A costly trail of destruction

A costly trail of destruction

The figures attached to this year’s wildfire season in the United States have again been huge. One blaze in Colorado scorched over 36,000 acres, nearly 50 deaths have been recorded, tens of thousands of homes evacuated or destroyed and in California alone insurance claims have topped $12 billion.

When stories have been reported of other wildfires elsewhere around the globe the damage has rarely been on the same scale but sometimes the impact has been more dramatic. That was certainly the case when flames started to sweep through the forests close to the town of Shimla in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains.

Back in 1864 the settlement which now has a population of 175,000 was named the ‘summer capital of India’ by the country’s British Colonialist rulers who holidayed in the cool there while temperatures in the rest of India rose to around 45 degrees.

And until recently Shimla has been regularly attracting around 100,000 visitors a year – not only foreign tourists but also Indian tycoons and celebrities.

However, the spate of forest fires, has devastated the tourist industry because the town, which has been drought stricken in recent years could not provide enough water to douse the flames or just cater for the needs of the local population many of whom had to queue in the streets each day to get their supplies from emergency tankers.

Tourists were also in for a surprise when they visited Edinburgh in Scotland in April and witnessed a hillside covered in flames just a mile from the City’s famous castle. The blaze of gorse and moss on a site historically known as King Alfred’s seat which was fought overnight coincided with spring temperatures in the UK rising to 29.1oC, the highest recorded since 1949.

Farmers in Australia’s outback, used to summer temperatures above 40 oC, annually receive a series of wildfire hazard warnings, often conduct controlled fire on their lands in their milder winter and autumn months to reduce the fuel loads that can cause fierce widespread blazes started by natural causes.

However a series of out-of-season fires near the West Australian town of Albany sparked a blame game between farmers and their local authorities when prescribed burns were being conducted in a national park despite warnings that weather conditions were about to change.

Strong winds encouraged the flames to escape onto the farmer’s cropland in the hills of the Stirling Ranges and they responded on social media by describing the local authority as an ‘absolute disgrace’.

There must have been similar thoughts to in Southern Colorado when it was discovered that a wildfire which destroyed two homes was sparked by an aviation training exercise used live ammunition.

Although the fire was first sparked on military land at Fort Carson, the weather at the time was dry and windy and the flames moved on to damage nearby property.

“The Army is supposed to protect the American public, but it for sure doesn’t feel like it,” said Samuel Saling, whose home was one of about 250 evacuated during the blaze

“They should have all hands on deck, considering how many troops are stationed there that are trained to deal with this type
of situation.”

Rarely, however, can urgent need for emergency help to extinguish a wild fire blaze been thwarted in a political way than a situation which occurred in Nicaragua.

When a blaze which was to consume for more than 5,00 hectares started in the Indio Mai, an important  biological reserve on the country’s Caribbean coast, the government immediately dispatched 800 troops to fight the flames but few of them had been trained to do anything more than to fight off enemies with their guns.

Fearing the flames would spread neighbouring Costa Rica sent a team of firefighters equipped with trucks, pumps and drones to help battle the fires, but reports said they were turned away because of ‘a long running feud between the two countries over their border.’

Anxious to avoid wildfires in the hills of Southern Portugal like the one in June 2017 that killed 64 people, government officials launched a low-tech campaign to cutback the thick undergrowth which covers many slopes.

Dozens of goatherds were hired to take their goats to the hills and directed into the woodlands and encouraged to feed heartily on the dense vegetation.

Explaining the campaign Alexander Held, a forester and a fire specialist, said that by spending ten per cent of the country’s firefighting budget on strategic vegetation management would prevent some wildfires from erupting.

But it was a series of lightning strikes that created one of the biggest wildfire stories of 2018 after they caused more than 14 forest fires in the greater Greater Higgan Mountains in North China and four thousand people were immediately dispatched to fight the flames.

As FME goes to press we can report That UK firefighters in Lancashire and Greater Manchester are fighting a series of fires covering 7 square miles which, despite aerial and ground firefighting deployments, continue to burn and a radio communications mast has been engulfed by smoke and surrounded by the blaze.