We Are All To Blame

August 31, 2003

By Michael Jessen

The helicopters fly over from dawn to dusk. Soldiers file through the forest. Summer 2003 in southern British Columbia has resembled living in a war zone.

Each week brings a new crisis point. First McLure-Barriere, then Kelowna, now Cranbrook. Many people cannot wait for summer to end. As many as eight forest fires threatened populated areas. Hundreds of people have lost their homes and many their jobs.

However, the heat continues and the forests continue to burn. Should we be surprised? BC Forest Service superintendent Erwin MacDermid obviously wasn't when he warned on April 27 that warm, dry, windy weather in the summer could "cause some grief."

The total grief has now cost more than $300 million in firefighting expenses, more than four times the entire season's fire budget. One report had costs increasing at about $7.7 million per day in the first week of September.

It is perhaps more surprising that the province did so little to prepare the public to face the heat.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (http://www.nrdc.org), "Global average temperatures have increased by 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century -- warming faster than any time in the last 1,000 years. Therefore, the 1990s were the hottest decade in the last 1,000 years. "

At least four provincial government reports have warned us that combustible material has been building in our forests. Our dry forests were going to burn. The only question mark was when. When happened in summer 2003.

"Warmer and drier conditions are expected to increase the frequency, duration and intensity of fires, and greater amounts of fuel associated with forested areas in decline may cause more and larger fires." This is a quote from Climate Change: Implications for the Boreal Forest (http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hre/pubs/docs/stewartetal1998.pdf), a presentation made by Robert Stewart, Elaine Wheaton, and Dave Spittlehouse in Calgary in September 1997. The authors point out that "fire activity has been increasing over the past three decades in Canada, averaging 2.8 million hectares annually since 1980."

Today, most mainstream scientists and scientific bodies agree that heat-trapping gasses like carbon dioxide (CO2) -- mainly from the burning of fossil fuels in cars, power plants, factories, and homes -- have caused temperatures to rise around the globe. Because emissions of heat-trapping gasses are expected to increase, scientists predict temperatures to rise dramatically over the next century, resulting in serious harm to life on our planet.

"Warmer and drier conditions may increase the frequency of fires, resulting (in) more areas with a high fire hazard." BC Ministry of Forests researcher Dave Spittlehouse wrote those prescient words in his 1997 paper Forest Management and Climate Change (http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hre/pubs/docs/spittlehouse_1997.pdf). "Society will need to revise its expectations of, and demands on, forests, and there may be adjustments required by groups whose livelihood is based on the use of forests," Spittlehouse wrote.

Patrick Daigle notes that fire is a natural ecological process in his Ministry of Forests Research Program November 1996 Extension Note Fire in the Dry Interior Forests of British Columbia (http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/pubs/docs/en/en08.pdf). "However, fire exclusion by human intervention has changed the situation dramatically," he writes. "A build-up of fuels over the past 60 years places these forests at greater risk of larger and more intense fires."

The researcher says excluding fire has altered dry interior forests in many ways including increasing fire size and intensity and enhancing the likelihood of crown fires due to more continuous fuels and greater canopy closure. Daigle also foresaw the problem of urban areas adjacent to rural areas containing flammable vegetation such as trees, brush and grasses. The zone where these areas meet is the interface and a fire occurring there is called an interface fire. A prime example of an interface fire is the one that began in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and then grew to destroy more than 200 adjacent homes.

Daigle warned: "Finally, the need to deploy fire suppression resources to protect people and structures in the wildland-urban interface will grow as will fire suppression expenditures." He proposes a number of options such as prescribed fires, which the current provincial government recently announced it would pursue as policy. Daigle warns that prescribed fires carry risks such as damage to overstory trees, creating points fore disease entry, burns beyond fire boundaries, and decreased air quality.

A better option proposed by Daigle might be mechanical thinning and pruning and it would create some revenue. "Pruning the lower portion of tree crowns reduces the quantity of ladder fuels and lessens the probability of crown fires," says Daigle. "Thinnings may also earn revenues that offset or exceed the cost of treatment."

Interface fires were also the subject of a report by BC's auditor general Wayne Strelioff in June 2001 (Managing Interface Fire Risks http://www.bcauditor.com/PUBS/2001-02/Report1/FireRisks.pdf). "Preventing a problem generally costs less than dealing with it once it arises," Strelioff wrote.

His report suggests communities are ill prepared to deal with interface fires and says BC has the highest risk of interface fires in Canada because of its climate and topography.

"The risks are increasing as a result of two key factors -- the continuing growth in the number of people choosing to live in or near the forests and grassland areas and the significant build up of forest fuels resulting from years of successful fire suppression activities," notes Strelioff. "Fire experts fear that, if actions are not taken soon to reduce the risks associated with interface fires, it is only a matter of time before these fires will exceed fire-fighters' ability to contain them and that this might lead to significant loss of life and property."

Strelioff says many communities have not introduced controls to reduce fire risks. "As a result, measures known to be effective at limiting the likelihood of a wildfire spreading into a community and reducing the impact on life and property are not being used to an adequate extent by communities at significant risk to interface fire."

What about fires burning in provincial parks? Did the "let it burn" philosophy contribute to the spread of the Kelowna fire? Should this policy be evaluated when fires occur in parks close to human habitation?

Has humanity been living in denial, ignoring the obvious danger signals?

As atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels climb higher each year in an unbroken ascent, they are creating a greenhouse effect, raising the earth's temperature. Over the last quarter century, the earth's average temperature has risen 0.7 degrees Celsius or more than 1 degree Fahrenheit. As temperatures rise, crop-withering heat waves are becoming increasingly common. Last year the grain harvests in India and the United States were hit hard by high temperatures and drought. This year Europe is bearing the brunt.

On August 12, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its monthly estimate of the world grain harvest, reporting a 32-million-ton drop from the July estimate. This 32-million-ton drop, equal to half the U.S. wheat harvest, was concentrated in Europe where record-high temperatures have withered crops. The affected region stretched from the United Kingdom and France in the west through the Ukraine in the east. The searing heat damaged crops in virtually every country in Europe.

The soaring temperatures of the past several weeks rewrote the record book. On August 10, the temperature in London reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius)--the first triple-digit reading on record in the United Kingdom. France had 11 consecutive days in August with temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). In Italy, temperatures reached 41 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit).

The heat wave in Europe started in early summer when Switzerland, situated in the heart of Europe, experienced the hottest June since recordkeeping began 140 years ago. In July the heat wave spread across the rest of Europe.

The NRDC web site http://www.nrdc.org/globalWarming/fgwscience.asp has a number of studies about global warming.

Texas A&M geologist Thomas J. Crowley is the author of a July 2000 study entitled Causes of Climate Change Over the Past 1,000 Years (Science v. 289:270-277). His findings suggest humans are the dominant force behind the sharp global warming trend seen in the 20th century. His report found that natural factors like volcanic eruptions and fluctuations in sunshine, which were powerful influences on temperatures in past centuries, can account for only 25 percent of the warming since 1900. Crowley's study presents the most direct link to date between people and the 1.1 degree Fahrenheit rise in average global temperatures over the last 100 years.

The National Climate Data Centre and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) found Earth's temperature for 2001 to be the second hottest on record. The hottest year on record, according to the organizations, was 1998, when average global temperatures were 58.1 degrees Fahrenheit. Average temperature for 2001 was 57.8 degrees, according to the National Climatic Data Center. In addition, nine of the 10 warmest years since measurements were first kept in 1860 have occurred since 1990, according to the WMO. The WMO also found that temperatures are currently rising three times as fast as in the early 20th century.

Extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, heat waves and heavy rainfall are expected to increase over the next 100 years, according to a team of scientists from the National Climatic Data Center. Lead author David Easterling (Climate Extremes: Observations Modeling and Impacts Science v. 289: 2068-2074, September 2000) notes that these changes will continue to increase with the rise of "ever greater amounts of GHGs in the atmosphere." Easterling and his colleagues reached their conclusion after reviewing hundreds of studies that used data and climate models to examine past and future changes in climate extremes.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC- http://www.ipcc.ch/), a group of some 1,500 of the world's leading climate scientists, is projecting a rise in average global temperature of somewhere between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius) during this century if we continue with business-as-usual energy policies. "Even if the earth's temperature increases only a few degrees, as in the low end of the IPCC projections, we will likely see heat waves far more intense than anything we can easily imagine," says Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute (http://www.earth-policy.org).

"The Third Assessment Report of the IPCC clearly states that the risks associated with climate change have the potential to undermine progress towards sustainable development, such as, damages from extreme climate events, water shortage and degraded water quality, food supply disruptions and hunger, land degradation, and diminished human health," IPPC chairman Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri said in February 2003. "Human society has necessarily to be concerned with the impacts of its actions on all elements of nature, which indeed determine the very survival of every species on this planet."

Fire fighters battling BC's summer of wildfires report unusual fire behaviour, often citing fire movement they have never witnessed before. Yet on July 2, two experts reported that global warming could bring on years of drought, resulting in both more wildfires and public health problems.

"The chief concern has to be that global warming, if left unchecked, will mean more intense weather extremes, including drought," said Paul R. Epstein. "The resulting, and worsening, wildfire problems in the United States could well mean a steadily increasing toll in the related health problems."

Epstein is associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School in Boston. He is the author of Climate and Health (http://www.med.harvard.edu/chge/Climate.pdf) and has studied the health and economic consequences of extreme weather events. As wildfires become more prevalent, so will haze pollution, Epstein said.

"Global warming is causing much of the world's water to evaporate, leaving dry, vulnerable forests," William H. Schlesinger told the same news conference organized by the Civil Society Institute (http://www.civilsocietyinstitute.org/home.html).

Schlesinger is a professor of Biogeochemistry and dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences in Durham, N.C. Currently, Schlesinger focuses his research on the role of soils in the global carbon cycle. He is the principal investigator for the Free Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment (FACE) Experiment in the Duke Forest--a project that aims to understand how an entire forest ecosystem (vegetation and soils) will respond to growth in elevated CO2. He is a member of the Committee on Global Change Research of the National Academy of Sciences and has testified before U.S. House and Senate Committees on a variety of environmental issues.

So have we ignored the warnings and are we experiencing the consequences in the summer of 2003? Moreover, what will future years bring? It could get worse if we do not respond.

Global temperatures are projected to increase 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100 and the warming will be even greater at high latitudes. Canada has already warmed almost two to three times the global average in the past 150 years.

During the summer of 2001, Canada experienced an unprecedented 24 days above 30 C. "From 1961 to 1990, the average was two to four days," said Dr. Kirsty Duncan.

Duncan is a University of Toronto adjunct professor of geology who has studied the human-health impacts of climate change. She told a conference in March 2001 (http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hecs-sesc/ccho/pdf/consensus_conference_complete_results.pdf): "Increased frequency and severity of summer heat waves could lead to increases in illness and death, particularly among the young, the elderly, the frail, the ill, and especially among those living on the top floor of apartment buildings who lack access to air conditioning.

The death toll in France this summer of elderly persons, many living in conditions just like those described by Dr. Duncan totaled 11,400 during the first part of August.

Duncan stressed that heat waves will affect many causes of death, not only cardiovascular and respiratory ailments. Adaptive measures will include increased use of air conditioning, increased uptake of fluids, and establishment of community warning systems and action plans.

As Sallie McFague of the Vancouver School of Theology outlined in a paper in Daedalus, we are actually housemates with the rest of God's creations on Earth. Moreover, as housemates, "we must abide by three main rules: take only your share, clean up after yourselves and keep the house in good repair for future occupants. We do not own the house; we do not even rent it. It is loaned to us for our lifetime, with the proviso that we obey the above rules so that the house can feed, shelter, nurture and delight those who move in after us."

Forest Service fire strategists and even Premier Gordon Campbell have expressed the hope Mother Nature will give the province a break from the heat wave. We humans are the ones who should be giving Mother Nature some relief from our rising greenhouse gas emissions. We have only ourselves to blame for our long hot summer.

RESOURCES - When it comes to the threat of forest fires, the small town of Harvie Heights east of Banff National Park may be the most prepared community in Canada. It is the first community to benefit from a provincial program known as FireSmart (http://www.afca.ab.ca/Fire_Smart.htm). Over the past three years, forestry workers have built a 300-metre wide firebreak around the community, by thinning out the forest, removing older trees and getting rid of the deadwood and growth on the forest floor. The same has been done on every patch of provincial land in town. At the same time, many residents have cleaned up their yards, swept their roofs, pruned trees of all branches eight feet or less off the ground and felled trees considered too close to their homes. The FireSmart video can be viewed and the homeowner's manual can be downloaded from http://envweb.env.gov.ab.ca/env/forests/fpd/external/firesmart.html.

Understanding the principles of Fire-Smart Landscape Design can provide a significant advantage in protecting a home or other structure from the devastating effects of a wildfire. A manual on Fire Smart landscape design can be found at http://www.firestationdesign.com/whats_new/features/firesmart/FireSmart.pdf.

The American web site http://www.firewise.org/ has a lot of resources to help homeowners living in the wildland/urban interface, including the following list of fireproofing suggestions for homeowners in forested areas:

 Keep a clearing of at least 30 feet around your house for fire fighting equipment.

 Space the trees you plant carefully.

 Remove "ladder fuels". They link the grasses and the treetops.

 Create "fuelbreak" - - - driveways, gravel walkways, or lawns.

 Maintain your irrigation system regularly.

 Prune tree limbs so the lowest is between 6' - 10' from the ground.

 Remove leaf clutter from your roof and yard.

 Mow regularly.

 Remove dead or overhanging branches.

 Store firewood away from your house.

 Refuel garden equipment carefully.

 Maintain garden equipment regularly.

 If you smoke, use your ashtray.

 Store and use flammable liquids properly.

 Dispose of cuttings and debris promptly, according to local regulations.

 Observe local regulations regarding vegetative clearances and fire safety equipment requirements.

 Check your generator and/or hose to be sure it is in good repair.

 Do not keep combustible materials under decks or elevated porches.

 Make trellises of non-flammable metal.

 Have at least two ground-level doors as safety exits.

 Keep at least two means of escape (either a door/window) in each room.

 Mark your driveway and access roads clearly.

 Keep ample turnaround space near your house for fire equipment.

 Prevent sparks from entering your house by covering vents with wire mesh no larger than 1/8".

 When possible, use construction materials that are fire-resistant or non-combustible.

West Kootenay Internet service provider The Net Idea has a web page (http://www.netidea.com/support/htdocs/wildfires.html) with links to the latest information about area fires.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping homes and businesses with waste-free living. He can be reached at 250-229-5632 or e-mailed at zerowaste@netidea.com. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.

All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.