20 Dec Chaos for communities, commerce & our eco-systems
Wherever a wildfire breaks out it causes turmoil with farmers worrying about their crops and cattle; rural residents fearing for the safety of themselves, families and their homes; while native animals try to flee from the flames. However, to describe the wildfires of 2019 as just creating such localised problems would be a massive understatement.
Wildfires are the source of global daily news stories throughout the year and on a massive scale which involved a wide variety of nations and not just those living in the hottest climates.
To the most distant north, with land included in the arctic circle that is usually pictured covered in ice, Siberia suffered wildfires over 2.7 million hectares that stretched Russia’s firefighting capacity to its limits. While in the deep south of Australia residents living in Sydney were ordered to stay indoors as thick wildfire smoke clouded the city.
Far closer to the equator in the west, the Amazon Basin in Brazil and millions of hectares in California were gripped by fires that lasted weeks and Japan in the east had its share too.
Almost every wildfire opens a debate on what caused it, whether the potential to avoid a blaze had been overlooked or the ineffectiveness of firefighting units dispatched to try to extinguish it.
And the second of those topics was the headline maker after a day in which over 120 fires spread out through different parts of Lebanon. Many of them were in the mountains in the historic and well-preserved region of Chouf as well as the residential areas when people we forced to leave their homes in the middle of the night.
At least one man died from suffocation after battling a fire in the city of Aley for several hours. Lebanese media also reported that a woman had lost her life after being run over by a fire truck in the southern coastal city of Sidon.
The damage was worsened by a lack of resources to contain the fires. Although it was reported that forest management experts and environmental advocacy groups had issued several warnings about the threat of forest wildfires at the beginning of the dry season, in early June, no serious measures were taken to implement fire prevention or forest management measures.
Furthermore it was said that Lebanon’s three firefighter helicopters could not be flown as they had not been serviced for several years because there had been no need for them to be used
Fortunately as news of the fires spread Cyprus sent two helicopters to help, with offers of the same from Greece and Jordan and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon also joined the battle.
However, at the end of the first week of the fires, ten thousand protestors marched in the streets of Lebanon accusing the government not only of incompetence but also corruption… A popular theory based on the fact the blazes had coincided with timing of an unpopular announcement that a new tax of US$6 would be levied monthly for calls made on the internet via WhatsApp and Face Time with the aim of raising US$200 million.
In November as fierce wildfires raced through five states of Australia the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in America reached the conclusion that in the first ten months of the year the average temperatures recorded around the globe were the second warmest in history exceeded only by those of 1988.
Such was the ferocity of the fires in Australia that Sydney had days when the city’s skyline was totally shrouded with smoke, 100s of schools were closed and residents were told to stay indoors and fighting the blazes saw two very different elements.
Stretched to its limits Australia’s human resources were augmented by the deployment of more than two hundred firefighters from nearby New Zealand with each of them working 12-hour shifts on a five-day week basis.
There was, however, a widespread fear that Australia’s favourite marsupial, the koala, might suffer thousands of deaths in the fires that swept through their forest homelands in Queensland and New South Wales and one effort to save them received worldwide publicity.
Trained to herd up koalas ‘Bear’, who was dubbed a ‘Koala detection dog’ by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and wore special red socks to protect him his feet from being damaged by the red hot soil underfoot, alerted his handlers whenever he came across koalas and helped in the rescue of many of them.
Since the outbreak of California’s gigantic Camp fire in 2018 the American wildfire news desks have been dominated by the bankruptcy forced upon Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and to try to avoid faults in their electric pylons and cables starting more blazes, power blackouts were imposed on 800,000 homes when the fire risks were rated high.
The legal fallout took a new twist in December when California’s Second District Court said the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Calfire, could recover its firefighting costs from companies whose employees have caused the start of fires.
And that is an advance on a law established in 1939 which allows Calfire to recover firefighting costs from ‘any person’ who negligently sets a fire or allows a fire to be set and spread onto other people’s property.
Despite the numbers reported around the world, 2019 has not seen an increase in fires throughout the USA; a spokesman with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Centre in Lakewood, said by mid October, there have been 771 fires scorching about 31,600 acres in Colorado. That’s compared to about 1,300 fires, which burned more than 475,000 acres in 2018.
Canada with its vast expenses of unhabited forest land has suffered its share of wildfires and now the government of Quebec has launched a long term plan to improve the ability of its forest fire protection agency SOPFEU to fight future outbreaks.
The scheme, which will cost US$42 million, will see all of the state’s eight CL-415 aerial water bombing tankers upgraded through modernisation of their electrical and navigational equipment, so that they can respond faster to the 460 forest fires which hit the state on average every year.
A lightening strike which hit a ridge of trees at an altitude of 3,000 metres in the south west province of Sichuan caused China’s worse firefighting death toll since 2015 when an explosion in a chemical warehouse in Tianjin killed 173 people.
The Sichuan fire killed 27 firefighters and four of their volunteer helpers after the lightning bolt struck an 18 metres high pine tree and as parts of it fell to the ground it quickly spread to a thick layer of detritus and within seconds the fire spread ‘as if someone had triggered a huge flame-thrower’. It also consumed all the trees on the ridge.
China had been battling forest fires for weeks in various parts of the vast country, including on the outskirts of Beijing. Dry weather and high winds across many northern areas were feeding the flames but there were no reports of human victims in Miyun where 2,000 firefighters took on a 50-acre blaze nor in Shanxi province where 1,500 tackles fires in 3,000 hectares of woodland.
The statistical hectare size of the land covered by a wildfire does not always reflect the seriousness of the lasting damage that it may have caused as proven by a six-day burn in May on 22-square miles of peatland in Flow Country between Caithness and Sutherland in northern Scotland.
There were few trees there to be destroyed but a study claimed that 700,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent had been released into the atmosphere equivalent to the amount of greenhouse gases released across the rest of Scotland over the same six-day period.
And other large figures are alarming. The latest released for California show 6420 wildfires in 2019, a total of 13 million hectares have suffered blazes in Siberia and by August the New York Times was reporting that over 30 million acres of tree cover had been destroyed across the globe.
There has been talk much that climate change is largely to blame but there are few specific figures to prove the theory and also, many arsonists have been arrested for starting fires. But the overall conclusion will be probably be that with so much CO2 released into the atmosphere all around the globe it is going to become an even warmer place.