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Lighting Small Fires As Cure to Catastrophic Blazes in California

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Prescribed burns tested in Klamath Mountains.

California drought wildfire prescribed burn Butler Creek Klamath Mountains

Photo courtesy Adam Shumaker / This American Land
A prescribed burn near Butler Creek in California’s western Klamath Mountains clears 5.6 hectares (14 acres) of underbrush to serve as a firebreak when the next big wildfire races through the area.Click image to enlarge.

By Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue

ORLEANS, Ca. — The United States Forest Service, which owns much of the steep and heavily forested Klamath Mountain Range along California’s North Coast, said in a report last summer that the western fire season is now 78 days longer than it was in 1970.

That is evident in October in California as wildfires still burn. The state has reported 5,741 fires this year that burned 124,000 hectares (306,000 acres). That’s 1,700 more fires and 81,000 more burned hectares (200,000 acres) than the average 10-month fire damage of the previous five years, according to Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency.

Hotter, drier, longer fire seasons, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, a statistical federal clearing house, are contributing to bigger fires that incinerate more land. It has been little more than a month since the Valley Fire north of San Francisco was brought under control. Officially ranked as the third most damaging in California’s history, the Valley Fire killed four people, burned 31,000 hectares (76,000 acres), and destroyed 1,970 structures.

Here along wilderness rivers and shaded by the tinder dry canopies of towering trees, residents explain that catastrophic fires are an expensive and dangerous annual threat. The Forest Service’s cost to fight wildfires — $US 1.1 billion in 2014 — is now half of the agency’s fiscal budget, up from 16 percent in 1996. When included with the money spent by the Department of the Interior, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and states, the nation is spending almost $US 2 billion annually on battling wildfires, most of it in the West and Alaska.

People here are not shy about asking whether all the money spent on trucks and bulldozers, helicopters and flying tankers does much more than support a growing western industrial business sector, manned by private contractors and tens of thousands of firefighters.

California drought wildfire Mid Klamath Watershed Council sign good fire Klamath Mountains prescribed burn

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue
In order not to scare residents who might mistake smoke for an approaching wildfire, the Mid Klamath Watershed Council posts signs about “good fire,” the deliberate prescribed burns that are common in the region to remove the thick brush and small trees that fuel the catastrophic fires.Click image to enlarge.

“They’re putting people out there to bring fires under control,” said Nadine Bailey, the chief operations officer of the Family Water Alliance, a non-profit conservation group based in Maxwell. “But some of these fires you can’t fight. You’ll kill people if you try. You have to anticipate the big fires and reduce some of the fuel that’s out there.”

Like so much of the ecological distress that challenges California now, the big wildfires illustrate the consequences of 20th-century attitudes about mankind’s capacity to control fire in the West. But the idea that natural cycles of fire can be managed has collided with the Earth’s powerful and truculent 21st-century response.

In the first 10 months of 2015, wildfires consumed 3.7 million hectares (9.3 million acres), most of it in Alaska and the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That is 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) more than the 10-month average fire losses from 2005 to 2014.

The two-lane highways that provide access to the western slopes of the Klamath range are portals through the blackened geography of wildfire. Entire slopes that once supported forests of centuries-old trees are discouraging tableaus of burned branches and grey ash. It is plain in this rugged land which side is losing.

“The wildfires are filling in the blanks on the landscape where wildfires haven’t burned in over 100 years,” said Will Harling, the founder and director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, a nonprofit conservation organization based here. “If you look at the fire history maps you can almost predict where the next fires are going to be.”

California drought wildfire good fire Klamath Mountains prescribed burn Butler Creek smoke Malcolm Terence

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue
The morning after a prescribed burn near Butler Creek in northern California, the forest floor still smolders and smoke hangs in the air. “If we can use prescribed fire to make places like this safe then we should,” said Malcolm Terence, a resident. Click image to enlarge.

Clearing Forests With Fire

There are two primary tools for clearing fuel from the West’s forests. One is cutting timber, a practice that has diminished significantly in public forests since the early 1990s, when efforts under the Endangered Species Act to secure the northern spotted owl blocked logging in old growth forests, the raptor’s favored habitat. Loggers cut 1.4 billion board feet of timber from the West’s public forests in 2012, according to federal figures. In 1952, logging companies took 6 billion board feet from public forests.

But contemporary clear cutting poses serious fire threats, according to Malcolm Terence, a writer and former logger who lives in this region.

“Typically, commercial timber harvest only removes the boles and leaves the branches and the tops, the flashy material that spreads fires,” he said. “Firemen call them ladder fuels because they create so much heat that they can spread fire into the crowns of even the tallest old growth trees, ones that have survived fire many times in the past.

“Timber companies resist properly treating slash because it’s an added expense and they rely on clearcuts because it’s the cheapest way to harvest on steep ground. And most of the trees left are on steep ground. The easy ground was logged decades ago. Logging contributes to the economy but it’s going to need to be done in a way that reduces the spread of devastating fire, not in a way that promotes it.”

California drought wildfire good fire Klamath Mountains prescribed burn Bill Tripp Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue
Bill Tripp, the deputy director of eco-cultural restoration for the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources, is convinced that more consistent use of prescribed fires will help prevent the runaway wildfires. “I call it living with fire,” he said. “There is a revitalizing function of fire.” Click image to enlarge.

The second tool is deliberately igniting small fires — called “prescribed” burns — to remove the thick brush and small trees that fuel the catastrophic fires. In a clearing north of this unincorporated Klamath River community, 22 firefighters huddled earlier this month for a safety and logistic briefing prior to lighting a prescribed burn to clear the understory on private land close to several residences.

Most of the 20 men and two women, clad in yellow protective gear and bright helmets, were professional foresters from other communities in and outside California sent to learn the techniques of prescribed burns that are being deployed here.

The concept is simple. Ignite small fires, controlled by the lower temperatures and high humidity of early fall, to clear the flammable undergrowth that turns an ordinary lightning strike into a calamity.

The practice is more complex. Unless carefully planned and adequately staffed, prescribed fires can turn into full-fledged wildfires. Fifteen years ago a prescribed fire got loose and burned 19,400 hectares (48,000 acres) in New Mexico and destroyed 280 homes. Another prescribed fire seven years ago burned 4,400 hectares (11,000 acres) in the Cleveland National Forest near San Diego.

California drought wildfire good fire Klamath Mountains prescribed burn firefighters Humboldt County safety

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue
Firefighters huddled in a clearing in Humboldt County for a safety and logistic briefing prior to lighting a prescribed burn to clear the understory on private land close to several residences. Click image to enlarge.

Learning To Set Small Fires To Prevent Big Ones

The training program here is organized by the Mid Klamath Watershed Council and The Nature Conservancy. Its intent is to build credibility among government agencies and private landowners to reintroduce a firefighting practice that North Coast Native American tribes used for centuries to protect themselves and care for the land.

Harling, who founded the 11-year-old watershed council, explained that until the early 20th century, when the nation embraced a policy of suppressing forest fires, the regular incidence of forest fires was a natural and purposeful player in keeping the forests, lands, and rivers of the Western Klamath range healthy. Before wildfires were suppressed, the trees in California’s forests were spread far enough apart for wagons to pass through. Open meadows of lush grass were common. Landslides that poured salmon-strangling mud into the region’s river were rare.

Today, there is too much fuel in the forests. Add four straight years of severe drought and hundreds of thousands of homes constructed in or near the forest edge, and the raging consequences of the fire suppression policy are more evident than ever before. Foresters now can predict the likelihood of big fire events with maps that show which tracts of forest have not burned in over a century. Almost all of California’s worst fires in the last few years have occurred in those forests.

California drought wildfire good fire Klamath Mountains prescribed burn Mid Klamath Watershed Council Will Harling

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue
Will Harling, the founder and director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, a non-profit conservation organization, is an advocate for prescribed burns. “The wildfires are filling in the blanks on the landscape where wildfires haven’t burned in over 100 years,” he said.Click image to enlarge.

Bill Tripp, the deputy director of eco-cultural restoration for the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources, is convinced that more consistent use of prescribed fires will help prevent the runaway wildfires.

“I call it living with fire,” said Tripp. “We’ve got to learn to live with fire here again. It’s part of how everything came to be here. It’s part of the process. There is a revitalizing function of fire.”

The absence of fire has left the Western Klamath range so tangled in brush and small trees beneath the big timber, so full of precipices, so difficult to access, that the region looks more impenetrable and wilder than it ever has, according to residents. That’s saying a lot since it was in these mountains that the legend of Bigfoot gained global attention with a home movie shot in 1967 that is said to show a towering ape-like creature scrambling over boulders along Bluff Creek.

Not far away, along Butler Creek, is where Malcolm Terence, the former logger, built his house in a meadow that once was the site of a Native American village. In 2006, again in 2008, and again in 2013, wildfires erupted in this area of Humboldt County, raced through the canyons and across the slopes, and twice came close to incinerating Orleans.

The 2013 fire produced landslides after heavy rains that muddied the Salmon and Klamath rivers. That last fire also came within a few hundred yards of the Terence home.

In early October, Will Harling, who also lives near Butler Creek, supervised a prescribed fire to clear 5.6 hectares (14 acres) of brush and undergrowth in the forest around the meadow to serve as a fire break when the next big burn occurs.

“People around here know, okay, a fire is going to come,” said Terence. “We have to be ready. If we can use prescribed fire to make places like this safe then we should. I understand. It can be scary putting fire on the ground. But we need more of it.”

California drought wildfire good fire Klamath Mountains prescribed burn Malcom Terence Erica Terence

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue
Malcolm Terence and his daughter, Erica Terence, live in a meadow that is consistently in the path of wildfires. A prescribed burn in October near their home is designed to significantly reduce the danger.Click image to enlarge.

The post Lighting Small Fires As Cure to Catastrophic Blazes in California appeared first on Circle of Blue WaterNews.

Source: Water News

Source: Water Industry News

The Stream, October 27: Climate Change Set to Create Unbearable Heatwaves in Middle East Cities

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The  Global Rundown

The Global Rundown

Heatwaves in Middle East cities, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai, are on track to become unbearably hot for humans by the end of the century if climate change continues, scientists found. Communities in the Philippines are struggling to recover from Typhoon Koppu’s floods, while floods in Texas linked to Hurricane Patricia could leave the state with a hefty bill. Laos plans to expand its hydropower capacity to increase electricity exports. Tar sand operations in Canada are withdrawing too much water from the Athabasca River, according to an environmental group. Residents of Florida say water is the state’s biggest environmental threat.

“Giving companies first rights to water, over longstanding Indigenous treaties or any other recognized water licenses holders is clearly a human rights issue.”–Jesse Cardinal, coordinator of the Keepers of the Athabasca environmental group, on concerns about water withdrawals from Canada’s Athabasca River for tar sand mining. The group says low water levels in the river are disrupting the fall harvest for First Nations communities. (Vice)

By the Numbers

By The Numbers

10,000 megawatts Amount of electricity Laos plans to generate from hydropower by 2020 to increase exports to neighboring countries, according to government officials. Reuters

$3 billion Potential damages in Texas due to floods triggered by Hurricane Patricia, with most of the costs associated with infrastructure like roads and bridges. Bloomberg

38 percent Proportion of survey respondents in Florida who named water as the state’s biggest environmental problem, topping the list of threats. Sun Sentinel

Science

Science, Studies, And Reports

Climate change under current emission scenarios is set to create unbearable heatwaves in cities including Abu Dhabi and Dubai by the end of the century, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The extreme heatwaves would be caused by a combination of high temperatures and high humidity. Guardian

On the Radar

On The Radar

Approximately 300 communities in the Philippines are still flooded in the aftermath of Typhoon Koppu, which affected 2.7 million people. Aid agencies have warned that food security could become a significant barrier to recovery because the typhoon destroyed harvests and damaged farmland. Reuters

The post The Stream, October 27: Climate Change Set to Create Unbearable Heatwaves in Middle East Cities appeared first on Circle of Blue WaterNews.

Source: Water News

Source: Water Industry News