Wildfires, naturally occurring forest fires and climate change
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Wildfires, naturally occurring forest fires and climate change

Los Angeles : CA : USA | May 03, 2013 at 9:09 AM PDT
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Climate Change Report: More Fires In 2050 (Southern California)

Santa Ana winds, notorious for fueling wildfires, swept through Ventura County on Thursday, consuming more than 12 square miles and endangering homes. The fire stretched from Highway 101 to the Pacific Coast Highway and prompted firefighters to battle the blaze all night.

Thousands are evacuating their homes in Southern California as the first wildfires of the season begin to ravage the state. Gusty winds and extremely dry conditions forced evacuations as more than 8,000 acres of heavy brush terrain was burned by the fire that began Thursday during the morning rush hour near a major highway and commuter route into Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, according to USA Today.

California State University Channel Islands, which has a student body of close to 5,000 students, was one of the facilities evacuated. The Ventura County Fire Department said it sent 20 fire engines to the campus to protect the buildings.

Early Friday morning, the blaze was still raging and about 10 percent contained, local fire officials reported and thousands of people from hundreds of homes have fled as the wildfire pushed toward the ocean.

Strong Santa Ana winds had died down towards the evening on Thursday, but fire officials warned they could pick up and again fan flames.

"We have conditions that are very dramatic, very dangerous for firefighters. This fire is growing," Tom Kruschke, an information officer with the Ventura County Fire Department, told reporters Friday morning.

"We are asking members of the public to be very aware -- this is very dangerous. This is still a moving fire. If you were asked to evacuate, it will be a while before you are allowed in. And if at one point you are uncomfortable, please leave the area. It's not safe to stay," Kruschke said.

Wildfires can be horrific events, and the causes resulting from climate change threaten to devastate the Western US in the future. Naturally-occurring wildfires, however, are needed to accommodate the natural adaptation by some trees and plants for propagation.

Climate change and wildfires

The connection between climate change and the frequency of wildfires is undeniable. US Forest Service scientists project that by 2050, lands burned by wildfires every year will at least double to around 20 million acres nationwide. Areas like the Rocky Mountain forests will suffer from larger wildfires, federal scientists warned in a report to Congress.

By comparison, lands currently burned an average of more than 100,000 wildfires yearly. Also called wild land fires or forest fires, they clear four million to five million acres (1.6 million to 2 million hectares) of land in the US every year. In recent years, wildfires have burned up to nine million acres (3.6 million hectares) of land. A wildfire moves at speeds of up to 14 miles an hour (23 kilometers an hour), consuming everything—trees, brush, homes, even humans—in its path.

Some regions, including western Colorado, are expected to face up to a fivefold increase in acres burned if climate change continues on the current trajectory, according to the US Forest Service.

Floods, droughts and heat waves, driven by changing weather patterns, also are expected to spur bug infestations of the sort seen across four million acres of Colorado pine forests.

"We're going to have to figure out some more effective and efficient ways for adapting rather than just pouring more and more resources and money at it," Forest Service Climate Change Advisor Dave Cleaves said. "We're going to have to have a lot more partnerships with states and communities to look at fires and forest health problems."

Coincidentally, together with the early wildfire outbreak in California this week, Forest Service scientists attended a conference in Denver, Colo., called “National Adaptation.” Experts discussed climate change and the degradation of watersheds and wildfire management in preparation for a report to Congress and President Barack Obama.

New data shows bug attacks are already broadening. In Colorado, insects target trees at higher elevations, such as white-bark pines found in wilderness areas, said David Peterson, a Forest Service research biologist who co-wrote the 265-page report.

"It's just unprecedented things happening. We're getting into extreme events that seem to be having more and more effects across broader landscapes," Peterson said.

The problem is that the rise of super-intense wildfires in Colorado and other areas forces agencies to devote most federal resources to fire suppression. Foresters say they lack the capacity to thin more than 20 percent of the forests that need treatment.

"It's a difficult challenge. When a fire occurs, there's an expectation it's going to be put out," Peterson said.

"On all these dry landscapes, we're going to have fire. Can we manage it so many of them are low-severity fires — like many were historically?"

Some governors of western US states took the climate change warning as confirmation of current trends and called for federal help creating new forest projects industries.

Fires and insect attacks "are only going to get even worse," Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said Wednesday. "We need a real federal commitment to managing our forests in a way that will prepare and protect our communities, protect and enhance wildlife habitat and protect our water for drinking, irrigation and fishing."

Forest fires are nature’s way

Forest fires are nature’s way of propagation when they occur naturally. Unfortunately the majority of wildfires are started by humans, not Mother Nature. According to the Bureau of Land Management, 75 percent of forest fires are caused by humans.

Naturally-occurring wildfires, however, play an integral role in nature. They return nutrients to the soil by burning dead or decaying matter. They also act as a disinfectant, removing disease-ridden plants and harmful insects from a forest ecosystem. And by burning through thick canopies and brushy undergrowth, wildfires allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, enabling a new generation of seedlings to grow.

Some trees need fires to release their seeds from hardened resin cones in order to propagate like the Jack Pine of the northern parts of central and eastern US and Canada and the giant redwood or sequoia of California. The cones of these trees can contain up to 200 seeds and may take two years to mature. Once matured, they will remain in the cone and await a forest fire. The heat from the fire causes the resin to melt and the cones to open and release their seeds.

Also the Manzanita of the desert chaparral indigenous to the California sierra requires high heat to release its seeds.

Trees are not the only plants that rely on fires for regeneration. Plants like the Mule’s Ear and the iris store most of their energy in their roots and underground bulbs. If a fire sweeps through and burns everything above the ground, these plants respond to the heat and ash rich in nutrients and can be the first plants to reappear in the fire vanquished landscape. Other plants like the California native ceanothus responds to the heat similarly to the sequoia and the manzanita, releasing its seeds in response to the heat generated by a fire.

Scientists say natural-occurring forest fires are expected, and forest managers are making the case for accelerated restoration work to boost forest resilience. By thinning overly-dense forests strategically, they say, wildfires at least can be tamed.

Taming the human population who are responsible for the majority of the forest fires remains the challenge.

Resources:

Feds project climate change will double wildfire risk in forests - The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/breakingnews/ci_22943189/feds-project-climate-change-will-double-wildfire-risk#ixzz2SCBrL6eQ

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/05/03/california-wildfires/2131801/

http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/30-Acre-Blaze-Breaks-Out-Ventura-County-205785531.html

http://creationrevolution.com/2012/06/plants-that-need-fire-to-survive/

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NASA historical data on the location of wildfires helps to pinpoint where the threat of wildfires is likely to occur. (Image: NASA)
Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor for Allvoices.
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