Up in Flames

Aspen Johnson

Santa Rosa Before - Oct. 2017Santa Rosa After - Oct. 2017
Before and after pictures of the Santa Rosa after a fire went through Oct. 9, 2017 Credit: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/10/us/california-fires-maps-photos.html

At the moment, millions of dollars have gone up in smoke, literally. Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are all on fire. Due to poor management, grasslands and forests kept growing, leading to massive amounts of dead, dry underbrush. This underbrush is perfect for a fire, plenty of fuel to get hot and fast.

One of the reasons this year's fire season was so bad was due to the amount of rain we had. Lots of rain meant for lots of underbrush growth, which meant lots of fuel for fire. As of Oct. 10, 2017, 8,502,805 total acres have burned in the United States this year alone. Before the hurricanes were even registered on the radar, Montana had already declared a state of emergency

Unfortunately, fires are not considered "natural disaster" like hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes or volcanic eruptions. Some people think this is wrong, while others support this thought. The definition of a "natural disaster" even has the word "fire" in it, so why does the government focus on flooding homes, but not homes burnt to the ground?

While multiple articles state that Oregon is trying to change the policy on fighting fires, one article from Time Magazine says "Don't Call the California Wildfires 'Natural Disasters'." The author, Justin Worland, goes on for four paragraphs about why fires should not be considered natural disasters, but in his last paragraph, and I quote: "Wildfires often rank among the most devastating natural disasters in the U.S." Did I read this correctly? Blah, blah, blah, fires are not natural disasters, but yet they are considered to be the most devastating natural disaster in the US? I'm so confused.

Okay, so Worland believes most fires are human caused, and I'm not going to argue with that. Most fires, about 90 percent, are human caused; but he states something else as well that I don't see eye-to-eye with. He says that the fires are so bad because of climate change, well, in that case, hurricanes are getting worst due to climate change as well. Does this mean that hurricanes are human caused and should not be considered natural disasters anymore?

 No, climate change has just made the storms more dangerous, the exact same thing we did to the forests when we said that fire was "bad." We really need to change our thinking about that. While fires can do massive damage in a city, the ecosystem can actually benefit from them. We once had the best range land, best forests, best grasslands; but the suppression of fire has ruined it. 

The suppression has let underbrush grow, litter build up and juniper to take over the ecosystem. Juniper is so bad on the grass and range lands that there is nothing else there. It's a wind tunnel eroding 36 tons of soil off the surface annually. Back before fire suppression started, the grasslands were beautiful and the juniper was being burned every three to 20 years. This allowed the grasslands to rejuvenate and stopped juniper trees from taking over the land.

Every few years the forest also burned, but the difference? The fires were slow moving, short flamed and beneficial to the ecosystem. The fires we have now are fast, have monster sized flames and can increase climate change by the release of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Since the forest has gone unmanaged for so long, the floor is thick with dry litter. This litter, whether it be dead and fallen trees, dropped pine needles or dead brush, is perfect for fire. It allows the fire to linger and burn hot. This fire is difficult to control and put out if it gets close to an urban area.

So maybe it is time for fires to be re-introduced to forests, range land and grasslands. It will take a lot of work, but it can be done. The people need to understand that it may be more beneficial to let a fire burn every couple three years or so to prevent the large fires we have been having the past few years. 

To read how Oregon is trying to change the legislation to see wildfires as a natural disaster, check out this link here

As always and until next time,
Aspen Johnson

Cover photo credit: http://koin.com/2017/09/05/photos-the-eagle-creek-fire-september-2017/

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