JOHN BETTS: THE AGE OF SUPER FIRES
Listen to/Dowload the John Betts interview on super fires (24 minutes)
Are we entering the age of super forest fires? Our guest is John Betts, Executive Director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association in British Columbia, Canada. He’s in the gorgeous lake-side town of Nelson British Columbia – right in the path of the dead pines forest fire threat.
His group just held a fire management conference in B.C. – with guest attending from Australia as well.
As a leader in an industry devoted to “managing” our forests, often by removing excess undergrowth, John advocates removing “fuel” from the forests before a disaster strikes. In years past, environmentalists have insisted such decay is natural and the woods should be left to their own devices.
Now it’s different. With global warming and warmer winters, the Rocky Mountain Pine Bark Beetle has killed off entire valleys of pine trees.
They will eventually burn – and some surround communities in the interior of British Columbia, and soon in Alberta too.
The same problem exists in the United States west, due to other bugs and general drying with climate pressures. Just consider the big fires in Colorado in 2012. The fires in Australia also look climate-related.
Betts adds a further cause: namely our success in stopping forest firest, (he calls it “suppression”). Most of these forests, especially in Western North America, were adapted to cycles of fires. The coniferous seeds could withstand a fire and regrow.
We know from studying forest soils there have been periods of fire for many centuries. But now with water bombers and new techniques, we stop them from burning, in our parks, on private lands, and around cities. John Betts says this means an abnormal amount of dead brush builds up beneath the trees. That’s a recipe for a “super fire” – one we can’t put out, until it burns out, or gets rained out.
In British Columbia, the dead pines can build into a kind of pyramid structure, just like you might build in a fire pit. That burns so hot it kills off any seeds. In fact, it can sterilize the soil even of helpful fungii and bacteria. So the forest doesn’t grow back, and the ecology has been damaged.
Australia may or may not be a special case, with the eucalyptus trees and their oil, which act like instant torches. Note the Eucalyptus has been planted in California, in the U.S. South East, and around the Mediterranean. That could be a big mistake.
But with long drought, and excessive heat, we’ve seen many parts of the world burn as we’ve never seen in recent centuries. Consider the 2010 great fires in Russia which claimed hundreds of lives. Just previous to that, Serbia had giant fires, as did Greece and Spain. It’s an ominous trend, which John Betts says is no accident.
As global heating continues, and the weather systems are thrown out of whack, we can expect a new age of great fires. Now you know the news before it hits your TV screen or headline. Expect it.
Betts advises communities how to prepare. Things like removing brush, or even if necessary, creating fire breaks around towns. And we should stop our home-building invasion of the woods, particularly in fire-ready areas. Having people living there drives more efforts to put fires out, which leads to the danger cycle again. Or people stay and try to fight the impossible flames, and die as they did in Australia. The Australian government has changed its advice – now telling people to get out, rather than remaining home with garden hoses against the inferno.
We need a lot of discussion and preparation to make sure our communities are safe, and our forests can return to some kind of natural cycle again – if “natural” is still possible in a big climate shift! It’s possible some forests will never return, changing over to grasslands. We don’t know yet, as we gamble away the future of the biosphere on a small planet.
- One-fifth of B.C.’s forests at risk for wildfires due to the pine beetle infestation (shawglobalnews.wordpress.com)
- Forest fire in Valparaiso, Chile destroys 60 homes (disaster-report.com)