Penguins on Fire

Last week we contrasted the sublime Wilsons Promontory National Park on the extreme southern coast of Australia with the Coney Island atmosphere of the nearby Penguin Parade, which confirms Chris Hedges’ bread and circus thesis about our current information / entertainment tastes.  OK, so we know this.  What are we going to do about it?  That’s a tough one. We’ll get back to that in a later post.  In the mean time, we have an entertaining story for you.

It turns out that the northern half of Wilsons Promontory National Park burned in a wildfire this past February. As far as we know, no Little Penguins were burned to death in their coastal scrub burrows during the fire, but it could have happened! Hence the Fox News-worthy title of this post.

The 60,000 acre Wilsons Promontory Fire was only a small component of the much larger Black Saturday Fires that raged through south-central Victoria, beginning on yes, Saturday, 7 February 2009.  These were the worst fires to devastate the region since the Ash Wednesday Fires of 1983, and before that the Black Friday Fires of 1939, and before that the Fires of 1851, and before that… well you get the idea.

So how bad was Black Saturday? It was bad.  Really bad. A total of 1,100,00 acres burned in various fires, the largest of which – the Kinglake/Marysville complex – was about 830,000 acres (for comparison, the 2002 Biscuit Fire in the Siskiyous was about 500,000 acres; the 2003 B&B Fire near Sisters and Camp Sherman was 93,000 acres).  To get a sense of the size and ferocity of the Kinglake/Marysville fire, imagine burning the entire the Willamette Valley west of I-5 from Beaverton to Corvallis – in five hours.

To give you a feel for the conditions, imagine a few weeks of 90 degree weather, followed be a few days in the 100s (now why is that so easy to imagine?).  Now imagine that a power line goes down in Forest Grove around noon, and a strong northerly wind blows the fire in a narrow line along the foothills of the coast range down to Corvallis. Embers jump ahead of the main front of the fire, starting spot fires as far south as Eugene.  The wind dies down around 5 pm and residents breathe a sigh of relief as a cool breeze blows east off the coast range. This is actually a bad turn of events, as the east wind pushes the fire across the Willamette Valley to 1-5, which acts a fire break. But the fire has created its own thunderhead, producing lightning strikes all over the Willamette Valley.  800,000 acres have burned in less than a day.  Another 300,000 will burn in lightning- and arson-caused spot fires over the next week.

It all sounds like a bad TV catastrophe movie, but that’s the timing and scale of what happened earlier this year in southeastern Australia, leaving 173 people dead and over 2000 buildings destroyed. The beautiful alpine town of Marysville was left a smoldering wreck. It’s now a collection of charred cellar holes and double wide trailers.

This part of Australia is used to fire. The Ash Wednesday Fires of 1983 burned 1.3 million acres (compared to this year’s 1.1 million) and left 75 dead. The Black Friday Fires of 1939 burned nearly 5 million acres, destroyed 3700 buildings and left 71 dead.

But what does this have to do with us in western North America? Quite a bit actually.

While our pines and firs don’t burn as easily as the highly resinous Eucalyptus, they burn well enough, especially when they’re dry.  Further south, the chaparral of California rivals Australia’s eucalypts for flammability.  And while it doesn’t get quite as hot as the 115 degrees that Melbourne reached last February, long droughts are characteristic of the west coast, and 100+ degree days are predicted to increase.

But flammable forests and hot-dry weather are only two-thirds of the similarity between southeastern Australia and western forests.  The other is people.  If the Black Saturday Fire had burned in an unpopulated region of Victoria, it merely would have been a “natural disaster” like the 1.1 million acre Yellowstone Fires of 1988.

But as the Oregonian points out today, people have moved into the forest. We have a wildland-urban interface where many more people come into contact with flammable forests than a generation ago.  And the people in this interface are a major ignition source.  They’re also a major policy headache for elected leaders and land managers. For example, what are the rights and responsibilities of homeowners in fire prone areas? Should they be required, under penalty of law, to maintain defensible space around buildings?  Should there be building code limits on different types of development? Should non-threatened residents pay – as we currently do though local, state and federal fire crews – for defending property built in high danger areas? Should residents in high-risk areas be required by law to carry fire-fighting insurance as well as home replacement insurance? Should there be comprehensive evacuation / right to defend legislation for the western United States?  Should we be thinning forests more aggressively, not only on federal land but especially on private and municipal land?

We might look to southeastern Australia, with its 150 years of experience with severe fire, for answers to some of these questions. Except that they’re still figuring it out. The 2009 Victoria Bushfires Royal Commission Interim Report mainly addresses risk assessment and emergency procedures. The commission will soon release recommendations on fuel reduction and controlled burning, which will guide what is widely considered to be one of the most sophisticated fire policy and management structures in the world.

But the bottom line is that even the best policy and and most fire-savvy citizens are no match for the perfect fire storm: hot, dry and windy conditions; flammable forests; and the recent flood of people into the wildland-urban interface.

As a society we have almost no influence over the first condition (except to make it worse through climate change), limited control over the second through fuel reduction, but considerable opportunities to ameliorate the third condition, if we take personal responsibility and have the political will.

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