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Are extreme forest fires the new normal?

The tragic events in Yarnell, Arizona, where 19 firefighters died battling a forest fire, brought to the forefront the dangers of forest fires. The changes in climate that have been observed during the…

Forest fires will become more severe with climate change, inevitably taking a greater toll of lives. European Press Agency

The tragic events in Yarnell, Arizona, where 19 firefighters died battling a forest fire, brought to the forefront the dangers of forest fires.

The changes in climate that have been observed during the past decades together with socio-economic factors involving land clearance and agriculture has had a serious effect on both the frequency and scale of forest fires.

In many fire-prone regions a lack of rainfall has brought on periods of drought that steadily desiccate all plant-life, leaving it very flammable. Heatwaves where the temperature is considerably above normal for many consecutive days have been more frequent, facilitating the spreading of fires. Irregular patterns of weather have emerged throughout the year, creating conditions where extended dry periods lead to greater chances of fire.

Although these changes have been felt in many countries, according to climate change projections they will not be spread uniformly around the world. For example, it is predicted that northern Europe will be greatly affected, and the problem of forest fires may become considerably more frequent and severe than countries are used to. In southern Europe where fires are already a problem the situation will only get worse.

Fire statistics indicate that yearly burned areas increased in most countries during the past decade with larger and larger fires being recorded. This happens in spite of increasing scientific and technical solutions used to detect and suppress fires.

Another growing problem comes where wild land and urban areas meet - this where fuel, fire, people and houses come together. In order to protect human life, valuable buildings, the forest and the environment the general rule is to suppress all fires whenever possible. This effort requires the existence of dedicated agencies with trained personnel and equipment to face not only the expected, but also extreme situations. These organisations exist mainly in those countries used to facing fires (such as the “hotshot crews” in the US), but other countries are ill-equipped or trained to deal with this problem, even though it is likely to be one they will face in the near future.

Climate change is affecting patterns of vegetation, and this needs to be taken into account by land management that introduces less flammable species.

Urban planners should avoid allowing building in high-risk areas, or where it can cause problems for fire suppression. Regulations on the use of nonflammable materials and good building standards should be enforced. In some countries, many of these measures are already in place - it is those that still have to catch up that will have most problems.

Forest fires have caused considerable death and destruction in the past, such in Greece in 2007 which killed 84, or the Black Saturday fires northeast of Melbourne, Australia, which killed 179 in a single day in 2009.

In spite of their experience, training, equipment and established fire safety rules, firefighters as well as civilians can be surprised by rapid changes in the movement of flames and do not have time to escape. Fire can be unpredictable, and even small fires can kill. In my experience, most accidents with many fatalities involve some form of fire eruption – usually associated with fires moving up slopes or through canyons - that is the cause of a sudden, rapid progression of flames.

In general, fire protection systems cope quite well with small to medium fires, but in extreme situations fires are very difficult to control and it is these that have become more frequent. For the future, we need fuel management programs with well-planned interventions in strategic areas, alongside a knowledgeable population that respects the environment, and especially minimises fires caused by humans in high-risk areas. We must ensure our preparations for the future outpace the flames themselves.

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  1. Mark McGuire

    climate consensus rebel

    Fact checking:

    In California, where population growth has averaged more than 600,000 a year for at least a decade, housing has pushed into rural areas, which make them more prone to fast-moving wild fires.

    "We are increasingly building our homes ... in fire-prone ecosystems," says adjunct professor of biology at Clark University Graduate School of Geography in Worcester, Mass. Professor Kulakowski.

    Doing that "in many of the forests of the Western US ... is like building homes on the side…

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    1. Chris Owens


      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Climate rebel or climate change denier?

      Any reduced incidence of fire may be more the result of luck than climate factors. The California govt Dept of Water Resources noted "The 2013 January-May period is the driest on record (since 1920) for all regions of the Sierra". This follows on from California's driest January - February on record In Arizona their Water Dept noted many areas of severe drought and "record-breaking high temperatures from a heat wave".

      In Victoria in 2009, Black Saturday rewrote the records with the combination of the hottest local temperatures ever recorded, high wind speeds and low humidity. The fire danger index on Black Friday 1939, was 100, on Ash Wednesday 1982 120 and on Black Saturday 2009, up to 190. Seeing a trend?

    2. Chad Kerr

      logged in via email

      In reply to Chris Owens

      According to the National Academy of Sciences, wildfires have decreased globally since the 1950's by 15%.

      A 2011 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that wildfires in the western U.S. are now at their lowest levels in 3,000 years.

      We know globally that hurricanes have declined, tornadoes have declined, floods have declined, and droughts have declined. That is why history has been redefined to start in the 1970's by the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming alarmists.

    3. Mike Hansen


      In reply to Chad Kerr

      We have the usual unreferenced and unsupported claims from a climate science denier.

      A quick google finds this PNAS paper .
      "Long-term perspective on wildfires in the western USA"

      from the abstract

      "We use sedimentary charcoal accumulation rates to construct long-term variations in fire during the past 3,000 y in the American West and compare this record to independent fire-history data from historical records and fire scars. There has been a slight decline in burning over the past 3,000 y, with the lowest levels attained during the 20th century and during the Little Ice Age "

      Not surprisingly, the paper points out that there are more forest fires when temperatures rise and less when they fall.

      So they go on to point out
      "Forest fires in the western United States have been increasing in size (1) and possibly severity (2) for several decades."

    4. Chris Owens


      In reply to Chad Kerr

      I can't decide if your cherry picking or grasping at straws..
      "We know globally that hurricanes have declined, tornadoes have declined, floods have declined, and droughts have declined".

      No, only the standard of the argument from deniers has declined. The government Climate Commission noted extreme weather events are becoming more severe as a consequence of climate change

      The World Meteorological Associations Global Climate Report 2000 - 2010 "A decade of climate extremes." noted with just one exception, every year between 2001 and 2010 was among the top 10 hottest on record.

      But by all means get your science interpreted for you by entertainers like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones. Keep gambling with the only planet we have. I'm sure they will have a back up plan.

    5. Chad Kerr

      logged in via email

      In reply to Chris Owens

      Using the Climate Commission as your rebuttal? Seriously?

      It produced a report on extreme weather, for which it blamed solely greenhouse gas emissions, despite the fact that the IPCC itself, in its own report on Emissions Scenarios, said that our present knowledge could not directly ascribe extreme weather to human activities. No matter,the report continued that theme as though all received wisdom supported it. In fact, the best peer-reviewed assessment says that extreme weather is not more common…

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    6. Chad Kerr

      logged in via email

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      “Data from both U.S. and Canada show the number of wildfires has declined over the past 40-50 years and the number of wildfires was higher during the global cooling scare of the 1970’s.” In fact, the number of U.S. wildfires has dropped 10% per decade. The U.S. government’s National Interagency Fire Center has reported that US wildfires now occur “half as often as they did 50 years ago.”

      Spanish researchers confirmed climate change not to blame for increased forest fires. “The change in the occurrence…

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    7. Chris Owens


      In reply to Chad Kerr

      Sorry but your still cherry picking.

      How can you deny climate change and concede the Greenland ice sheet is melting? If bedrock is rising, then the ice is still melting. Quibbling about the rate of the melt is like arguing at what speed the car is travelling as it drives off a cliff.

      And all the experts are in agreement the Greenland ice sheet is melting: or

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    8. Mike Hansen


      In reply to Chad Kerr

      The quotes Chad attributes to the National Interagency Fire Center and Spanish researchers are in fact from climate crank blogs.

      He states that 'The U.S. government’s National Interagency Fire Center has reported that US wildfires now occur “half as often as they did 50 years ago.”'

      This is NOT a quote from the NIFC.

      It appears this claim started with the notorious climate crank Stephen Goddard.

      Here is the datafile that Goddard linked his claim to.

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  2. Will Hunt


    Many more people building their houses in a ' Like, you know, environmentally sensitive manner man', - roughly translated, trees up to the back door- Many more council and departmental by-laws etc forbidding removal of habitat for rare & endangered species -roughly translated means no clearing around houses- so the same fire will do a lot more damage.