WIldfire Precedents

I’m having a little difficulty finding historical statistics on wildfires. Here’s someone’s understanding:

My understanding is that the size of this fire is almost unprecedented with the exception being a fire in 1955 that consumed 58,000 acres.

The wind changed today. I can smell the smoke of my neighbor’s land again. The ash is falling again, too. Bitter snows.

The Waycross Wildfire 2, jimmorrow, April 23, 2007

When he wrote that towards the end of April, 55,000 acres had been burnt near Waycross, Georgia.

Three weeks later, as of 12 May 2007, 101,290 acres had been burned in Georgia and the fire had spilled over into Florida and burned 78,650 acres in Florida, for 179,940 acres. Oops, make that 121,000 acres in Georgia in the earlier Waycross firee (Sweat Farm Road Fire), and 233,700 acres in the Okefenokee fire (Bugaboo Fires), as of Sunday morning, 13 May, For a total of 354,700 acres. That’s not counting all the other fires in Georgia and Florida. (Not to mention all the other fires in Minnesota, California, and other places.)

Sure, the Okefenokee burns from time to time, because when it’s wet the peat builds up and when it’s dry enough it burns. But why are the fires so much bigger this time?

It’s curious to me that none of the news reports or blog entries I’ve seen have speculated on any connection to the four-fold increase in the average number of wildfires in the western U.S. since 1970. Connection in that those increased western wildfires are apparently because the average spring and summer temperatures were more than 1.5 degrees higher in Western states between 1987 and 2003 than during the previous 17 years. Meanwhile, it’s well known to everybody in Georgia that Georgia is in a drought. March is normally a rainy month, but last year and this year there was almost no rain in March, and not much since.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has some statistics online, from which it would appear that the Okefenokee last burned in 2002, to the tune of 117,816.2 acres. This year’s fire, five years later, is twice as big. The FWS online stats only go back to 1995, and with only two Okefenokee fires to compare, it’s hard to generalize. But what with all the other wildfires (50 started in Florida last weekend alone), you have to wonder.

It would seem like good risk management to me for somebody to be examining this question and to be considering what sort of measures and budgets will be needed to deal with this problem as the climate continues to warm. How much do timber industry monoculture pine plantations affect this issue, for example?


4 thoughts on “WIldfire Precedents

  1. Chandler Howell

    As I recall from reading Collapse, in the Montana anecdotes that Diamond relates, the problem is a combination of issues.
    First, the fire fighting policies that began in the early 20th century contributed to the build-up of dead trees and damaged the naturally fire-limiting multi-level ecosystem of old growth forests.
    Then, the timber companies hired in the 1960’s and after to clear the underbrush acted in Bad Faith and illegally harvested old growth hardwood to improve profitability of the contracts.
    Finally, the cost is now seen as too great (thousands of dollars an acre) to perform the clearing work at all.

  2. John Quarterman

    My brief comment about how southeastern pine forests and swamps are different from western and northern ecosystems, yet the underlying problems are similar, got to main posting length, so I’ll follow up with a post on the subject.
    One of the key points is that to clear underbrush in southeastern pine forests, fire is the usual method, with which the forests evolved. But not the kind of fires we’re seeing this year.

  3. jim

    On statistics…
    News sources didn’t quite have an idea about how important it would be to cover this story and didn’t always double check that information.
    I found during my research that many different sources were claiming different historical precedents and loss of acreage.
    The best source has been http://www.wjhnews.com. They are in Waycross,GA and seem to cover it well.

  4. John Quarterman

    Hi Jim,
    I see in your blog you also used firstcoastnews.com out of Brunswick, Ga. Oh, my: they closed down I-95 near Jacksonville Sunday. That’s three interstates (I-10, I-75, and I-95) closed because of these fires. Yet I was talking to someone in New York State this morning who said “what wildfires”?
    Yes, finding dependable wildfire precedents seems to be difficult. I’m guessing the 55,000 acres in 1955 you mentioned was probably in comparison to the Sweat Farm Road fire SW of Waycross?
    It’s hard to do risk management when you don’t know what’s happened before, because then you have no idea what sort of future risks to look out for.

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