Paradoxical Forests of Fire

August 3, 2014

MatsPetersson1Blanket fog again this Sunday on California’s north coast — and if the shit remains the same (and it’s forecast to do so), in a couple of hours, sunshine and a cool ocean breeze.
Conditions that make for a nice afternoon.

An absolute-not-so just a few feet inland. Beyond the coastal environs, which could be about two miles, the lay-of-the-land is different — hotter, drier and way-combustible. Northern California right now has a string of forest fires across its deep-timber regions, from east to west. And with a drought and all, matters don’t look too wet in the future.

One could catch a glimpse of the current situation in the northern region via the incident page at Cal Fire, but there’s smoke all over the state. Yesterday, Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state-of-emergency again, which this time would include calling out the National Guard.

(Illustration: ‘Untitled,’ from the Firewatch series by Mats Pettersson, found here).

Ironically in a climate-change-sort-of-way, Brown’s emergency decrees have all been related to heat — in January, he officially declared the state is in a drought, and then in April, he signed another emergency drought proclamation, and last month, the state tightened water use by imposing fines for outdoor water use.
Gov. Older Moonbeam in January wanted us Californians to voluntarily cut back our water usage by 20 percent. However, a study in the spring by the State Water Resources Board indicated we actually increased usage by 5 percent since 2011 (when the drought really, really began) — hence, the $500 fines coming with those new rules, which took effect Friday.

And we’re in for a hard row to hoe — via the LA Times last night and the statewide forest fires:

“It’s exacerbated by the drought situation. We have extreme fire conditions,” said Dennis Mathisen, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“We’re seeing fire behavior we wouldn’t normally see until September.
“With warmer weather conditions, low humidity and some wind, and all you need is a spark, and a series of dry lightning strikes, and that’s a recipe for disaster,” Mathisen said.

Across the northeastern parts of California, fire-recipes galore — a blaze called the Day fire in the far corner, has already gutted 12,500 acres and supposedly only 15 percent contained; and there’s even now a two-state forest fire, as the two-day old, 6,900-acre Oregon Gulch fire has jumped the line near Mount Shasta.
Meanwhile, in Shasta County, more than 12,000 acres have been charred by a trio of forest fires.

A longtime, old friend and his family have homes and property real-near the most-western of the northern California fires, the so-called Lodge Lightning Complex Fire, which has already burned 2,200 acres, and as of this morning was only 10 percent contained. The site is located north of Laytonville, right along the 101 freeway, which runs the length of the state, and right in the hot-heart of Mendocino County, about two hours south of where I’m currently sitting on my ass.
My friend told me last night it had climbed to 106 degrees there during the day — then just at dark, was about 80.
Meanwhile, supposedly up here on the coast, we topped out all-day Saturday at about 67.

I lived in that general vicinity in the late-1980s, and know the wildness of the vast wilderness surrounding the tiny life-corridor along the 101. My friend heard on the scanner about noon today that two water tankers — most-likely the old DC-10s — were enroute to the Lodge fire from Redding.
Maybe now the fire can be brought under control.

And all this is just the face of the future — forests in the far-northern stretches of this planet, oddly enough, are burning near-about-already out-of-control, like in the remote Canadian Northwest.
Lori Daniels, associate professor, Department of Forests and Conservation Sciences, University of British Columbia, and a double-whammy on the woods:

“We made a decision decades ago that fire had only negative effects on the forests and we valued the forests for economic reasons … so we made a huge effort to suppress fires and we have been very successful,” she said.
“The numbers from the Ministry of Forests tell us 97 per cent of fires are put out before they reach four hectares in size.
And over many decades that’s had a cumulative effect and certainly that’s reflected in that lack of fire scars in the 20th century.”
But the success of firefighting created more risk.
Without regular fires, fuel built up on the forest floor.
“When there’s high frequency of fires, every 10, 20, even 40 years, that means in a human lifetime there would have been three or four fires repeated in the forest around them.
And those fires would have burned off leaf litter and needles and fine fuels that accumulate on the ground … But in absence of those fires the fuels accumulate and … you get the conditions for a much more severe fire,” she said.
“And so there’s the big paradox – by trying to protect ourselves from surface fires we’ve created conditions … for big severe fires.”

And the hammer-down on the double-whammy?
From Climate Central last month:

Of the 186 wildfires in the Northwest Territories to-date this year, 156 of them are currently burning.
That includes the Birch Creek Fire complex, which stretches over 250,000 acres.
The amount of acres burned in the Northwest Territories is six times greater than the 25-year average to-date according to data from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.
Boreal forests like those in the Northwest Territories are burning at rates “unprecedented” in the past 10,000 years according to the authors of a study put out last year.
The northern reaches of the globe are warming at twice the rate as areas closer to the equator, and those hotter conditions are contributing to more widespread burns.
The combined boreal forests of Canada, Europe, Russia and Alaska, account for 30 percent of the world’s carbon stored in land, carbon that’s taken up to centuries to store.
Forest fires like those currently raging in the Northwest Territories, as well as ones in 2012 and 2013 in Russia, can release that stored carbon into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.
Warmer temperatures can in turn create a feedback loop, priming forests for wildfires that release more carbon into the atmosphere and cause more warming.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark climate report released earlier this year indicates that for every 1.8°F rise in temperatures, wildfire activity is expected to double.

And after detailing the numbers and data, a point expressed: While these conditions can’t be tied specifically to climate change, they’re in line with those trends.

We’re all feeling incredulous that incongruity rhymes with promiscuity, but what the hey…

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