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Why the West is ablaze.
July 10, 2008 8:56 PM   Subscribe

Why the West is ablaze.

Wildfires are burning throughout the western United States, charring roughly 3 million acres thus far this year and covering the west in smoke.

Campaigns such as Smokey Bear have molded public opinion to believe that wildfires are always harmful to nature. However, fire is an integral component to the function and biodiversity of many communities.

To help address the potential for catastrophic fires, the House just passed the FLAME act, which will fund firefighting efforts and requires the development of a comprehensive strategy to address wildfires.
posted by clearly (28 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
The FLAME Act?
And they'll all wear neon pink jumpers while waging pathetic verbal wars online?

Am so gonna get flamed by this one.
posted by liza at 9:03 PM on July 10, 2008


previously
posted by ninjew at 9:28 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Let me put down my cigarette and my old-style coke bottle and I'll take a look at it.
posted by Artw at 9:29 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


requires the development of a comprehensive strategy to address wildfires.

1. Cut down all the trees
2.
posted by salvia at 9:32 PM on July 10, 2008 [4 favorites]


I can't find the statistics this minute, but isn't this a less intense fire year than the last couple of years? The difference is that a bunch of houses in California are being threatened, so there's a lot of attention on the fires, even though the sheer acreage isn't all that great.

Last year much of the west really was covered in smoke; this year it's a rhetorical device in the article. Still, that's small comfort if you've had to evacuate your house.

My take, as a long-time westerner, is that this article is late to the party -- the new fire reality is old news, and people have been starting to adjust for some years now. The toughest choices will be in places where houses have been built deep into the areas that need to burn (California especially, but all the western states are affected by this); more houses are going to burn every year, and more of the fire fighting costs are going to end up being carried by homeowners in those places.

Honestly, that's only for the better -- if the price people pay for living there comes closer to the true cost, then maybe fewer houses will get built in some of those places, and more attention will be paid to issues of landscape and design to mitigate the danger.
posted by Forktine at 9:44 PM on July 10, 2008 [6 favorites]


My take, as a long-time westerner, is that this article is late to the party -- the new fire reality is old news, and people have been starting to adjust for some years now. The toughest choices will be in places where houses have been built deep into the areas that need to burn ... Honestly, that's only for the better -- if the price people pay for living there comes closer to the true cost, then maybe fewer houses will get built in some of those places

Or they'll just pave over nearby grasslands.
posted by delmoi at 9:48 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Last week the opposite side of our mountain range was subjected to yet another prescribed burn. Here is some video footage from one of the earlier prescribed burns. Coincidentally tomorrow I'll be hiking to Stanley Glacier, an area that was devastated by a forest fire in the late 60s but which is now covered in fresh growth.

People used to think forest fires were a bad thing, but lodgepole pine, which is indigenous to all the Rockies, have pine cones that require the high heat of fire to open up. Wouldn't you know it, they are the first trees to grow in a new growth forest, and after one hundred years they start dying and other types of trees enter the population. When you suppress the natural occurence of forest fires then the forests get too fragile, becoming susceptible problems such as the pine beetle. Some have already tried to kill two birds with one fiery stone, but unfortunately not only have studies shown that controlled burns reduce pine beetle populations by little more than 50% (pdf), an unfortunate side effect has been that the updrafts from controlled burns can leapfrog pine beetles into uninfected forest over great distances.

One of the many causes of these forest fires has been the suburban sprawl of residential and cottage homes in the North American landscape, which makes it difficult if not entirely impossible to have controlled burns. This will only become a bigger problem as the pine beetle continues to kill trees leaving behind a tinderbox waiting to be lit. Nature will correct itself sooner than later.
posted by furtive at 9:52 PM on July 10, 2008 [4 favorites]


Forktine, the stats are in the "Wildfires" link.
posted by clearly at 9:58 PM on July 10, 2008


Since the end of World War II, people have streamed into the West, injecting houses and roads and towns into places they never existed before. In the 1990s, eight million new homes sprouted along the borders of parks and forests, where fires regularly start. The government spends exorbitantly attempting to defend property in these areas. Formally this is known as the wildland-urban interface. Some firefighters call it the stupid zone.

Speaking as a former resident of that zone, I still have to admit that's pretty funny.
posted by spiderwire at 10:20 PM on July 10, 2008


One thing a forest firefighter explained to me, and I did not see mentioned, is that in the natural cycle, fires burn through every few years, turning dead wood and underbrush into fertilizer and reinvigorating the system. When you don't let the forest burn as it would naturally, the underbrush and dead wood accumulates. Then, when it does inevitably catch fire, the whole forest ends up going, devastating the entire ecosystem. It burns hotter and longer, and not much is left standing. This is one of the reasons behind controlled burns, but because of the scope of the problem and frequent proximity of houses, they are often not enough to really address the problem.
posted by sophist at 10:23 PM on July 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


when I build my forest retreat it's going to have a big-ass mylar cover for it, for fire emergencies.
posted by yort at 10:38 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Last year much of the west really was covered in smoke; this year it's a rhetorical device in the article.

I don't know about the rest of the west, but this year California really is covered in smoke. Today at 5 PM under a cloudless sky I could gaze easily at the Sun. Visibility was about a half mile at noon. I'm smack dab in the middle of the central valley, far from any actual wildfires. It's been this way for weeks.
posted by yath at 10:57 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm an Australian forest manager, so this issue is very close to my heart.

Unfortunately at this time on a friday arvo (mmm, beer o'clock) I can't think of anything to say, except that I love the smell of burning gum tree in the morning.
posted by wilful at 11:15 PM on July 10, 2008


Wild fire is not just a growing problem in the West. Increasingly, in the American South, summer fire season is becoming an expensive annual occurence. In May and June of 2007, hundreds of thousands of acres of South Georgia and North Florida burned, shutting down Interstate highways (I-10, I-75 and I-95), sometimes for days, and the Okefenokee Swamp fire (otherwise known as the Bugaboo scrub fire) eventually consumed more than 400 square miles of timber, much of it in areas that are normally wetlands. Early in May of 2007, when the Okefenokee fire was at "only" 88,000 acres (of the nearly 600,000 acres it eventually consumed), it put out a plume of smoke that spread out over much of the Gulf of Mexico, and resulted in daily air quality advisories that affected millions of people.

In concert with the disastrous hurricane seasons since 2004, the result has been sharply escalating home insurance costs, and even the availability of insurance, that are causing people to think differently about building homes in some areas, and forcing the state of Florida into the property re-insurance business. Good post, clearly, but one whose topics are applicable across much of the U.S., sadly.
posted by paulsc at 11:22 PM on July 10, 2008 [4 favorites]




Immediately after 9-11 I thought the next low hanging fruit for terrorists was going to be thousands of cheap timed incendiary devices planted all over the country in national parks set to go off on the same day. I'm not sure, but I think we'd be pretty screwed if every fire fighting force in the country couldn't contain the problem, especially given the built up fuel load from decades of fire suppression.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:14 AM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


yort, you're probably going to wind up with a mess. PETF (Mylar) melts at 490°F. You'd be better off with Nomex which doesn't melt. (It carbonizes at 900°F)
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:19 AM on July 11, 2008


Why the West is ablaze.

I was expecting an article on California's medicinal marijuana program. ::grumble::
posted by LordSludge at 6:38 AM on July 11, 2008


Forktine, the stats are in the "Wildfires" link.

Thanks, I missed that on the first read-through. My memory was faulty -- it was 2006 that was the big year; so far 2008 is looking pretty much like 2007, except with a rather different distribution of fires.
posted by Forktine at 6:40 AM on July 11, 2008


Thanks, I missed that on the first read-through. My memory was faulty -- it was 2006 that was the big year; so far 2008 is looking pretty much like 2007, except with a rather different distribution of fires.

Yeah, all that stuff is burned already and will take a while to grow back. Many of the places that burned around here last year, and even back in 2003, are still pretty barren, with just wildflowers and other grasses. The fires in SoCal get really bad when they get into the shoulder-high chapparal areas.

Also, in reference to it "not being so bad" this year: at least in SoCal, we're not really into heavy fire season yet. That'll be from late August through mid-October, when we start getting Santa Ana winds and all the brush is good and dry from the Summer.
posted by LionIndex at 7:39 AM on July 11, 2008


1998 in Florida was bad, too. I-95 was closed by a wall of fire, and an entire county had to be evacuated.
posted by oaf at 8:03 AM on July 11, 2008


While I agree that our forest management techniques have been a little odd for the past 100+ years, the real problem in Northern California this year was the dryest spring on record and two weekends of dry lightning storms that came through. Nothing would have stopped that.

And to echo yath above, something not being mentioned on the national news is the whole valley is full of smoke. Not a little either. We are about a hundred miles from the big fire near Chico and I turned on my lights this morning on the way to work. It has been this way for almost three weeks.
posted by Big_B at 8:22 AM on July 11, 2008


When I was younger Smokey the Bear told me that only I could prevent forest fires. That's a lot of responsibility you know, and I took that responsibility to heart, so everytime I heard a news report of a wildfire I would cry for hours. Years later, after I realized that I'd been duped I started torching fields, then wooden structures and eventually...bears. Stupid bears.
posted by anoirmarie at 8:45 AM on July 11, 2008 [5 favorites]


but isn't this a less intense fire year than the last couple of years?

I don't see how anyone can make that statement when the fire season has only just started. Generally, the worst of it is in August and September.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:24 AM on July 11, 2008


The west is burning, the southeast is in a drought, the upper midwest just had massive floods, our glaciers are disappearing, the coral reefs are dying, bees are disappearing, etc. The drumbeat of climate change is loud and clear to me. Massive human population die-off should be arriving within a decade or four, if not sooner. I'm glad I had no kids, because this is truly a fucked up planet to be leaving them to deal with (and pay for). I'm even more glad that I'm an optimist!
posted by jamstigator at 10:52 AM on July 11, 2008


I'm even more glad that I'm an optimist!

I'm glad I live in Maine.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:14 PM on July 11, 2008


Echoing yath and Big_B.

It's been three weeks since the smoke descended here; we've had one or two clear days since then. I, too, looked directly at the sun yesterday evening, mostly because I could. The light on the ground has been orange. Shadows are otherworldly. The moon last night was burnt orange. (Which almost made me want to say "Hook 'em," but not quite.)

I've stayed inside for the past couple days, but when I exhale, I can taste smoke.

Over 4th of July weekend, we traveled 500 miles around Northern California and the Northern Sierra, and we didn't find a single place that hadn't been affected by smoke.

I'm sure the statistics are accurate, that this year isn't "as bad" as previous years. But they're just that -- they're statistics. They don't take into account the fact that so many more people are affected right now than when the big fires burned last year in, say, San Diego. It's not just affecting he people whose houses are near the fire lines. There are tens of thousands of people, hundreds of miles away from the fires, who are feeling the negative effects.

My lungs, they feel like burning.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:50 PM on July 11, 2008




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