The cities of California’s Great Central Valley Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto, Fresno and Bakersfield, which are together called the heart of Ca1ifornia, have repeatedly entered American popular culture and folklore. The cities have their own fire departments and in times of need firefighters and equipment might be taken on supplementary purpose. There have been quite a few incidents of forest fire in these cities and there always is a debate on how crisis management could improve and minimize the impact of these incidents on the environment and human health.
This paper explores threats posed by the forest fires in California and its surrounded lower central valley between Bakersfield and Modesto. The paper first describes the nature and impact of forest fires and then follows to damaged forest fires and what it does to the environment. Finally a global and national environmental picture is presented relating to the subject.
A forest fire is a powerful force of nature. It can kill people, animals, and trees. It can destroy homes and buildings. But it also is part of a forest’s natural life cycle. Forest fires clean out forest lands by burning dead leaves, plants, and trees (Simon 34-40). The dead and dried timber is undoubtedly one of the reasons why wildfires in the United States have been so devastating in recent years.
According to the National Climatic Data Center, dryer than average conditions over most of the country have contributed to burns in excess of 9.5 million acres in 2006 and over 8.5 million in 2005 (Wagtendonk 3-17). These figures broke the old record of 7.4 million acres in 2000, and almost doubled that of the 4.5 million acres burned in 1960. The extended drought, forest die-offs from insect Infestation and human encroachment have all contributed to the increase in wildfires.
But the primary cause of forest fires can be attributed to climate change. It has been the shift in ocean currents and weather patterns that has brought about the extended drought conditions. Added to this are the warmer conditions and heat waves triggered by the increase in global temperature. This has led to a drying of the foliage and a prolific increase in insect infestation. As we have seen, these parasitic tree killing insects such as the Bark Beetle and Pine Beetle have moved to higher altitudes and more northerly climates due to warmer temperatures (ReVelle & ReVelle 321-366). All these conditions have placed great stress on the forests of North America, making them ripe for forests fires.
Battling wildfires is a challenging task because wild-land firefighters have to contain the rambling fires while they withstand intense heat, poor vision and dangers of the wilds. Thousands of full-time firefighters and volunteers, planes, helicopters and fleet of engines are employed by firefighting agencies along with different technologies such as shovels and infrared imaging, to control wildfires. There are specially trained firefighters such as smokejumpers, who are employed by firefighting agencies to extinguish fires by parachuting in unreachable areas during the early stages of fire.
“Helitack” crews are also hired by firefighting agencies to attack fires when landing is not an option. Thus the Helitack crew lowers firefighting equipment in such areas and then firefighters are able to reach the surface. Sometimes, water or retardant which can be up to 3,000 gallons is dropped by airplanes and infrared aircraft at a time, in a long string for creating a line. The pilot is allowed to see where he can land with the help of a pink dye. Sometimes, shovels and other tools are also used by firefighters to build firelines which refer to a 3-5 feet path created by firefighters by clearing away leaves and branches.
Wildfires can spread to several acres of land. How bad a fire can be is determined by topography, weather and fuel supply. When a fire breaks out, it can stretch across acres of land and its own weather patterns can be created. The fire first spreads into the crown of the tree and when it gets more oxygen from below like a chimney, it is nourished and gets worse. Dry fuel away from the fire can also be ignited by the floating embers, thus it is essential to control the fire as soon as it breaks out (McNamara).
Fiscal stress came to California from three distinct sources: natural events, other events beyond the state’s control, and events that were induced by California citizens, and out of those three sources fires have been among the most costly. Three types of natural catastrophes have contributed to the fiscal stress. The drought of 1987-1992 (and which apparently has recurred in 1994) has cost California farmers about $3—$4 billion; the Loma Prieta quake of 1989 resulted in about $10 billion in direct and indirect losses, with net losses after federal aid being about $6 to $7 billion; and property losses from the 11 Oakland fire and the 1993 Southern California fires were about $4.7 billion.’ There are three exogenous events that are consistently mentioned in any discussion of the stresses on the state’s economy: the recession that began in 1990; the cut in defense expenditures, including the closing of many military bases; and the immigration of undocumented aliens.
In October of 2007 wildfires broke out in Southern California (Carle 71-79). From Malibu to the Mexican border, over 16 separate fires raged while being whipped by the Santa Anna winds. Thousands of acres were scorched, over 2000 homes destroyed and nearly one million people were evacuated. This was the largest evacuation in American history, exceeding even that caused by Hurricane Katrina. Over ninety aircraft and 6,000 firefighters were involved in suppressing the fires. The total cost of lighting the fires, including the damage inflicted, is estimated to exceed 1 billion dollars. Due to the forest fires budget cuts in 2012, lost fire fighters have added more to the difficulties faced by the firefighting department. For instance, when a wildfire broke out in June, 2011 north of Highway 180 in Fresno County, firefighters had difficulty controlling the fire.
The fire broke out through thick grass and burned down oak trees in the area. It was a regular event for firefighters, who attacked the fire from two sides. Nearly 300-foot hose extensions were carried by them as they tried to circle the fire before it spread further. However, due to the firefighter budget cuts, there were only three fighters per engine instead of four firefighters who normally worked during the wildfire season. Since there were only three firefighters per engine, it took long to get water around the fire.
Due to the above mentioned cuts firefighters are concerned about their first-strike capabilities to attack severe wildfire because they think that their work has been affected due to staffing cuts. According to a Cal Fire Capt, it became difficult to control the fire with a three-man crew due to the fatigue factor.
Fire, which the captain hoped to keep to less than 10 acres, had stretched across 133 acres because of the shortage of the crew which cost $300,000 to extinguish. In 2011, the budget cut saved $34 million because 750 seasonal firefighters in California were laid off. It implies that there will be three firefighters per engine instead of four for handling thousands of feet of hose lines and for sharing the hard work to control wildfires. This has severely affected the extinguishing capabilities of firefighters because they require more time and energy to control the blazing fire (Hecht).
The staggering one billion dollars attributed to the 2007 California wildfires is just the beginning. When all the fires and climate change related disasters are added to this figure. The amount assumes unimaginable proportions. The National Climatic Data Center records seventeen separate weather related events occurring in the United States from 1998 to 2002, which cost over 1 billion dollars each. These events include droughts, floods, fire seasons, tropical storms, hailstorms, tornadoes, heat waves, ice storms, and hurricanes (Carle 44-60).
The consequences of forest fires are the atmospheric emissions of various environmentally significant gases and solid particulates that contribute to local, regional and global phenomena in the biosphere. Pollutants emitted include atmospheric particulate matter (I1) and gaseous compounds. Such as carbon dioxide (C02), carbon monoxide (CO), methane (CH4), nonmethane hydrocarbons (NMHC), nitrogen oxides, (NO) and nitrous oxide (N20).
Smoke pollution due to forest fire events can represent an important public health issue to the community, particularly for personnel involved in firefighting operations. In addition, high levels of trospospheric ozone can occur at great distances from emission sources (Simon 85-90). The environmental effects of these emissions are related to the transport and deposition processes involved (Johnson & Miyanishi 25-39).
The protection of homes and communities from the threat of forest fire depends on the proper treatment of wildland-urban interface, the area directly adjacent to homes and communities. However, current efforts to protect communities from the threat of forest fire are protecting homes and communities from forest fires. Projects that reduced forest fuels are often implemented far away from communities, in areas where treatment will do the least good. Considering the current risks and the limited resources available for the implementation of fuels reduction projects, individual projects and strategic plans need to utilize the best available science to develop the most effective and efficient methods for protecting the homes and communities (Johnson & Miyanishi 25-39).
At the same time, focused fuels reduction in the wildland-urban interface is necessary to avoid damaging adjacent forest ecosystems and wildlife habitat with poorly planned and ineffective logging projects. Wildfires can be prevented by not parking the vehicles on dry grass, never taking out burning sticks out of a fire, never using lanterns, stoves and heaters in a tent, by storing flammable liquid containers in a safe area and knowing the area’s outdoor burning laws because to burn trash is a punishable crime. It is essential to contact a Ranger as soon as possible when the first sign of a wildfire is seen. The area should be left immediately by recognized roads or trails but if the escape route is blocked, it is important to go to the nearest stream or lake (McNamara).
Wildfires which consume Southern California are extremely dangerous because they have affected a large number of houses; they started abruptly and stretched across acres of land rapidly. According to scientists, the severity of wildfires is associated with the changing climate and it is believed that wildfires will become more common because of global warming (“California Wildfires and Global Warming”).
The USA seems to have reached a tipping point: the majority of citizens now accept the reality of global warming. National discussions have steadily shifted from whether climate change exists to what America should do about it. To be sure government and industry are dragging their feet, hard. They argue that global warming is a natural (not human-caused) cycle; that it won’t be that bad; that there’s nothing we can do about it; or that, most especially making drastic changes to quickly combat global warming is too costly to the nation’s economichealth to consider.
According to a 2011 study, greenhouse gas is boosted by wildfires thus, global warming is accelerated. The study found that the release of nitrous oxide from soil is boosted because of wildfires, change in the climate and nitrogen deposits which accelerates global warming (“Wildfires boost greenhouse gas to accelerate global warming, study finds”) Concern for air pollution has led to a society-wide discussion about greenhouse gases touching every aspect of modern life: from building design and light bulbs to auto emissions and planting trees.
While states wrestle with the federal government over how much and how quickly to raise auto fuel economy standards (currently averaging 21 mpg), car-loving consumers are starting to vote with their pocketbooks (Johnson & Miyanishi 98-109). In addition to this, Water issues are particularly acute in the West: the region’s underground aquifer is being drained at a phenomenal rate, and increasing water salinity is playing havoc with farming. Also, the West has witnessed a surge in new oil and gas drilling, in part because of government- approved industry exemptions in 2005 to the Clean Water Act. An unlikely coalition of ranchers, hunters and conservationists is lighting this all-too- common sacrifice of health for cheap energy (IJWF 116-26).
Wildfires are very dangerous because they destroy land and harm the environment. Fire ravages dry vegetation, burning everything in its way. Under prolonged dry conditions with even moderate winds fire can spread across a wide area very quickly, stretching the emergency services and testing their ability to contain and manage the spread and to minimize risk and damage to people and property. Natural fires have traditionally caused extensive damage to grassland, woodland and forest. Wild fires can stir a primeval fear and fascination in most of us.
Many have long been concerned about the loss of valuable timber to fire and about the effects of fire on soils, watersheds, water quality, and wildlife (Simon 96-121). Fierce battles over the environment have been a fixture of the American political landscape for over a century, and for business, this last argument has been a winner, whether the issue is pollution, dwindling resources or endangered species. This effectiveness rests, in part, on the dependable reluctance of us citizens to make sacrifices in their consumptive lifestyles.
Typically, Americans support regulations and alter their habits only when environmental problems become undeniable, quantifiable and urgent. With global warming, that moment seems to have arrived. The U.S. citizens and the government are well aware of the environmental concerns and have from time to time addressed these issues. The environment protection agency (EPA) has been the forefront player in this regard and has formulated strategies and policies to control forest fire hazards. California is home to a great variety of wildlife habit and environmental protection can help save many of the endangered species in the lower central valley.
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