Historic Wildfire Season Has Burned More Than 7.5 Million Acres (That's Larger Than Massachusetts)
Just how bad are the wildfires in the western U.S.? Answer: pretty damn bad. This wildfire season was predicted to be worst one yet and it looks like experts are correct. More than 7.5 million acres have burned in wildfires this year—an area roughly the size of Massachusetts—according to the National Interagency Fire Center. This is the first time in 20 years that the area charred has exceeded 7 million acres by this date, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
— CitizensClimateLobby (@citizensclimate) August 23, 2015
The massive fire burning in north central Washington, dubbed the Okanogan Complex, has surpassed last year's record-setting Carlton Complex to become the largest fire in the state's history. The blaze is estimated to be 400 square miles as of Monday. Fire spokesman Rick Isaacson told NBC News he fears the fire may burn until the end of October when the rain and snow season arrives.
"It's only Aug. 24th," he said. "In our district we could see this go clear to the first of November." The fire was only 17 percent contained as of Tuesday with hot, dry and windy conditions stymying the efforts of the nearly 1,300 people battling the flames.
— NBC Nightly News (@NBCNightlyNews) August 25, 2015
And Washington is not alone. Idaho currently holds the dubious title for the highest number of active, large wildfires. Eleven states are currently reporting at least one large fire: Arizona (1), California (11), Colorado (1), Idaho (21), Louisiana (1), Montana (10), New Mexico (1), Oregon (9), Texas (3), Utah (1) and Washington (12). That makes for a total of 71 active large fires burning nearly 1.6 million acres. And only two of them (both in Texas) are 100 percent contained.
Here's a map from AirNow showing the air quality from all the fires:
And then there's Alaska, which is in a league of its own. Climate Central reports that Alaska is entering a "new era for wildfires" due to the rapid warming of the Arctic. The state has seen nearly 5 million acres burn—an area the size of Connecticut. At one point earlier this summer, the state had more than 300 active blazes. Currently, the Last Frontier is dealing with 166 active wildfires.
This interactive map from Climate Central shows just how many fires are currently burning:
The U.S. Forest Service has nearly 30,000 firefighters—the biggest number mobilized in 15 years—battling the flames and they still had to call for backup. The agency has now enlisted 200 members of the U.S. army, more than 1,800 members of the National Guard and several dozen firefighters from New Zealand and Australia. The army hasn't been tapped to deal with wildfires since 2006, and the last time we asked for help from our friends in the Southern Hemisphere was in 2007.
— National Guard (@USNationalGuard) August 24, 2015
The situation has become so desperate that, for the first time ever, fire crews are even asking ordinary citizens to pitch in.
"In Washington, resources were so strained that officials earlier took the unprecedented step of seeking volunteers to help fight the flames," reports AOL. "Fire officials over the weekend began providing basic fire training to volunteers who have machinery like backhoes and bulldozers so they can help dig fire lines."
The blazes have cost millions of dollars, destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands to evacuate across the western U.S. Just last week, a blaze in Washington took the lives of three firefighters and injured four others. The U.S. Forest Service, which is spending more than $100 million each week nationwide, warns that it is running out of money. The agency has already burned through half its budget and it's only August. It has had no choice but to pull funds from other programs to deal with all the fires.
Could the huge #wildfires out west be the new normal? http://t.co/nO8DaTbE8y via @grist #climatechange pic.twitter.com/dvkrQdzRRU
— Rainforest Alliance (@RnfrstAlliance) August 26, 2015
The health impacts of all these fires is deeply concerning. Public health officials across the West are warning people to stay indoors and avoid all physical activity outdoors.
"It's really bad," Janice Nolan, assistant vice president for national policy at the American Lung Association, told NPR. "I hadn't seen 'code maroon' days, which is the most hazardous air quality, in years."
And, unfortunately, things might only get worse. “There’s no season-ending weather event coming any time soon,” said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Christine Cozakos. And firefighters are feeling the pinch. "You can imagine how stretched thin everybody is," Dan Dallas, deputy incident commander of the Okanogan fire, told Huffington Post. "We're all working without the resources that in a normal year—which I don't think there is such a thing anymore—that we might have."
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Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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