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60 Minutes : The Age of Megafires

60 Minutes : The Age of the Megafire

60 Minutes : The Age of the Megafire

Last night on the television program "60 Minutes", reporter Scott Pelley traveled into the burning forests of the West to find out why we've been seeing more intense fires in the last few years. As is said in the report, more land burned in 2006 than in any previously recorded year, and 2007 is currently second worst (with a couple months left to go before it's all over).

Video: 60 Minutes - The Age of Megafires (11:25)

What's going on? Well, it isn't just Climate Change, but that is probably the biggest culprit. Warmer temps mean fire season starts earlier and end later than in years past, forest undergrowth doesn't contain the same levels of moisture they once did, and once rare fires in alpine environments are now more commonplace.

As a friend pointed out recently in email, in many areas, an increase in winter and spring precipitation may produce increased growth of fine fuels. In the Southwest in particular, we're expecting an expansion of cheatgrass. In forested areas, trees are likely to come under increasing moisture stress and be more prone to insects and diseases.

When wildland firefighters encounter a particularly intractable fire, they often state that they don't expect the fire to be actually extinguished until winter weather arrives. With climate change constricting what we know as winter, that may take on new meaning.

The US Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Lab has stated,

In most cases, climate change would lead to dramatic increases in both the annual area burned by California wildfires and the number of potentially catastrophic fires -- doubling these losses in some regions.

These changes would occur despite deployment of fire suppression resources at the highest current levels, implying that climatic change could precipitate an increase in both fire suppression costs and economic losses due to wildfires.

The latest predictions suggest that global warming may also create conditions that intensify wildfire danger, by warming and drying out vegetation, and by stirring the winds that spread fires.

Climate change would cause fires to spread faster and burn more intensely in most vegetation types.

Faster fires are much harder to contain, and thus are more likely to expand into residential neighborhoods, incurring substantial damage to insured property.


Sorry about that sir. Guess I should refer back to the list once in a while when responding. The Smokey reference was actually directed slightly above you, back to Frank and Anon. My error, and apology.

I remember the commercials.......and the "Only You" slogan. I still think the intent was good, as obviously only we can save ourselves from ourselves. Nature, being the bitch that She is, as Haunted Hiker confirmed, can and will do as She pleases, and good luck to anyone trying to prevent her from competion of her appointed task. Overgrown undergrowth (?) not withstanding, the inception of lightning induced fires is beyond the scope of our ability to control. The intensity of said fires, that's another matter completely. That's why the Native's practiced prescribed burns in the first place, to limit the rage of the fires. But as we all know, they were determined to be "ignorant savages", so how could we possibly learn anything from a people SO inferior to the Great White European tribes?

I, like Beamis, am no expert on the subject. All I can attest to is what I have personally witnessed. I have had camping trips affected by lightning-induced fires on the North Rim as recently as 2006, and was unfortunately part of the group to be unceremoniusly evicted from the park. Upon my return a week later, during an escorted passage along Hwy. 67, the "controlled burn" made for a rare opportunity for amatuer footage of how the park attempted to contain the spread, but how they were unable to prevent the periodic "crowning" event which is the most devastating portion of any fire. After a long conversation with some of those involved and with the rangers, I was made to believe that the "controlled" aspect was a regular practice, as it pertains to this location. That being the case, maybe Frank can lend a bit more insight as to why this practice is a sporadic event instead of a regular habit within the scope of the parks. It appeared to work well in the Kaibab National Forest, although some additional investigation led me to one particularly egg-on-the-face event back in the 90's that cost the same area a few thousand acres, that most agreed was the result of general incompetence by fire management personnel. But hey, nobody's perfect!

Again, just one more item...

"more land burned in 2006 than in any previously recorded year". Bear in mind that this "any previously recorded year" qualifier translates into a pretty small body of work, and as previously stated, I'm big on sample size. I don't buy into the media ploy of utilizing stunning titles to grasp the public eye. Before I label anything the "Age of .......", I want historical backing. Drought can be evidenced by studies on tree rings, among other things. Floods leave tell-tale signs, as do boom-times for growth. And even fires leave scorch-marks on whatever they leave behind, but I know of no historical research project ever conducted that sought to measure scope, intensity, frequency, or the other factors of previous burns, floods or drought. The reason is that as of yet the instrumentation to accurately define how much rain fell, how hot the fires were, and how much flooded exactly what region simply don't exist. Specific to drought conditions, even if you could measure how much rain fell, there is no historical precedent or measuring stick that allows for competent comparisons and accurate dissemination of the data that you've gathered. That's why I get such a kick out of the "Hundred Years Storm" dooms-dayers. Our weather records ony go back about 135 years, and they make the "Hundred Years" statment. It just can't be substantiated. Maybe that's why they feel safe with these preposterous statements. The best source of these data (specific to fire damage and water rates) would have been through intensive studies of long-lived trees in old-growth forests. Unfortunately, much of that information has been forever lost to the logging industry, and thier own particular brand of environmental mismanagement practices. Most assuredly, the acreage burning is significant. But that IS what forested regions are prone to periodically.

Re: Smokey
From: My forthcoming (someday?) book

In a way, I am very resentful of Smokey. Growing up, whenever I saw a blackened forest, I remembered those cartoon commercials where a group of talking animals gathered in an idyllic forest setting to celebrate Smokey’s birthday or just to hang out. It was a peaceful world where black bears and bunny rabbits co-existed in harmony and happy little birds sang beautiful melodies. And then a human forgot to put out a campfire, and all the animals scattered with looks of terror painted on their anthropomorphic faces as the forest erupted into a blazing inferno around them. Cut to devastation. As far as you could see, it looked as though someone had dropped an A-bomb; only charred skeletal trees remained; animals that weren’t burned to a crisp were now “homeless” and morosely surveyed the holocaust landscape as tears streamed down their faces. Then Smokey turned the camera and begged us to be careful with fire. It made me feel horrible. When I saw real blackened landscapes, all I could think about were all the sweet, innocent animals destroyed by the fire.

During my tenure as a ranger, I stumbled across a slide of a poster–probably from the 1940s or 1950s–that further illustrated how the Forest Service anthropomorphized animals to indoctrinate young children. The poster shows the usual scene of devastation in the background, and Smokey’s in the foreground, his shadily acquired NPS flat hat held respectfully across his chest. At his feet are two small mounds of earth marked with crosses; two young gophers kneel in prayer beside the graves, their small hands folded, their tiny heads bowed. In bold letters at the top of the poster:
PLEASE . . .

Please, indeed.

Fire, I’ve learned, has many effects on animals. But I’m relatively sure it doesn’t induce them to have Christian burials for their fallen brethren.

Smokey is one of the reasons why prescribed fire is such a hard sale; the public still holds major misconceptions about fire's necessity in the ecosystem. Thanks Smokey!

Rx fire produces smoke, and some local communities fight management ignitions 'cause people don't want to breathe smoke. However, the land will eventually burn, and with Rx fire, smoke impacts are far easier to mitigate than wildfire smoke. I could go on and on about crowning in different fuel and vegetation types, risk management, and modern fuel loads, which is the real culprit (it's easier and sexier to blame EVERYTHING on global warming), but I'll save it for another time.

I think your beliefs regarding the burial ceremonies are pretty secure. Thanks for the added info. But these communities who are against periodic smoke inhalation have no high ground, moral or otherwise. It reminds me of people who purchase homes near airports then complain about the noise, or those who choose to live in disaster prone regions then expect federal bail-outs when flooding or the like occurs. In terms of those in the fire regions, my advice to them would be to pick the intelligent lesser of two evils. Smoke every few years, or losing your precious belongings in a devastating inferno. Sounds like a no-brainer to me, but what do I know?

I don't know if you know it BUT many of the crew members are laid off each winter. They don't make much money and rank is slow to come. A family member of mine having been with the USFS as a sawyer for about 9 years, he will not jump to a local fire station for more money because he just doesn't feel right being paid for standing around. He is a loyal person and he worries about his crew member's. During the fire season he is away from his family and usually has to "Spike-Out" (Sleeps on the ground) hikes miles to get to the fire and lives on MRE's. he does this because he likes his job. There are still those that would rather work with their hands than move papers from one building to the next and cry about making "ONLY $18 dollars an hour" In the winter season they DO projects such as thinning out the brush to be burned. They don't always burn, they also have and use "Chippers" Being a sawyer he also has to risk his life falling dangerous trees called "Snags" that are rotten and diseased to keep them from falling on the general public that use the forests for recreation. While in Sequoia a few years ago the the USFS was burning between the redwoods to keep them healthy. Go to your nearest USFS Hotshot station and see for yourselves what they do. It might add a little insight to your perceptions that they DON'T earn their money. You may have been influenced by seeing your local firefightes waxing their trucks and taking in $50,000 + a year and having a business "On the Side"

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