Why Wildfires Are a Growing Threat

  Why Wildfires Are a Growing Threat

31 August 2009

published by www.poynter.org

USA — As of Monday morning there were 21 wildfires burning in seven states, including 12 in California.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has listed information on its site about the effect of wildfires, explaining that “the secondary effects of wildfires, including erosion, landslides, introduction of invasive species, and changes in water quality, are often more disastrous than the fire itself.”

But fires are not all bad. The USGS pointed out that fire is natural and that “fire suppression can lead to more severe fires due to the buildup of vegetation, which creates more fuel.”

The U.S. Fire Administration has done research on the cause of wildfires [PDF]. “Human activity,” it found, “is seven times more likely to be the cause of a wildland fire than that of lightning strikes. As more people build homes in wildland areas, the job of the wildland firefighter becomes more complex.”
A 2007 CBS “60 Minutes” story said we may be living in the age of “mega-fires.”

A couple of years ago, scientists testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and said there are several reasons for the uptick in wildfire severity, including [PDF]:

(1) Increased forest density and fuels because of a century of fire exclusion (as firefighters extinguish smaller fires, fuel grows thicker.)

(2) Warming climate and increasing frequency and magnitudes of droughts

(3) Invasive species, such as cheat grass [PDF] and African buffel grass allowing fires to spread more readily across elevation gradients

(4) The increasing presence of people and built structures in these areas that are fire prone

The fire season, which usually starts in June, started in February in Texas because of a drought there.

Bloomberg reported that fires have been growing worldwide — in Canada, Australia and elsewhere:

” ‘Canadians consider this year’s fires to be extraordinary and extreme,’ Johann Goldammer, director of the Global Fire Monitoring Center, said in an interview from Freiburg, Germany. “Globally, things are developing for the worse.’

“Douglas fir, spruce, pine and other trees in western North America are going up in smoke amid temperatures that have risen as much as 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit) a decade since the 1970s, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a January report. In B.C., twice as many fires are burning this year as last year, with more than 500 square kilometers blackened.

“Many of the blazes are caused by lightning, with most of the province ‘tinder dry,’ B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said on July 31. Hot, dry conditions in Alaska, which borders B.C. to the northwest, have led to a ban on commercial logging on state land, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center [PDF].

” ‘Wildfires are becoming more severe and more people are being affected than in the past, Goldammer said. ‘Many fire-affected ecosystems are less able to recover from fires.’ “

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