The Fires This Time

The Rim Fire in California’s Sierra Nevada burned over a quarter million acres in 2013. Seemed amazing then, now it’s just another day in the woods (and on the tundra). (US Forest Service photo)

The Rim Fire in California’s Sierra Nevada burned over a quarter million acres in 2013. Seemed amazing then, now it’s just another day in the woods (and on the tundra). (US Forest Service photo)

An appalling amount of the Northern Hemisphere is on fire. At the beginning of this month, 314 wildfires were raging in Alaska alone. They have seared 5 million acres so far this year and have torched up to half a million acres in a single day. Meanwhile, to the east in Canada’s Northwest Territory, hundreds of fires were raging in the permafrost zone, having covered over two million acres by the end of June. The forested northern provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan were similarly afflicted — 522 fires in northern Saskatchewan alone by June 30, nearly four times as many as last year in the same period.

Southward from Alaska, at the beginning of this month, wildfires dotted the landscapes of all the western states as far south as southern California and as far east as Colorado. One California fire overran a traffic jam on a freeway, leaving behind a dystopian landscape of burned-out cars (but, remarkably, no serious casualties).

Wildfires were raging across southern Siberia and Inner Mongolia by mid-April. At the moment, more than 50 wildfires are burning in troubled Greece, their smoke casting a dark pall over Athens.

A new study published last week confirms that wildfires worldwide are larger, more numerous, and their season is longer every year; and that it is all a direct consequence of climate change. Hotter and drier conditions, beginning earlier each spring, have over 30 years doubled the area of the planet’s surface that is vulnerable to wildfire; and have lengthened by 18% the average length of fire seasons worldwide.

In addition, climate change has extended northward the range of the mountain pine beetle, which has killed swaths of western pine trees so vast that there is fear of a single wildfire sweeping through dead trees from New Mexico to Alberta.

The effects of these fires go far beyond the immediate danger to homes and persons. Wildfires do not “destroy” the land across which they travel, as is often heard in the lamestream media, fire is an integral and necessary part of natural ecosystems. However, massive fires temporarily denude the land they scorch of the leaves that deflect and slow rainfall, and the root systems that hold topsoil in place. Thus muddy floods and landslides follow the fire until undergrowth is replaced.

The smoke from these titanic fires is becoming a major threat. It contains tiny particles that bypass the body’s defenses against pollution and enter the lungs and bloodstream, aggravating lung and heart diseases. Fire 50-100 miles upwind from a city have been shown to degrade air quality by a factor of 5 – 15 times. Carried into more southerly  latitudes by the undulating planetary wave between the polar and temperate air masses, the smoke has been darkening the summer skies and tinting sunsets as far south as Tennessee and West Virginia.

But the most ominous thing about these fires is that they are not merely an effect of climate change, they are a cause. The burning of the forests and tundra is releasing astounding quantities of carbon, stored for centuries in the wood and the permanently frozen subsoil. Melting permafrost releases methane, a greenhouse gas many times more destructive of the world’s climate than carbon dioxide. The fires are in fact a feedback mechanism, accelerating climate change as climate change accelerates them.

In one of Ray Bradbury’s searing, never-to-be-unread short stories, an astronaut in a space suit is floating languidly in space, musing on his existence and the wonderful perspective he has on the blue planet Earth below him. Shortly we learn that these are the musings of a doomed man, as he is in fact hurtling toward that earth and will die a fiery death when he hits the atmosphere. Just before that happens, we leave him, and join a mother and small child taking an evening walk as the child looks up in wonder and says, “Look, Mom! A shooting star!”

Somewhere in the northern hemisphere tonight, a small child will look up in wonder and say, “Look, Mom! What a pretty sunset!”

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6 Responses to The Fires This Time

  1. Tom says:

    Just wait til the methane reaches a critical state of pluming due to all the heat in the Arctic! You wanna see fires? Those will be something to behold (in horror).

    Yet Shell (and other interests) are still trying to get started drilling up there with “our” President’s blessing!

    We live in “interesting” times now (ala the Chinese curse) and it’s only going to get worse (probably exponentially – ie. the world will be drastically different than it is now in 5 years time and unrecognizable after that).

    Keep up the good work Mr. Lewis. i appreciate reading your posts.

  2. We got some rain this week in Alaska, and fire danger is down a bit, but it does look like it will be a persistent problem.


  3. Denis Frith says:

    It seems that societies around the world will have to try and cope with a mix of wildfires, droughts, floods, storms together with sea level rise in the years ahead. ironically, governments still focus on economic growth and status competition between countries. .

  4. Tom says:

    You wanna see sump’m?

    Look around – the world’s burnin’ bad in places like Africa, Russia, and South America.

    Methane’s still pluming, Fukushima’s still emitting lethal ionizing radiation non-stop, the global average temperature is over 1 degree C more than it was before the Industrial Revolution (and it keeps rising each year), the Arctic sea ice, Greenland’s ice sheet and Antarctica are melting since the ocean is emitting a tremendous amount of heat.

  5. Mike Kay says:

    Doubtless it will not matter, yet I am compelled to point out that the official party line in regards to “wildfire” is inaccurate, twisted, and in fact completely contrary to reality.
    Yes, I am a wildfire survivor, and as such, it does indeed give me an up close and personal look at the demented corporate offensive that today is rationalized as “fire management”
    First, a question: Why is that Asian forests have far fewer devastating fires? When one views forests in Asia, their primary threats are directly related to a local population struggling vainly to exist in an impossible globalist dream-or is that nightmare?
    Asia experiences drought, temperature extremes, and resultant wildfires, yet their management strategy is based on actually putting out the fire before it ruins farms, orchards, communities, and thousands of years of deposited topsoil. On the other hand, here in Amerika, putting out fires does not compute with either corporate profit or management goals where, according to one government official, trees are now perceived as weeds. Thus, Amerikan strategy is to decide ahead of time just how big the fire is going to be, and then proceed to help it along by playing neo-Nero, and igniting new fires within this zone. These corporatists will tell you, as they madly burn hundreds of square miles, that they are fighting fire with fire. No, sorry to correct the official line, there is no fighting of fire, simply an unopposed effort to get it to expand to expectations in order to meet corporate profit goals, and the twisted view of government officials.
    This new firefighting strategy kills people, destroys hundreds of miles of productive land, and creates refugees who can no longer occupy their former once habitable areas. Once vegetation is violently removed, topsoil becomes mobile, floods the norm, farming becomes impossible, and weeds, real weeds repopulate the once productive forested area.
    Of course, little if any reality is ever reported by the so-called news, because the fire “fighters”(?) have their own media personnel, and the “news” dutifully regurgitates what they are told.
    Wildfires, as they exist today, are destructive. Most of the old growth is long gone, but mature tree stands can take hundreds of years to repopulate-if at all. Forests regulate climate, atmosphere, temperature, and are key to local hydrological cycles. The reader must keep in mind that the current scope and severity of wildfires exist due to corporate and collusive governmental decree, not due to some prerequisite from Nature.
    Yes, fire is natural, and it does naturally occur, from stand replacing blazes, to more localized events, yet it is precisely this point which is twisted to justify a program of gross incompetence, stupidity, and greed.

  6. merc says:

    You left out one important feedback. The soot from the fires in Canada lands on the Greenland Ice-Shelf and makes it darker, so it absorbs more heat and melts easier. I believe that 2012 was a year of major fires in canada and, not co-incidentally, the biggest greenland melt in recent decades.