Tag Archives: fire

Fires in Russia and China

Fires in Russia and China : Natural Hazards.

Fires in Russia and China

acquired October 8, 2011 download large image (5 MB, JPEG)
acquired October 8, 2011 download GeoTIFF file (35 MB, TIFF)
acquired October 8, 2011 download Google Earth file (KMZ)

Smoke clouds the skies across northeastern China and southeastern Russia in this image taken on October 8, 2011, by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Widespread fires are marked in red.

The dry, windy weather of autumn created hazardous fire conditions in northeast China. On October 9, officials in Heilongjiang province raised the fire alert level to its second-highest level, said Xinhua news. Russian officials, meanwhile, reported monitoring four large wildfires in the Far Eastern Federal District, which includes the area shown here.

  1. References

  2. EMERCOM of Russia. (2011, October 10). Fire situation as of 06:00 10.10.2011. Accessed October 10, 2011.
  3. Xinhua. (2011, October 9). Hundreds evacuated for grassland fire in NE China. China Daily. Accessed October 10, 2011.

NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Holli Riebeek.

Aqua – MODIS

Fires in Queensland, Australia

Fires in Queensland, Australia : Natural Hazards.

Fires in Queensland, Australia

acquired September 26, 2011 download large image (4 MB, JPEG)
acquired September 26, 2011 download Google Earth file (KMZ)

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite detected several fires burning in southeast Queensland on September 26, 2011. The fires are outlined in red.

The fire season in Queensland, Australia runs through the dry winter and spring. The Queensland government declared a fire danger period from September 4, 2011, to January 2, 2012, when fires are allowed by permit only. The fires shown in this image likely include both deliberately set fires and natural wildfires.

Many of Australia’s ecosystems require fire to stimulate growth and regenerate some plant species. As a result, the landscape is extremely prone to fire and burns easily.

  1. References

  2. CSIRO. (2008, February 14). Bushfire in Australia. Accessed September 26, 2011.
  3. CSIRO. (2008, April 30).The months of a fire season. Accessed September 26, 2011.
  4. Queensland Fire and Rescue Service. (2011, September). Fire danger period declared. Accessed September 26, 2011.

NASA image courtesy the MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Holli Riebeek.

Aqua – MODIS

High Cascades Complex Fires, Oregon

High Cascades Complex, Oregon : Natural Hazards.

High Cascades Complex, Oregon

acquired September 9, 2011 download large image (4 MB, JPEG)
acquired September 9, 2011 download GeoTIFF file (30 MB, TIFF)
High Cascades Complex, Oregon

acquired September 9, 2011 download large image (5 MB, JPEG)
acquired September 9, 2011 download GeoTIFF file (35 MB, TIFF)

Firefighters completely contained the High Cascades Complex fires on September 16, 2011. Burning in northern Oregon—primarily in the Warm Springs Reservation, belonging to the Wasco and Palute Tribes—the fires were started on August 24 by a lightning storm. By September 16, the fires had burned 108,154 acres.

Smoke rising from Badger Butte indicates that at least one fire was still active on September 9, when the Landsat 5 satellite acquired these images. The top image shows the fires in natural color, similar to what the human eye would see. The lower image includes infrared light. It shows the location of newly burned land more readily than the top true-color image.

The infrared image shows five distinct burned areas in brick red. Other red areas in the scene are either old burn scars, exposed lava flows, or land that is clear for other reasons. All of the burned areas shown are part of the High Cascades Complex.

  1. Reference

  2. InciWeb. (2011, September 15). High Cascades Complex. Accessed September 16, 2011.

NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey. Caption by Holli Riebeek.

Landsat 5 – TM

Wildfires Rage across Drought-Stricken Texas

Wildfires Rage across Drought-Stricken Texas: Scientific American Gallery.


Enlarge NASA/GSFC, Rapid Response MORE IMAGES

Texas, which has suffered extreme droughts in 2011, is now grappling with deadly, widespread wildfires. Two people were killed September 4 in a fire in Gladewater, Texas, and officials said September 6 that two more had died in  the massive Bastrop County fire near Austin. More than 1,000 homes have been destroyed in the past several days, according to the Texas Forest Service (TFS), and dozens of fires continue to burn across the Lone Star State.

NASA’s Earth-orbiting Aqua satellite captured this photograph of eastern Texas, Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico on September 6. (State borders have been overlaid for reference.) In the past week the TFS has responded to 172 fires on 54,653 hectares; more than 1.4 million hectares—2 percent of the state’s land area—have burned this year.

The first half of the year was the driest on record in Texas. In June the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 213 Texas counties as natural disaster areas; nearly all of the state is currently classified as drought level D4 (exceptional drought), the highest such listing on the National Drought Mitigation Center’s U.S. Drought Monitor. But the droughts and fires of 2011 may only be a preview of things to come; climate change is expected to raise temperatures and could also reduce rainfall in Texas, according to climate models.

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Teen arsonists sought over Texas wildfire

Cops: Teen arsonists sought over Texas wildfire – Weather – TODAY.com.

Police in Texas were hunting three teenagers after a wildfire caused $1.4 million in damage in an Austin suburb, officials said.

The blaze destroyed nearly a dozen homes and caused the evacuations of 500 people in Leander, according to residents and media reports. Investigators were treating the wildfire as arson.

Dawn Camp, 33, a fire evacuee from Leander near the Austin city limits, hadn’t heard the phone ring and didn’t know it was time to flee her home until she smelled smoke and walked out the front door to see her neighbor’s home burning.

“Fire was raining down on my yard,” she said.

Story: Rising death toll in Texas wildfires She grabbed her children, put them in the car, and started down the road. A block later, she jumped out and gave the keys to her 18-year-old daughter, who spirited her younger siblings, ages 8 and 10, to their great-grandmother’s house.

Camp then walked home to coax her cats, Bugbite and Moonshine, out of the house. But police were in her yard.

“They wouldn’t let me back in,” she said, standing outside a shelter at Rouse High School in Leander. Walking along a main street through the quiet subdivision, Camp said the smoke was so thick she couldn’t see or breathe.

Slideshow: Wildfires scorch Texas (on this page)

A passerby picked her up, and she rejoined her family. Later, a relieved Camp reported that she was able to see her house — and both the home and the cats were fine.

“I saw some houses that were burned, but our little half of the street was fine,” Camp said. The cats “were thirsty, but they were wonderful.”

The wildfire in Leander had been extinguished by Tuesday afternoon.

There were also signs that firefighters were gaining ground on the Bastrop County wildfire, which has destroyed more than 600 homes and blackened about 45 square miles.

The Texas Forest Service said Wednesday that the blaze was 30 percent contained.

Agency spokeswoman April Saginor said lighter winds have helped and that the weather conditions mean Wednesday “should be a good day for” those battling the wildfires.

The Bastrop blaze is the most severe of the more than 180 wildfires reported in the past week across drought-stricken Texas.

“It is certainly a remarkable fire in terms of evacuations and the number of homes that have burned,” Ken Frederick, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, told Reuters.

Altogether, fires in Texas have destroyed a total of more than 1,000 homes and caused four deaths, including the two at Bastrop, marking one of the most devastating wildfire outbreaks in state history.

Governor Rick Perry said Tuesday that a 100-member search team would begin to comb the area around Bastrop for more possible victims Wednesday morning.

Video: Gov. Rick Perry: Wildfires have been ‘devastating’ (on this page) He deployed Texas Task Force 1, the state’s elite search team, to help local authorities. The team includes a dozen search dogs.

Texas Task Force 1 was also sent to New York following the Sept. 11 attacks and to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Perry cut short a presidential campaign trip to South Carolina to deal with the crisis. On Tuesday, he toured a blackened area near Bastrop, about 25 miles from Austin.

“Pretty powerful visuals of individuals who lost everything,” he said after the tour. “The magnitude of these losses are pretty stunning.”

The governor would not say whether he would take part in Wednesday evening’s Republican presidential debate in California, explaining that he was “substantially more concerned about making sure Texans are being taken care of.”

But campaign spokesman Mark Miner said in an email later in the day that Perry planned to be there.

Story: For GOP, debate is where expectations meet reality Perry, a favorite of the Tea Party movement who has made a career out of railing against government spending, said he expects federal assistance with the wildfires. He also complained that red tape was keeping bulldozers and other heavy equipment at the Army’s Fort Hood, 75 miles from Bastrop, from being put to use. Fort Hood was battling its own fire, a 3,700-acre blaze.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration has approved seven federal grants to Texas to help with the latest outbreak, and “we will continue to work closely with the state and local emergency management officials as their efforts to contain these fires.”

About 1,200 firefighters battled the blazes, including members of local departments from around the state and crews from out of state, many of them arriving after Texas put out a call for help. More firefighters will join the battle once they have been registered and sent where they are needed.

Five heavy tanker planes, some from the federal government, and three aircraft capable of scooping 1,500 gallons of water at a time from lakes also took part in the fight.

“We’re getting incredible support from all over the country, federal and state agencies,” said Mark Stanford, operations director for the Texas Forest Service.

The disaster is blamed largely on Texas’ yearlong drought, one of the most severe dry spells the state has ever seen.

Interactive: Texas drought (on this page)

The fire in Bastrop County is easily the single most devastating wildfire in Texas in more than a decade, eclipsing a blaze that destroyed 168 homes in North Texas in April.

Texas Forest Service spokeswoman April Saginor said state wildfire records go back only to the late 1990s.

California fire started by plane crash, threatens homes

California fire threatens 800 homes – CNN.com.

The fire started when a small plane crashed southeast of Tehachapi, California, on Sunday.

The fire started when a small plane crashed southeast of Tehachapi, California, on Sunday.
  • 4,759-acre fire starts after plane crashes
  • Firefighters, working in “extreme conditions,” have fire 5% contained
  • Roads are closed, evacuations suggested, power lines threatened

(CNN) — A fire caused by a plane crash threatened 800 homes or structures in Tehachapi, California, on Monday, with nearly 5,000 acres ablaze in rugged terrain, according to state and local officials.

The fire started Sunday and was 5% contained by Monday, but there was no estimate of when it would be fully contained, according to a statement from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Kern County Fire Department. Evacuations were recommended in the area threatened by the fire and at least three roads were closed, the statement said.

A relief center has been set up at Jacobsen Junior High School in Tehachapi for evacuees.

“Firefighters are working in extreme conditions, high heat, low humidity, with the potential for erratic winds,” according to the statement. The fire was burning in a mix of grass, brush and trees in steep rugged terrain, officials said. It was moving southeast toward Old West Ranch, Tehachapi City and Oak Creek and local power lines were threatened, according to the statement. Bulldozers were building perimeter lines to try to halt the fire, the statement said.

California Gov. Jerry Brown’s office said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed to provide money to offset the state and local costs of fighting the fire.

Wildfires whip through drought-stricken Texas

The plane crashed and burned near Mountain Valley Airport in Tehachapi, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told CNN. He said local authorities had confirmed one death, but did not know whether any other people were aboard. The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will look into the cause of the crash, Gregor said.

Six hundred firefighters were on the scene trying to corral the 4,759-acre fire. The effort also involves 69 engines, 21 fire crews and two helicopters, according to the fire agencies’ statement. One injury has been reported and one structure has burned, the statement said.

Besides the Kern County Fire Department, others agencies fighting the fire include the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the Ventura County Fire Department and the Orange County Fire Authority. The Red Cross and other agencies also were on the scene.

Texas wildfires destroy 700+ homes in two days

Texas wildfires destroy more than 700 homes in two days – CNN.com.

Bastrop, Texas (CNN) — Wildfires continued to rage Tuesday in Texas, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of homes near Austin and Houston as firefighters struggled to gain the upper hand against flames, winds and fatigue.

“Texas is in a difficult situation right now and our priorities are pretty simple. No. 1 is to protect life at all costs,” said Nim Kidd, chief of the state Division of Emergency Management.

The Texas Forest Service said it has responded to 181 fires that have burned more than 118,400 acres over the last week.

The fires have killed two people and, according to the forest service, destroyed more than 700 homes since Sunday. More than 1,000 homes have burned in the state since fire season began in November, Gov. Rick Perry’s office said.

The largest fire, near Austin, has spread across 30,000 acres, destroying more than 600 homes and forcing the evacuations of at least 5,000 people, officials said Tuesday. Known as the Bastrop County Complex, the fire has burned largely uncontrolled since it began Sunday afternoon.

“I don’t think it’s registered in our brains that our house is gone and that, really, half of Bastrop is gone,” said evacuee Claire Johnson.

The danger from a fire near Houston — called the Magnolia fire — appeared to be lessening for the most populated areas. Harris County, which includes Houston, said the fire was no longer a threat there. Also, many residents were being allowed back into their homes Tuesday in neighboring Montgomery County.

Perry: Wildfires trump politics
Wildfire prompts evacuations in Texas
Wall of smoke dominates Texas skyline
Wildfires continue to plague Texas

About 4,000 homes in Montgomery had been evacuated, according to Lt. Dan Norris of the county’s emergency management office. Firefighters continued to battle hot spots in Montgomery, but the bulk of the problems from the Magnolia fire now appear to be centered in Waller and Grimes counties, Norris said.

Another blaze in Grimes County, the Riley Road fire, has destroyed 20 homes and has hundreds more in its path, the forest service said. It had burned 3,000 acres as of Tuesday, according to the forest service.

Two major fires in Travis County destroyed 44 structures and damaged 74 others, Roger Wade, a spokesman for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, said Tuesday.

Authorities planned to allow residents of the Steiner Ranch area, burned by one of those Travis fires, to return to their homes Tuesday afternoon.

“We have made progress, but there are smoldering islands here, and we will be working day and night,” said Jim Linardos, the fire incident commander.

While most of the damage has been to homes and other structures, a wildfire killed a woman and her 18-month-old child Sunday when flames engulfed their home near Gladewater, officials said.

Four firefighters working the Magnolia fire were taken to the hospital for treatment of heat exhaustion, according to the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management. One also had an ankle injury. All injuries were minor, the agency said.

The Bastrop County fire started Sunday and spread quickly though Monday on winds fueled by Tropical Storm Lee. It chased at least 2,500 people who registered with evacuation centers from their homes, and likely more.

Firefighters accustomed to attack a fire head-on could do little more than pick around the edges, trying to protect whatever they could, said Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service.

“We’ve been very defensive. It’s all we could do until now,” he said. “By the end of the day we hope to gain a lot of ground on this.”

Winds that had peaked at nearly 30 mph had calmed to little more than half that Tuesday, giving firefighters a chance to move to the fire’s front and try to slow its advance, Boggus said.

Still, the damage is staggering, said officials who have toured the area.

“Bastrop County is not the same,” county Judge Ronnie McDonald told CNN affiliate KXAN-TV in Austin.

Historic drought in Texas has created ideal conditions for the rapid spread of wildfire.

So far in 2011, 7.2 million acres of grass, scrub and forest have burned in wildfires nationwide. Of those, 3.5 million — nearly half — have been in Texas, according to Inciweb, a fire-tracking website maintained by state and federal agencies.

Tuesday marks the 294th consecutive day of wildfires in Texas, according to Inciweb.

More than 2,000 firefighters are working fires across the state, Boggus said.

Fatigue is a major issue, Boggus said, especially for volunteer firefighters from local departments who form the backbone of the response. Boggus said Texas officials are seeking additional resources from around the country to help battle the fires.

Read more about the Texas fires from CNN affiliates KXAN and KVUE. Are you there? Share photos, video, but stay safe.

Bastrop, Texas (CNN) — Firefighters southeast of Austin, Texas, battled strong winds Monday as they struggled to gain ground against a fast-moving wildfire that has so far scorched some 25,000 acres and destroyed close to 500 homes.

Another fire in eastern Texas killed a mother and her 18-month-old child when flames engulfed their mobile home Sunday near Gladewater, the Gregg County Sheriff’s Department said.

“We got a long way to go to get this thing contained,” Gov. Rick Perry said about the fire raging near Austin. “I have seen a number of big fires in my life. This one is as mean looking as I’ve ever seen.”

Dozens of fires are burning across the parched state, the Texas Forest Service said Monday.

Earlier, the governor issued a statement in which he called the wildfire situation in Texas “severe” and said that all state resources were being made available to protect lives and property.

“We will pick up the pieces. We always do,” he told reporters.

Wall of smoke dominates Texas skyline
Waiting for the wind to die in Texas
Wildfires continue to plague Texas

Texas is battling its worst fire season in state history. A record 3.5 million acres — an area roughly the size of Connecticut, Perry said — have burned since the start of the season in November as hot and dry weather, coupled with a historic drought, made conditions ripe for rapid fire growth.

“It’s a very serious, scary situation,” said Jan Amen, a Texas Forest Service spokeswoman. “The drought has gone on so long — it’s just bone dry. Anything that catches fire takes off.”

Over the weekend, officials said low relative humidity and strong winds from Lee, which made landfall as a tropical storm but then weakened, further fanned the flames.

A red flag warning was in effect for much of east, south and central Texas on Monday, with wind gusts of up to 35 mph in places, according to the National Weather Service.

A fire broke out about 45 miles north of Houston Monday afternoon. It was moving between 15 and 20 mph and threatening homes, said Rhonda Reinholz with the Magnolia Volunteer Fire Department.

Another fire burned in the Steiner Ranch subdivision in Travis County, forcing families out of their homes. Justin Allen evacuated from there with his five kids. Though he does not think the flames will reach their house, which is tucked near the back of the development, they are close enough to worry about, he said.

“It’s pretty scary,” said Allen. “And it’s really sad for everyone that’s in that path.”

The outbreak of wildfires prompted Perry to return to Texas from South Carolina, where he was scheduled to participate in a forum for Republican presidential candidates.

The massive, uncontained fire in Bastrop County, near Austin, was the state’s largest Monday. It destroyed 476 homes, according to Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald, and threatened about 1,000 others, officials with the forest service’s incident management team reported. About 5,000 residents evacuated as flames approached, officials said.

‘There’s nothing left of these houses’
Perry: Wildfires trump politics
Winds whip up Texas wildfires

Lisa Ross learned she needed to leave her Bastrop home when her husband called 911 after realizing a looming fire had darkened the skies above.

“You learn what is valuable in life, and it isn’t the stuff,” she said. “It’s people in your life, and what means something to you.”

Cars crammed with belongings and pets packed a gas station on a highway near Austin, attorney Jonathon A. Zendeh Del said. “I’ve lived in Texas almost all my life, and I’ve never seen a fire that big in central Texas,” he said.

Officials issued a boil water notice for parts of Bastrop Monday. Dark clouds of smoke billowing across the sky could be seen miles from the fire.

Satellite images Monday showed the fire stretching over about 25,000 acres, jumping the Colorado River and a highway, the Texas Forest Service said.

More evacuations are likely as the fire spreads, officials said. Already, hundreds of people are in shelters as dangerous flames keep them from finding out whether their homes survived.

“We have been told already from three people that live in that area that our house has been burnt. I had a gut feeling that it did not, but now it’s looking worse and worse,” said Gisele Vocal, an evacuee. “We just have to wait now.”

Firefighters used Black Hawk helicopters to douse flames with a mixture of water and fire retardant Monday, officials said.

The fire forced parts of state highways 71 and 21 to shut and additional road closures were expected.

At least 63 new fires across Texas on Sunday burned nearly 33,000 acres, the state’s fire service said. Fires were reported in at least 17 counties.


September 6, 2011 8:08 AM

“No containment” of Texas wildfire


Last Updated 9:52 a.m. ET

BASTROP, Texas – Firefighters trying to control a wind-fueled wildfire that has destroyed nearly 600 homes in Central Texas were looking for a few overnight hours of diminished winds as thousands of evacuees spent the night away from their threatened homes.

There’s been no significant rainfall over central Texas for a year, said CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds, and today the consequences of that are being seen in Bastrop and other areas.

Since December, wildfires have consumed 3.6 million acres of Texas – an area the size of the state of Connecticut.

Unfortunately, there is no rainfall in the forecast for the foreseeable future.

The Texas Forest Service put out statement saying, “This is unprecedented fire behavior. No one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions.”

Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service, told CBS’ “The Early Show” that as of this morning “There’s no containment right now.”

“We’ve been in a defensive mode for a couple of days now, and really all you can do is get people out of the way, protect homes where you can, and make sure our firefighters are safe,” Boggus told anchor Erica Hill. “But today, the winds have died down so we can probably be much more aggressive, and we hopefully can get some containment on all these fires in the Austin area.”

Texas wildfire destroys nearly 500 homes
Winds whip up Texas wildfires


Texas Gov. Rick Perry left the campaign trail Monday and returned to Texas for the latest outbreak of blazes. He told “The Early Show” Tuesday that he doesn’t know whether he will participate in the first Republican debate since he entered the raced for president while his state continues to battle persistent wildfires.

Perry mum on GOP debate as Texas wildfires rage

Boggus said 90 percent of wildfires are caused by people – directly, or through the electricity used by us. Texans are aware of the fire dangers. “People get it, they understand it,” he said. “Especially now it’s heightened with the news media … people understand to be very, very careful. And with the high winds people understood how dangerous and how volatile this state is.

“It’s historic. We’ve never seen fire seasons like this. We’ve never seen drought like this. This is an historic time that we’re living in, and so people know and understand they’ve got to be extremely careful,” Boggus said. (To watch the interview click on the video player below.)

Fires in Eastern Russia

Fires in Eastern Russia : Image of the Day.

Fires in Eastern Russia

acquired July 28, 2011 download large image (3 MB, JPEG)
acquired July 28, 2011 download GeoTIFF file (34 MB, TIFF)
acquired July 28, 2011 download Google Earth file (KMZ)

192 fires burned throughout the Russian Federation on July 28, 2011. Most of the fires burned in the northwest, but the fires in the Far East were far more impressive from space.

This image, taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua satellite, shows fires burning in parts of Khabarovsk, Amur, and Sakha (Yahkutiya) on July 28, 2011. The large image (download) shows many more fires across the broader region. The fires are marked in red. The Russian government reported 19 large fires in this region on July 28, and RIA Novosti, a Russian news agency, reported 41 fires on July 29.

While the fires are widespread, it is the dense smoke that stands out. The fires are not threatening any settlements, according to the Russian government, but the smoke poses its own risks. Smoke carries tiny particles that can irritate the eyes and respiratory system.

It’s not possible to tell from the image how the fires started, but 90 percent of the fires that start within 90 kilometers of a settlement in Russia are caused by people. Beyond that point, 40 percent of the fires are set by people and 60 percent are caused by lightning.

The Russian government has dedicated 7,328 people to fighting wildfires throughout the country. Weather conditions in the Far East were challenging.

  1. References

  2. AIRNow. (n.d.). Smoke from agricultural and forest fires. Accessed July 31, 2011.
  3. EMERCOM of Russia. (2011, July 29). Fire situation on the territory of the Russian Federation. Accessed July 31, 2011.
  4. RIA Novosti. (2011, July 29). Firefighters continue to battle wildfires in Russia’s Far East. Accessed July 31, 2011.

NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Holli Riebeek.

Seattle scientists snuff out wildfire myths

CultureLab: Seattle scientists snuff out wildfire myths.

Nidhi Subbaraman, contributor


Arizona is prone to wildfires (Image: KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/Rex Features)

This summer, forest fires swept through parts of Arizona and New Mexico scorching property and vast expanses of ecosystems and resulting in the evacuation of the enormous Los Alamos National Laboratory. Many fear that more extreme weather may mean wild fires will only become more common in coming years. So what can we do about it?

Last week, scientists at the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory in Seattle, Washington, set out to answer that question – and to smoke out some common myths about forest fires, and their control and prevention.

In a discussion at the lab in Seattle’s Fremont neighbourhood, scientists who recently returned from studying the wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico started by clarifying just how common these fires are – and how infrequently they make headlines. In 98 per cent of cases wildfires quietly burn out and go largely unnoticed by the public, said fire and environment researcher David Peterson. Small fires seldom make the news or draw much scientific interest. But it’s these fires that unexpected weather can amplify until they become massive wildfires that need thousands of fire fighters and dozens of air tanker planes to control.

And while there’s no question that wildfire fighters and smoke jumpers make a huge difference in controlling fires, when it comes to actually dousing the flames, the researchers explained that it’s really up to the elements. “Suppressing” a big wildfire – a costly business – is only really effective to guide its path until rain finally snuffs it out. A more effective method for fighting wildfires is to treat fire-prone land before a blaze begins, they argued.

For example, people who live in areas where forest fires are common have figured out the benefits of periodically clearing their land with controlled burns. In rotation, once every other year or so, they burn down the vegetation on the land, and start the season with a fresh planting. This, said Brian Potter, who works on the atmospheric interaction of fire, has come to be accepted scientifically as an effective way of preventing against big wildfire breakouts – if planned and managed correctly.

But controlled burning continues to be a subject of hot debate because it comes at a cost. Smoke from such fires is hard to control, and a fire burning in one location could send its smoke downwind to another location, exposing people to harmful health effects.

The other issue of course is the risk that the fire could get out of hand. The 1980 Mack Lake fire in Michigan, for example, started as a prescribed burn. However, an unexpected turn in weather turned it into a wildfire which spread and claimed several lives. “The first thing it did was burn up the burn boss’s house on the edge of the lake,” Potter said.

“We’ve got past the scientific debate of whether you need to sometimes use fire to control and ecosystem,” Potter, said. “But we’ve not moved past the social debate of when it is acceptable.”

A second major way that land and wooded areas can be maintained is by periodically removing the shrubbery and small plant matter from the base of a wooded forest. “Thinning” the growth in this way, said Morris Johnson, who studies fire ecology, reduces the severity of a forest fire if it were to sweep through the area. Unfortunately, implementing such a strategy would require a shift in the funding and policy focus of current controllers. “The initial cost of removing and thinning is going to be a lot,” Morris conceded. “But it’s cheaper to maintain.”

As to the question of climate change, ongoing research is hinting at a link between hot and dry, and cool and wet spells, with the location and severity of big forest fire breakouts. “I will argue this with a lot of my scientific colleagues till we’re both blue in the face,” Peterson said, “But for the most part I believe that fire is dependent on climate.”

This means that if temperatures get hotter as models estimate, the severity of forest wildfires would increase – and the resources dedicated to curbing the damage they cause would swell proportionately. It’s one of the arguments, Peter says, for re-evaluating policy to shift funding and focus towards wildfire prevention: to better equip us to deal with bigger, badder fires of the future.

Huge Arctic fire hints at new climate

BBC News – Huge Arctic fire hints at new climate cue.

Anaktuvuk fire In the summer of 2007, more than 1,000 sq km of Alaskan tundra burned near Anaktuvuk River

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An exceptional wildfire in northern Alaska in 2007 put as much carbon into the air as the entire Arctic tundra absorbs in a year, scientists say.

The Anaktuvuk River fire burned across more than 1,000 sq km (400 sq miles), doubling the extent of Alaskan tundra visited by fire since 1950.

With the Arctic warming fast, the team suggests in the journal Nature that fires could become more common.

If that happens, it could create a new climate feedback, they say.

Fires in the tundra are uncommon because the ground is covered in snow and ice for large periods of the year.

Start Quote

Melting can lead to other huge changes… releasing carbon that’s been frozen since the Pleistocene”

Michelle Mack University of Florida

Temperatures are low even in summer, and the ground can also remain wet after the ice has melted.

But 2007 saw unusually warm and dry conditions across much of the Arctic – resulting, among other things, in spectacularly fast melting of Arctic sea ice.

This created conditions more conducive to fire, and when lightning struck the tundra in July, the Anaktuvuk River fire ignited.

“Most tundra fires have been very small – this was an order of magnitude larger than the historical size,” said Michelle Mack from the University of Florida in Gainesville, who led the research team on the Nature paper and is currently conducting further field studies in Alaska.

“In 2007, we had a hot, dry summer, there was no rain for a long period of time.

“So the tundra must have been highly flammable, with just the right conditions for fire to spread until the snow in October finally stopped it.”

Modis image of Alaska Nasa satellites image Arctic ice, water, land – and the Anaktuvuk fire, the black portion at bottom-right

According to the team’s calculations, the statistics of the fire are remarkable.

It is the largest on record, doubling the cumulative area burned since 1950.

It put carbon into the atmosphere about 100 times faster than it usually escapes from the ground in the Arctic summer, and released more than 2 million tonnes.

Although a small contribution to global emissions, this is about the same amount as the entire swathe of tundra around the Arctic absorbs in a single year.

Graph The melting of Arctic sea ice suggests 2007’s record may be broken this year

There is some vegetation on the summer lands, which did burn; but the main fuel is carbon in the ground itself.

The Anaktuvuk fire burned down to a maximum depth of 15cm (6in), and was burning carbon sequestered away over the last 50 years.

What this implies for the future is uncertain.

Climate models generally predict warmer temperatures across the Arctic, which could increase the frequency of fires and so a net loss of carbon into the atmosphere – reinforcing global warming.

On the other hand, plant life could flourish under these conditions, potentially increasing absorption and sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere.

In a news story published well before the Nature paper came out, another of the US research team, Gaius Shaver from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, said the northern region of Alaska could become “vastly different from the frozen, treeless tundra of today.

“And it’s one that may feed back positively to global climate change.”

On reflection

Another impact of the fire that has yet to be fully assessed is that the blackened soil absorbs more solar energy than normally vegetated tundra.

This abets melting of the permafrost layer below.

“Once permafrost melts beyond a certain depth on a slope, then all of the organic layer slides down the slope like a landslide,” Dr Mack told BBC News.

“This whole issue of melting can lead to other huge changes in drainage, in areas of wetlands – releasing carbon that’s been frozen since the Pleistocene [Epoch, which ended more than 10,000 years ago].”

The latest data on Arctic sea ice, meanwhile, reveals that 2011 could well see a melting season that will beat the 2007 record.

Currently, about the same area of sea is covered in ice as at the same point in 2007, which the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) ascribes to “persistent above-average temperatures and an early start to [the] melt”.