and outhouses.

“If this fire had stayed inside the refuge,” he says, “then we would have had one-twentieth of the number of people fighting it.”

As it is, the more than 1,800 firefighters who have been called in from as far away as Alaska have mainly worked to battle the fire when it encroaches onto private land.

They’ve been only partly successful. Even after prescribed burning had cleared the perimeter of the Okefenokee of most flammable ground cover, high winds pushed the fire outside the boundaries of the park at several points, where it endangered rural homesteads and torched thousands of acres of pine plantations.

Three weeks ago, the fire punched through the western edge of the refuge, spreading out in a long finger that easily tripled in size overnight. Traveling faster than a mile an hour, the fire effectively hopscotched forward as embers are carried up to half a mile by the wind to create a constellation of small flare-ups in its path.

During the day, helicopters drop massive bucket-loads of water collected from nearby ponds and reservoirs. At night, when the surrounding air has cooled, planes fly high overhead taking infrared snapshots of the area that reveal active hot spots as irregular blotches on the next morning’s planning map. Firefighters spend their time cutting fire breaks – wide, straight paths of bare sand – through the thick pine forests. Sometimes, as many as 24 bulldozers work feverishly in one place to stop the fire’s advance.

Commonly referred to as a swamp, the Okefenokee is technically a bog, because its moisture comes from rainwater rather than a spring or river. When there’s meager rainfall, as in recent months, the water table drops, drying out the peaty, compostlike soil. After a bog catches fire, Eckberg says, it usually continues to burn for a year, spreading underground until all available fuel has been depleted.

That’s why, two months into this fire, no one at the Joint Information Center talks about actually extinguishing what is now known as the Georgia Bay Complex wildfire.

Says Eckberg: “The only thing that will ultimately put this fire out is a significant rain event.”

See also

One step in the right direction

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