Tag Archives: fire

Fire and the Anishinaabe

Andrew Miller and Iain Davidson-Hunt from the University of Manitoba, write about Fire, Agency and Scale in the Creation of Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes in Human Ecology (doi: 10.1007/s10745-010-9325-3).

The authors worked with the Pikangikum First Nation to understand and analyze how fire co-produces a cultural landscape over large spatial areas.

Their paper has two really interesting figures showing alternative perspectives on fire.  The first is a Stommel diagram of the Anishinaabe fire related cultural landscape in Manitoba, and the second an Anishinaabe image of a specific way fire was used in specific places and time in the boreal forest landscape to enhance the supply of desired ecosystem services.

Fig. 4 Spatial and temporal dimensions of knowledge related to fire use and its impacts held by Anishinaabe elders, and the areas of expertise they require

Fig. 5 Pishashkooseewuhseekaag—Spring burning of the marshes. Fires were lit in marshes in the Spring when ice on the lakes was beginning to break up but the ground was still frozen. Burning created luxuriant regrowth of grass, habitat for ducks and muskrats that could also be harvested for insulation.

Fire, climate change, and the reorganization of Arctic ecosystems

Alaskan nature writer Bill Sherwonit reports on Yale Environment 360 about the complex response of Arctic ecosystems to climate change in how Arctic Tundra is Being Lost As Far North Quickly Warms:

Researchers have known for years that the Arctic landscape is being transformed by rising temperatures. Now, scientists are amassing growing evidence that major events precipitated by warming — such as fires and the collapse of slopes caused by melting permafrost — are leading to the loss of tundra in the Arctic. The cold, dry, and treeless ecosystem — characterized by an extremely short growing season; underlying layers of frozen soil, or permafrost; and grasses, sedges, mosses, lichens, and berry plants — will eventually be replaced by shrub lands and even boreal forest, scientists forecast.

Much of the Arctic has experienced temperature increases of 3 to 5 degrees F in the past half-century and could see temperatures soar 10 degrees F above pre-industrial levels by 2100. University of Vermont professor Breck Bowden, a watershed specialist participating in a long-term study of the Alaskan tundra, said that such rapidly rising temperatures will mean that the “tundra as we imagine it today will largely be gone throughout the Arctic. It may take longer than 50 or even 100 years, but the inevitable direction is toward boreal forest or something like it.”

… In the course of studying caribou, Joly has also learned a great deal about the role of fire in “low,” or sub-Arctic, tundra, where for several decades at least it has been a much more significant factor than on the North Slope’s “high Arctic” landscape. About 9 percent of Alaska’s lower latitude tundra burned between 1950 and 2007, whereas only 7 percent of the North Slope caught fire during that period. That could change as the region warms and fires become more frequent farther north.

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Stephen Pyne on California Wildfires

ASU fire historian Stephen Pyne on current California wildfires on Island Press’s weblog.  In Two fires he writes:

Then: Southern California burns, 2008
Even for the literal-minded, it was hard not to lump the conflagrations on Wall Street with those in Southern California. The meltdown of 401(k)s with the street signs at Sylmar. The frantic, ever-escalating press conferences and bailouts of any significant credit institution with the desperate deployment of ever-greater masses of engines and helitankers, all equally ineffective. Somehow the spark of a credit crunch managed to leap over fiscal firewalls and spread throughout the economic landscape, much as relatively small blazes blew over I-5 and threatened the power supply of Los Angeles. The general destruction has moved upscale, so that trophy homes burn along with trailer parks, and hedge funds with day traders. When the winds blew, they exposed any combustible object to embers, and threatened to incinerate anything vulnerable. The entire system, it seems, is vulnerable, and everyone knew that the winds always blow. It’s just been convenient to pretend otherwise.

Now: Southern California burns, 2009
Another round, this time without the Santa Anas to drive them over and through the Transverse Range. More blowups. More houses burned. More evacuations. More declarations of disaster and states of emergency. More crews, more planes, more helicopters, more TV cameras. More posturing. Meanwhile, the Great Recession continues, refusing to be extinguished. Investors applaud each stock market rally as homeowners in Altadena do retardant drops by DC-10s. The fires continue for the same reason the economy continues to smolder, because the fundamentals have not changed. Until they do, we will be left with damaging breakouts and political theater.

* * *
Like economic transactions, fire is not a substance but a reaction – an exchange. It takes its character from its context. It synthesizes its surroundings. Its power derives from the power to propagate. To control fire, you control its setting, and you control wild fire by substituting tame fire.

In fire-prone public lands, where the setting will not convert to shopping malls and sports arenas, some fire is inevitable and some necessary. From time to time a few fires will go feral. Without fire some biotas will only build up combustibles capable of stoking still-more savage outbreaks, and equally, some will cease to function. Fire is a force of “creative destruction” in nature’s economy. Without it, particularly in drier landscapes, nutrients no longer circulate freely but get hoarded. It’s as though organisms hid their valuables in secret caches dug in the backyard or in socks under the bed. The choice is not whether or not to have fire but what kind of fire we wish.

Slow variables that shape bushfire resilience

fireausCreating the perfect firestorm on the BBC writes about two of the slow variables that produce a fire situation: climate and fuel accumulation:

Current climate projections point to an increase in fire-weather risk from warmer and drier conditions.

Two simulations used by Australia’s lead scientific agency, CSIRO, and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology point to the number of days with very high and extreme fire danger ratings increasing by some 4-25% by 2020, and 15-70% by 2050.

The agencies’ Climate Change in Australia report cites the example of Canberra which may be looking at an annual average of 26-29 very high or extreme fire danger days by 2020 and 28-38 days by 2050.

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Stephen Pyne on the Australian fires

Photo from National Geographic

Photo from National Geographic

American fire historian Stephen Pyne comments in The Australian on the current Australian fires in Bushfire leader becomes laggard:

Australia knows better. It developed many key concepts of fire ecology and models of bushfire behaviour. It pioneered landscape-scale prescribed burning as a method of bushfire management. It devised the protocol for structure protection in the bush, especially the ingenious stratagem of leaving early or staying, preparing and defending. In recent decades it has beefed up active suppression capabilities and emergency services.

… Yet Australia keeps enduring the same Sisyphean cycle of calamitous conflagrations in the same places. It isn’t translating what it knows into its practices. It seems to be abandoning its historic solutions for the kind of telegenic suppression operations and political theatre that have failed elsewhere. Even when controlled burning is accepted in principle, there always seems a reason not to burn in this place or at this time. So the burning gets outsourced to lightning, accident and arson.

It’s too early to identify the particulars behind the latest catastrophe. But it’s likely that investigation will point to the same culprits, perhaps aggravated by climate change and arson. Both are relevant, but both are potential distractions.

Global warming might magnify outbreaks, but it would mean a change in degree, not in kind; and its effects must in any case be absorbed by the combustible cover.

Arson can put fire in the worst place at the worst time, but its power depends on the capacity to spread and to destroy susceptible buildings.

Yet neither is fundamental. With or without global warming or arson, damaging fires will come, spread as the landscape allows and inflict damage as structures permit. And it is there – with how Australians live on the land – that reform must go.

Australia will have fire, and it will recycle the conditions that can leverage small flames into holocausts. The choice is whether skilled people should backburn or leave fire-starting to lightning, clumsies and crazies.

After the 1939 Black Friday conflagration, a royal commission set into motion the modern era of bushfire management. At the time the official ambition of state-sponsored conservation was to eliminate fire as far as possible, and through fire exclusion alter the character of the landscape so it would become less fire prone. Leonard Stretton asked the nation’s forester why he continued to hold this view when it had never succeeded, when bushfires had inevitably wiped out his every repeated effort. Wryly, Stretton mocked the absurdity of those who sought to make sunburnt Australia into green England.

Black SaturdayII will yield another royal commission. Much has changed in 70 years; Australians are more urban, more sensitive to environmental issues, keener to protect unique ecological assets. Yet perhaps they are substituting another, more modern delusion: striving to remake the burning bush into an unburnt Oz, only to find this vision also repeatedly obliterated by remorseless fire.

Good points, but I think he under-states the change in settlement patterns, as increasing number of people live in ex-urban areas that complicate fire management, and also the risk that climate change produces a disequilibrium between vegetation and climate that can result in much larger than fires one would observe in an equilibrium climate.

Stephen Pyne is also on an ABC radio podcast discussing the environmental history of bushfire in Australia.

Mapping global fires

Global Fires : Image of the Day from NASA Earth Observatory:

Like plants, fire activity grows and wanes in seasonal patterns. Globally, fires peak in July, August, and September, when summer’s drying heat makes vegetation flammable and lightning ignites the landscape. In addition, summer is the time when many crops are harvested and fields are burned in the Northern Hemisphere, where most of Earth’s continents are. On any given day in July, August, or September an estimated 6,000 fires burn across the world. February is the slowest month of the year, with an estimated 3,000 fires per day. To watch fires move across the globe throughout the year, see Fire in the Global Maps section of the Earth Observatory.

The contrast between the two months is shown in this pair of images made from data collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. The top image shows all of the fires detected during August 2008, while the lower image shows February 2008. Dense fire concentrations are yellow, while more scattered fires are red. February is clearly the burning season in the tropics. A solid band of red stretches across the Sahel of Africa, and hundreds fires were burning in northern South America, Central America, and southeast Asia. In August, the fire regions shifted into more temperate regions north and south of the Equator. Intense agricultural fires burn in south-central Europe and in southern Africa.

An animation of global fires is available on the Global Maps section of the NASA Earth Observatory

Stephen Pyne compares California Fires and the Financial Crisis

Fire historian Stephen Pyne writes in the Tyee A Wildfire Expert Views the Money Meltdown:

There are no absolute assurances that wildfire will not from time to time spill over into settlements, any more than markets won’t fizz and bubble; but we know how to keep such outbreaks from happening routinely. It’s messy, irritating to fundamentalists (both those of the wilderness and of the market), and not cheap. So far, we continue to drop money and fire retardant on the flames. That may not quench the fire but it makes good political theater.

At some point, however, the money will run out completely and it will no longer be possible to pretend that we can rebuild; everything will simply burn to ash. We will have to deal with the landscape itself. The power of fire resides in its power to propagate: you control that power by controlling fire’s environment. So too the power of fiscal contagion requires control over the entire scene.

For the present we’re caught between two nasty fires. It’s time we put some distance between ourselves and both of them. We can’t control the winds, we only know they will blow again.

Mike Davis on California Wildfires

California firesPolitical ecologist Mike Davis writing on the 2007 California Wildfires in the LRB

Every year, sometimes in September, but usually in October just before Halloween, when California’s wild vegetation is driest and most combustible, high pressure over the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau unleashes an avalanche of cold air towards the Pacific coast. As this huge air mass descends, it heats up through compression, creating the illusion that we are being roasted by outbursts from nearby deserts, when in fact the devil winds originate in the land of the Anasazi – the mystery people who left behind such impressive ruins at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon.There is little enigma to the physics of the winds, though their sudden arrival is always disturbing to greenhorns and nervous pets as well as to lorry drivers and joggers (sometimes scythed by razor-sharp palm fronds). Technically, they are ‘föhns’, after the warm winds that stream down from the leeward side of the Alps, but the Southern California term is a ‘Santa Ana’, probably in ironic homage to Mexico’s singularly disastrous 19th-century caudillo. For a few days every year, these dry hurricanes blow our world apart or, if a cigarette or a downed power line is in the path, they ignite it.

…The loss of more than 90 per cent of Southern California’s agricultural buffer zone is the principal if seldom mentioned reason wildfires increasingly incinerate such spectacular swathes of luxury real estate. It’s true that other ingredients – La Niña droughts, fire suppression (which sponsors the accumulation of fuel), bark beetle infestations and probably global warming – contribute to the annual infernos that have become as predictable as Guy Fawkes bonfires. But what makes us most vulnerable is the abruptness of what is called the ‘wildland-urban interface’, where real estate collides with fire ecology. And castles without their glacises are not very defensible.

And in TomDispatch.com Mike Davis writes about the dynamics of California’s real estate “growth machine” (a sociological theory of urban devleopment) that has produced the pyrogenic landscape of California:

The imbalance of power is greater yet at the county scale. In the wake of the last round of firestorms in 2003, a grassroots alliance of environmentalists and old-time rural residents tried to slow the subdivision and trophy-home juggernaut by limiting residential density to one home per 100 acres: an initiative inspired by the famous precedent of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. They were, however, utterly crushed at the polls (65% to 35%) by a flood of developer money, which disguised itself in ads on television as the voice of embattled “small farmers.”

More recently, on the very eve of the new firestorms, county supervisors endorsed a so-called “shelter in place” strategy that will permit developers to build in the rugged, high-fire-risk backcountry without having to provide the secondary roads needed to ensure safe evacuation. Instead residents would be encouraged to stay in their “fire resistant” homes while fire-fighters defended the perimeter of their cul-de-sac. As scores of fire experts and survivors have pointed out in angry op-ed columns and blogs, this is a lunatic, if not homicidal, scheme that elevates developers’ bottom-lines over human life. Those who have actually confronted 100-foot-high firestorms, driven by hurricane-velocity winds, know that the developer slogan — “It’s not where you build, but how you build” — is a deadly deception.

Meanwhile, the new fire cataclysm seems to be rewarding the very insiders most responsible for the uncontrolled building and underfunded fire protection that helped give the Santa Ana winds their real tinder. While conservative ideologues now celebrate San Diego’s most recent tragedy as a “triumph” of middle-class values and suburban solidarity, the business community openly gloats over the coming reconstruction boom and the revival of a building industry badly shaken by the mortgage crisis. And the Union-Tribune — like London papers after the slaughter that was the battle of the Somme in 1915 — eulogizes the very generalship (all Republicans, of course) that led us into disaster. …

How slow change increased California’s fire risk

California firesThe Christian Science Monitor article California’s age of megafires describes how California’s fire risk has been increased by slow changes in fire suppression (but probably not in California), climate change, longer fire season, and house construction in the wildland-urban interface:

Megafires, also called “siege fires,” are the increasingly frequent blazes that burn 500,000 acres or more – 10 times the size of the average forest fire of 20 years ago. One of the current wildfires is the sixth biggest in California ever, in terms of acreage burned, according to state figures and news reports.The trend to more superhot fires, experts say, has been driven by a century-long policy of the US Forest Service to stop wildfires as quickly as possible. The unintentional consequence was to halt the natural eradication of underbrush, now the primary fuel for megafires.

Three other factors contribute to the trend, they add. First is climate change marked by a 1-degree F. rise in average yearly temperature across the West. Second is a fire season that on average is 78 days longer than in the late 1980s. Third is increased building of homes and other structures in wooded areas.

“We are increasingly building our homes … in fire-prone ecosystems,” says Dominik Kulakowski, adjunct professor of biology at Clark University Graduate School of Geography in Worcester, Mass. Doing that “in many of the forests of the Western US … is like building homes on the side of an active volcano.”

In California, where population growth has averaged more than 600,000 a year for at least a decade, housing has pushed into such areas.

“What once was open space is now residential homes providing fuel to make fires burn with greater intensity,” says Terry McHale of the California Department of Forestry firefighters union. “With so much dryness, so many communities to catch fire, so many fronts to fight, it becomes an almost incredible job.”