National Security: WildfireSep 3rd, 2013 | By Admin | Category: Editorials
You would think that the subject of forest fires is the farthest thing from my mind, given the incredibly wet summer we have experienced. The local KBDI fire potential index (on a scale of zero to 800) is below 200 meaning we are in no real danger of a spontaneous wildfire. But, if you’re paying attention to the national news, you’ll know that the west from Colorado to the Pacific is on fire. Massive tracts of forested land, mostly owned by the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), are consumed by flames. It is not uncommon for these fires in the arid west to destroy a hundred thousand acres of vegetation. What is it that creates the conditions for conflagration? Dry conditions and low humidity are a major factor. Some of these forested areas get less than 10 inches of rainfall in an average year and they’re currently in their annual dry cycle. Wind speeds are much higher in these western states than we normally experience; that’s why you see so many more windmills out west. The mountainous terrain with deep valleys only accentuate the wind speed; these valleys funnel the wind, creating a venturi affect. The fire accelerates the wind speed as it sucks in more oxygen. It’s not uncommon for Santa Anna winds to exceed 75 mph, hurricane force. So most of the ingredients are present, but what about fuel? The ideal fuel for these wildfires is old, mature forests that have gone untouched for a long time. Perhaps the forests have been infected with an outbreak of bark beetles that kill the trees. This was easy to predict in Colorado several years ago when a beetle outbreak killed millions of trees across the state. The dead trees, most on wide swaths of federally owned land, were left standing, a tinder box of fuel for the next spark. Where and how that spark ignites is always a matter of investigation. The most likely causes are human arson and nature-induced lightning. The current massive blaze near Yosemite Park in California’s central valley may have been started by marijuana growers. One of my family’s timber tracts in nearby Hamilton County suffered two wildfires in 2011. The first was arson and burned about 7 acres of timber; the second was caused by lightning a few months later and burned nearly 15 acres. Fortunately, the Florida Forest Service was quick to respond to both fires and used their bulldozers to cut a firebreak which isolated the blaze and limited the damage. There is some evidence that our nation’s enemies like al-Qaeda have economic warfare strategies to set wildfires such as the 2012 and 2013 fires near Colorado Springs. We do know that the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire was not caused by lightning. So there you have the three basic components of a fire – fuel, oxygen, and ignition. Arid conditions, high winds and low humidity exacerbate the problem. With that, the firefighters move in to contain the fire and cut off additional sources of fuel with fire lines and aerial release of flame retardants. As you can imagine, it is pretty difficult to contain a wildfire raging in a remote, hilly wilderness where the fire can jump into an adjacent valley quite easily. And it is dangerous work. Recall that earlier this year near Prescott, Arizona, a fire-fighting team of more than a dozen was cut off and swept to their death by a wildfire that rapidly changed direction. Traditionally, fire is an important component of forestry. For centuries, farmers have set controlled burns in their fields and woods to burn-off excess fuel. We don’t practice too much of that anymore, principally because of the liability threat. I use fire after a logging operation to burn off the remaining slash, clearing the way for replanting the tract in young pines the following winter. However, I don’t set fire to the woods any more – too risky. I can “burn” a timber tract either with fire or with a chemical herbicide like imazapyr. Surprisingly, the cost difference between the two methods isn’t that great, and the chemical treatment is much more effective and relatively low risk, so the decision of which method to employ is a no-brainer. One thing to remember about fire is that it is an important “cleansing” tool for nature. Not long after fire has swept through an area, new life begins to sprout from the charred ground. In 1988, Yellowstone National Park was swept by a gigantic wildfire. A quarter century later, new vigorously growing vegetation is healing the scars of fire. Nature is resilient. The problem that led to the Yellowstone fire and many of the current wildfires is that there is too much buildup of fuel. Fire cleans the slate. This problem of excess fuel is more prevalent in the west where environmental laws and other poor management practices set the table for devastating fires. We’re less likely to see this in the southeast where most of our forests are privately owned and vigorously managed using economically-incentivized forestry practices.