Fires are the sum of our choices


Category:  Environment/Climate

Via:  outis  •  3 months ago  •  5 comments

Fires are the sum of our choices

The return of the "urban firestorm" is a result of climate change, fire suppression and ecology


California's wildfires get more coverage in the US, but other countries have had even worse damage.

Chile's fires were horrific.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

Ibrahim Rayintakath

The return of the “urban firestorm” could have been avoided. Now it can’t.

In early February, the deadliest South American wildfires in a century  swept through  Valparaiso, Chile, killing more than a hundred people. It was almost six months to the day since the deadliest American fires in a  century  killed a hundred people when flames tore through Lahaina, in Maui, burning up much of Hawaii’s precolonial capital and forcing local residents to jump into the ocean for safety, the flames leaping over them to ignite the boats docked in the harbor.

Two record-setting episodes of fire death in the span of one half year may once have looked like a world-historical ecological coincidence, but it has been a year of fire extremes — and a year in which the world has mostly whistled past them. In the United States, mercifully little land burned — only 2.6 million acres, which was less than half the  recent average . But in Canada, fires ate through  more than twice  as much forest as the country’s previous modern record, the total burn scar large enough that more than half the world’s countries could fit inside. In Greece, one fire forced the country’s  largest-ever evacuation , and another became the  largest fire  in the history of the European Union. And in Australia, the bush fire season has burned over 150 million acres — three times more land than burned last year in Canada, and more than twice as much land as was destroyed in Australia’s “Black Summer” of 2019-2020, when Sydney Harbor was so choked with smoke that ferries  couldn’t navigate  the waters, at least  a billion  animals were consumed by flames, and panicked evacuees had to be  rescued  from the beach by military helicopter.

When the fire historian Stephen Pyne says that we are now living in the “pyrocene,” this is part of what he means: Forest fires are  now burning  twice as much tree cover, globally, as they did just 20 years ago, and the world is quickly inuring itself to that fact. In parts of the world as far-flung as Fort McMurray, Alberta; Lahaina, Hawaii; Boulder County, Colo.; and now Valparaiso, Chile — where at least 15,000 homes have been  destroyed  — the new age of fire has produced what the climate scientist Daniel Swain  has called  the return of the “urban firestorm.” Of the 10 deadliest fires anywhere on earth since 1900,  five have occurred since 2018 .

How did it get this way? The intuitive, conventional answer is climate change. But where people choose to live matters, too. And in the United States, especially, you increasingly hear a somewhat contrarian explanation that emphasizes fire suppression rather than warming.

That just-so story goes something like this: Beginning in the early 20th century, motivated particularly by horrific and deadly fires, Americans began a broad effort to suppress them by snuffing out any nascent blaze — no matter how remote or nonthreatening. They were so successful that over the course of many decades, the landscape accumulated an enormous amount of excess dry forest, which would have long since burned in the absence of human intervention. Instead, it was poised to burn much more spectacularly whenever it found a spark. Warming is exacerbating those base line conditions, the story goes, but the base line was set by fire suppression, forest management and the tremendous expansion of human settlement into what is called the “wildland-urban interface” — which both necessitated further fire suppression and helped bring many more people much closer to the risk of fire.

In its broad strokes, this story is true. For about a half century, fires were actively suppressed in the American wilderness, with one result being that there was, at the end of those decades, much more of what fire scientists coolly call “fuel.”

What that tells us about the meaning and the future of the pyrocene is a bit less clear. The forest-management story has been offered as a corrective to climate-focused wildfire alarm, and it is, in its way, hopeful: If forest policy is to blame for the terrifying risk of out-of-control fire, in theory forest policy should allow us to bring it under control, too, without requiring that we get a handle on global warming first.

But the hopeful story is also at least somewhat incomplete, particularly at the global level. Wildfires have raged out of control in places such as Australia and Canada and Siberia and Chile that haven’t used the same fire suppression doctrine as the United States did.

Every fire ecosystem has its own ecology and idiosyncratic causal map: how the density and character of regional forests has changed over time, both from human and natural influence; the work of the local timber industry and the pattern of residential development; shifting weather patterns and the behavior and responsibility of power companies and campers and arsonists, as well.

But there are also simpler and more universal ways of thinking of conceptualizing the risk. The fire scientist Mike Flannigan describes it straightforwardly as a matter of fuel load, ignition and fire weather. It’s mainly the last factor that varies much year to year, he says, or even decade to decade — and helps explain why, for instance, 200 times as much land burned in British Columbia last year as did in 2020. That isn’t because there were 200 times as many trees around to burn all of a sudden.

Even in the American context, the fire suppression story may be too simplistic. For one thing, the conventional estimates for 20th-century fire suppression are fairly crude and don’t take into account how human construction has reduced the amount of forested land that could burn. And  recent research  has suggested that the increase in area burned in California in recent decades is almost entirely attributable to anthropogenic climate change, though the researchers also caution that the increase has been observed against background conditions created by fire suppression.

It’s all a bit complicated. Put a hundred climate scientists and forest ecologists in a bar, the climate scientist John Abatzoglou and the forest ecologist Solomon Dobrowski tell me, and it’s a good bet they’ll all agree with a statement like “more heat, less moisture, more human-caused ignitions and more fuel have dramatically increased fire activity in the Western U.S. and beyond.” But ask the 100 scientists about the relative contributions from forest management and climate change, they say, and consensus collapses: The climate scientists might suggest that climate change contributes something close to two-thirds of our current fire predicament, while the ecologists might flip the estimate — two-thirds from forest management and one-third climate factors.

In other words, this isn’t an either-or set; it’s both-and. But that complexity is often maddeningly difficult to internalize.

This tension extends past wildfire. On one hand, there’s been a tendency among climate-conscious liberals to pin a vast array of social ills on global warming, sometimes downplaying other causes — a tendency that Mike Hulme, a Cambridge professor of geography, has called “climatism.” This critique is important: We can’t really talk about hurricane vulnerability, for instance, in isolation from coastal development, early-warning systems, local building codes and insurance policies.

But the inverse is also true: We can’t pretend that, if climate change is only one factor in determining overall risk and human hazard, we should therefore treat the growing threat from warming as irrelevant or trivial. It surely would have been wiser not to have built so many California homes —  nearly half  of all those built in the state between 1990 and 2010 — in areas of high and growing wildfire risk, but saying so doesn’t diminish the risk millions of Californians now face. Perhaps the controlled burning of a few million acres annually in the American West can offset the impact of global warming on wildfire in the decades ahead. That doesn’t mean warming doesn’t matter; in fact, it is one way of quantifying the cost.

And while is certainly wise to reintroduce some more fire to the landscape — to cultivate more of what Pyne calls “good fire,” in part to forestall future “bad fire” — the scale of that job is somewhat staggering, given the rate of human development across the west: According to  some estimates , 20 million acres in California need to burn for its forest to re-equilibrate, a land mass of nearly one-fifth of the state.

In Chile, too, there are  patterns of development  and  forest policy  that might’ve prevented the loss of those hundred lives and those 15,000 homes. But one of the challenges of climate change, even in the present tense, is that none of us are living in those counterfactual histories. Instead, we’re living in a timeline in which large gaps have opened up between the climate we anticipated and the one we are now confronted with, between the infrastructure we built on the basis of those expectations and the world we might’ve engineered, and between the standards for safety and preparedness we once had and the ones we are now revising and haphazardly improvising in the face of rising threats.


jrDiscussion - desc
Freshman Principal
1  seeder  Outis    3 months ago

Things were so much simpler when we could just trust Smokey the Dear.

Freshman Quiet
1.1  Igknorantzruls  replied to  Outis @1    3 months ago

was he a bare Dear, or a dear John bearly new ya grizzly black bear who strived to be the dumb blonde hash tagged playing hide and go seek and destroy , cause Fire is an old toy, that's been known to occasionally hurt and or kill far too many UP CLOSE by far,. AND IT IS JUST PLAIN BAZAARR , how many wish to play with FIRE, cause F U Do,you're possibly qualifying to take part in a, well  probably , take part  in a burn for hire, and burns do burn, and HURT A LOT, cause eye have been burnt a time or too many, and they certainly hurt a plenty, which brings US back to the Bear who proclaimed only you can prevent Forest Fires, well, unless a bolt of lightning sparks one up, cause only s much one can do, whenthat forest fire is chasing after you.

   but, as always i digress. Climate change IS REAL!  So accept it, or be the exception, who wood wish to deny, cause our planet and everyday lives are changing and evolving, and these deniers just hamper and delay climate solving, for its gonna have to be a group effort, and hopefully the divider in chief doesnt make a return trip, cause he claims all a sham, and we all know he would never lie to US, because the GOP and Trump are our pillheirs of the community supporting that Egyptian mummy, who's looking for that Sugar sweet step daughter elite, dressed in wrags, and under their dryed up eye sockets, the bags , no longer, needed, asz carry ons, u wayward sons of bitches, i got A scratch that needs itches, so C u on the B sides, who wants to run from the fire, me...?HELL NO, LUV ME SOME FIRE 

Split Personality
Professor Guide
2  Split Personality    3 months ago


Greg Jones
Professor Participates
3  Greg Jones    3 months ago

Wildfires have been nature's way of thinning the forests and grasslands and fertilizing the soil before humans arrived. 

Professor Principal
4  Kavika     3 months ago

The fed's handling of wildfires for the last century is at best pathetic. Controlled burns by indigenous people were outlawed simply well because we are savages and couldn't possibly understand such a complex thing as science and wildfires, yet our practice kept us safe for thousands of years. Now, in the past few years state of California has been contacting and working with the tribes to learn our way of dealing with wildfires. Now working in concert CA just may get some kind of control. The other thing that will get the feds off their ass is that soon a great percentage of CA will not be able to get fire insurance on their property, just like Florida is in danger of not being able to secure hurricane insurance. 

Our history is very long in dealing with some of our current natural disasters, of course, climate change man made or not is having a devastating effect on our only home, Earth. One of the deadliest wild fires in US history took place in northern Minnesota in 1918 known as the Cloquet Fire which killed 450 plus and left 50,000 injured or homeless and destroyed 30 towns. The death count is low because they did not count the Indians that were killed. My grandfather took my grandmother, my father and five siblings and jumped into the Blood River to save their lives and he told me firsthand how devastating it was. It was caused by clear-cutting the land by lumber companies and leaving the scrub and cuttings laying there drying out during a drought and engines hauling lumber set off sparks that got the leaves burning (it was October) and it went from there. 

Remember 1918 was the Spanish Flu era that killed tens of thousands and Northern Minnesota was hit hard and then had to deal with the fire.


If we do not start to understand how the earth works and listen to experience we or the world isn't going to change, sadly it will get worse.


Who is online

49 visitors