So many burning landscapes

So many burning landscapes

The long awaited arrival of winter, as the first two snow producing cold fronts filled the skies of California with thick grey clouds, would have been almost unanimously welcomed by the state’s residents. 

It will have raised their hopes that an end might finally be in sight of the horrendous wildfire season in west America that started in late July and proved impossible for firefighters with masses of modern equipment, to combat.

The gruesome statistics alone reveal the extent of the suffering. Damage costs have been estimated to be more than 270 billion US dollars, with 1400 buildings destroyed and more than 45 deaths in California alone. 

The total area of forests, wildlands and farms badly damaged or reduced to ashes was estimated at over 6.6 million acres with one fire at the start of September, later labelled as “The Gigafire”, having burned 2 million acres on its own.

For the fourth year running the finger for the cause of many of the Californian fires was pointed at the faulty supply lines of Pacific Gas and General Electric who were predicted to face an even bigger penalty than the US$1.93 billion imposed on them for blazes in 2017 and 2018.

On the other side of the Pacific, following the huge number of wildfires that swept through Australia’s Outback in their 2019-20 summer killing 33 people, forcing 14,000 children to leave their homes and causing damage worth an estimated US$7.2 billion, the Australian government has been drawing up plans to make the country’s firefighting more efficient.

Latest figures confirm a tragic loss of around 143 million mammals including 39 million possoms.

However to try to prevent a repeat of the flames that roared across 24 million hectares of land, an area similar to the size of the UK, could not simply involve the national Federal Parliament based in Canberra trying to introduce more efficient firefighting systems. It was restricted by the current Australian Constitution that was introduced in 1901 and only allows the local politicians who rule the country’s eight regional states, such as Queensland and Victoria to declare “a state of emergency”.

So in the build up to the Australian summer Canberra ignored trying to change the rulebook but instead decided to create a National Disaster Agency which would enhance its emergency management by ensuring that data about disasters such as widlfires would be better collated and more accessible.

Meanwhile research carried out in an Australian university and other laboratories worldwide could in future prevent bolts of lightning being one of the biggest starters of wildfires around the globe.

Details of how a portable hand held laser could direct an electrical discharge into a cloud and draw out its lightning strikes have been disclosed by Professor Andrew Miroshnichenko  from the University of New South Wales.

He said that previous similar attempts have been made to defuse lightning clouds using high powered lasers but they produced a system that was  “dangerous, costly and inaccurate.”

Now by using a hollow laser ‘like a pipe of light’ Professor Miroshinchenko said the small hand-held lasers could be doing the job within the next decade adding “It turns out that to deliver particles, you do not need high-intensity lasers, even low intensity like a laser pointer will be enough,”

Compared with the scale of the size and destruction caused by wildfires elsewhere in the world the blazes that
ravaged sparse forests in the Middle East, in the mountainous region of Akkar along Lebanon’s northern border with Syria, were barely newsworthy.

However conservationists were helpless as the flames destroyed groves of cedar and juniper trees reported to be more than 100-years-old, and which could not be replaced. And trying to control the blazes was a struggle on three fronts mainly as firefighting vehicles could not reach the forests because of the steep slopes on the mountains.

In addition three Sikorsky S-70 helicopters bought by Syrian Civil Defence 12 months earlier had been sold after breaking down and water outlets essential to firefighting did not work in 14 locations.

When compared with the huge numbers of acres, homes and human lives destroyed by wildfires in other continents, the damage in Europe was relatively minor. 

However, the sight of flames destroying woodlands and town houses did have an impact on the very fashionable French Riviera resort of St Tropez.

An estimated 12,000 tourists and residents were forced to evacuate buildings and while those with cars were able to flee, the majority of holidaymakers were without transport and were told by French officials they had no choice but to sleep on the resort’s beaches.

An emergency centre was set up but its limited accommodation was quickly overwhelmed forcing the rest of the evacuees to try to sleep on beds shaped from the sand on the beaches from where many were rescued by boat.

Meanwhile in Spain the Catalonia region reportedly suffered its biggest fire when flames swept through 3,000 acres forcing 400 people to evacuate their homes but helicopters were brought into fight the blaze which burned for less than 24 hours.

Claims that global warming has been a major cause of the wildfire surge were backed up by the fate suffered by South America’s Pantanal region which stretches across parts of Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay.

The Pantanal, covers 200,000 square kilometres, making up about 3% of the globe’s total wetlands much of which has in the past, has been damp bogland  for 12 months of every year.

It is the home  to thousands of endangered or unusual animal species, including jaguars, giant otters and hyacinth macaws as well as being an important stop on the routes of around 180 species of migratory birds and has been hit by its worst wildfires for decades.

A total of 28 per cent of its vast floodplain was subjected to 21,200 fires – 69% higher than the previous full-year record set in 2005 – which destroyed unique animal habitats  and wrecking the traditional livelihoods of many  indigenous communities.

Although many would picture the Artic as possessing a barren landscape covered in ice and snow there have been minor incidents there of wildfires in the past year when tundra has caught fire. 

And it has its own  strain of flames known as ‘holdovers’  where fires from a previous growing season can smoulder in carbon-rich peat underground over the winter, then re-ignite on the surface as soon as the weather warms in spring.

But the effect of global warming  saw a greater number of blazes later in the summer season and stretching further north than Siberia in the south where there were wildfires on permafrost.

As University of Miami fire scientist Dr Hessica McCarty said: “Arctic fires are burning earlier and farther north, in landscapes previously thought to be fire resistant.”

While another scientist said: “There are other trends we noticed in the satellite data that tell us how the Arctic fire regime is changing and what this spells for our climate future.”

With a drought building up to its annual monsoon season the north Indian state of Himachal suffered nearly 500 forest fires but there could have been less. As one state fire official said: “Most of the fires are starting from patches of dry grasslands. In many cases, people are burning fields or grass adjacent to the forests to clear the land. But when left uncontrolled, it spread quickly.”

However, the damage caused by one Russian wildfire could not be totally blamed on climate change.  Emergency officials working in the Ryazon Region to the South East of Moscow hastily evacuated 2,300 villagers after a small wildfire which set off explosions at a munitions depot. 

A total of 400 firefighters, helped by a fire train, fought the blaze but were forced to work with caution since there were a reported 75,000 tonnes of munitions that could have exploded.

A few pounds of munitions rather than megatonnes could start any wildfire but the massive and destructive fires that stretched across the earth in 2020 suggest a multitude of causes exist which have created an urgent need for new solutions.

The biggest one being an international body, funded worldwide, that researches not just the causes of wildfires, but the best method of coping with them, and to fightback against global warming and most importantly how to fund the creation of landscapes that contain fire defences.