You are here

60 Minutes : The Age of Megafires

60 Minutes : The Age of the Megafire

60 Minutes : The Age of the Megafire

Last night on the television program "60 Minutes", reporter Scott Pelley traveled into the burning forests of the West to find out why we've been seeing more intense fires in the last few years. As is said in the report, more land burned in 2006 than in any previously recorded year, and 2007 is currently second worst (with a couple months left to go before it's all over).

Video: 60 Minutes - The Age of Megafires (11:25)

What's going on? Well, it isn't just Climate Change, but that is probably the biggest culprit. Warmer temps mean fire season starts earlier and end later than in years past, forest undergrowth doesn't contain the same levels of moisture they once did, and once rare fires in alpine environments are now more commonplace.

As a friend pointed out recently in email, in many areas, an increase in winter and spring precipitation may produce increased growth of fine fuels. In the Southwest in particular, we're expecting an expansion of cheatgrass. In forested areas, trees are likely to come under increasing moisture stress and be more prone to insects and diseases.

When wildland firefighters encounter a particularly intractable fire, they often state that they don't expect the fire to be actually extinguished until winter weather arrives. With climate change constricting what we know as winter, that may take on new meaning.

The US Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Lab has stated,

In most cases, climate change would lead to dramatic increases in both the annual area burned by California wildfires and the number of potentially catastrophic fires -- doubling these losses in some regions.

These changes would occur despite deployment of fire suppression resources at the highest current levels, implying that climatic change could precipitate an increase in both fire suppression costs and economic losses due to wildfires.

The latest predictions suggest that global warming may also create conditions that intensify wildfire danger, by warming and drying out vegetation, and by stirring the winds that spread fires.

Climate change would cause fires to spread faster and burn more intensely in most vegetation types.

Faster fires are much harder to contain, and thus are more likely to expand into residential neighborhoods, incurring substantial damage to insured property.


Lone Hiker:

Smokey Bear has to do with everything fire-related; he's a propaganda machine that lied to generations of young Americans saying only YOU can prevent forest fires when 75% of all wildfires are lightning caused.

Leaving Smokey aside, Anonymous is right that firefighting is quite lucrative. I say this as a former NPS fire fighter and having personal experience. And fighting wildland fires is often wasteful monetarily speaking, and I have many stories to support my claim. But private fire fighting firms can be just as wasteful and can be more inept than well-trained NPS and USFS employees. And the money firefighters made is hard earned money. Have you ever swung a polaski at 100-year-old sage? It's hard f--ing work! Limbing trees, digging line, inhaling smoke, putting their lives at risk. This is serious work and most firefighters earn their seasonal pay.

And Beamis, here I have to disagree. I spent some time working on the Deschutes National Forest this summer, and private land around Bend and Sisters burned just as often and as intensely as wildland fires on private land. Framing this in free market economics or competition won't work. The real problem is cultural. Had new Americans refrained from building homes in ponderosa pine forests that burn every 3-5 years, and had the USFS and private harvesters not viewed forests as dollar signs and not seen fire as a threat to their property, the Native American practice of prescribed fire might have continued and we might not be in this mess today.

The key is prescribed fire. It costs a fraction of fighting wildfires, and we need to accelerate the pace. The NPS excels in their prescribed fire program, and it should be a model to all land managers, public and private, throughout the West.

Lone Hiker-

The 11-14 hour rate you quote is completely misleading. That is just the basic pay. Firefighters get hazard pay and typically overtime, which usually jacks up the rates of pay a ton as they work long hours in hazardous situations. I have friends who have purchased expensive 12K motorcycles just through working fire, on top of their normal salary. Now, to further the point, consider those compensation rates with GS-9 and GS-11 employees that go on fires... let alone the fact that they aren't doing their day to day real duties.

Additionally, drought and snits against "global warming" aside, years and years and years of fire suppression inevitably jacks up fuel load. Most ecosystems across North American really didn't evolve without fire, so combine building fuel load with drought and you have potential for increased wildfires.

First, I don't consider the $11-14/hr rate that the government pays qualifying as a lot of money by ANY standard.

Second, I would have guessed that the folks at Berkeley intelligent enough to lend some REAL insight that was truly significant, not something that most anyone could have predicted in the typical cause and effect scenario.

Third, granted I didn't view the video, but somewhere it should be noted that most of the Western states have been subjected to an extended period of drought over the past ten or so years, with many areas classified as "significantly" moisture deficient, or in layman's terms, bone dry. This is obviously a contributing factor, as not only are many areas "living in kindling", but the rains that the smoke-eaters relied so heavily upon for assistance less frequent than in seasons past.

Culprits have been suggested that include the usual global climatic changes to severe El Nino phenomenon, Communist satellites and increased vulcanism on the Ring of Fire. It's even been suggested that the increase in volcanic activity along the Pacific Rim is the result of global warming, which is an arguement so juvenile it doesn't even merit discussion. From what I've experienced, cheatgrass is a minor annoyance more than a major factor leading to the spread of "uncontrollable" fires, due to the fact that it combusts so rapidly and completely that, while it spreads a fire quickly, it can't sustain the spread for very long. I've investigated its possible usage as barriers or containment areas against wildfire advance, since fire can't exist without fuel and this stuff burns out quicker than your typical punk rocker. The problem is by May-June, it's dry, ugly, and propagated by those nasty little spine-covered seed pods. Bad stuff for air mattresses, tent floors and bare feet for both little critters and us bigger critters as well!

And what's Smokey got to do with anything?

To follow up on point #2, the common refrain I used to hear often from wildland fire fighters back when I was a ranger was: "When I see smoke I see green." (As in $$$$). There's a legitimate point to be made about perverse incentives.

Cheatgrass don't none too much help either.

Also, has anyone else noticed that private land in the interior West rarely ever burns as often or for as long as government owned land usually does? Just an observation.

Two things:

1) Get rid of Smokey the Bear

2) Fire people make a lot of money every summer....

Add comment

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide