Veteran journalist and IAWF Large Wildland Fires Conference keynote speaker Michael Kodas offers perspectives on the many frames that make fire “mega.” In search of an answer he’s reported on fires and fire research from Israel to Australia and from Greece to Yarnell Hill, Arizona. Here’s an excerpt from what he’s discovering.
In December of 2011 I sat down with ten fire scientists from China, France, Portugal, Australia, Canada and the United States as they attempted to answer what seemed like a simple question.
“What is a mega-fire?”
Dan Binkley, a forestry and ecology professor at Colorado Sate University and one of the organizers of the Exploring the Mega-Fire Reality conference that we were attending in Tallahassee, Florida, led the discussion. Just defining the term proved challenging.
“The term “mega’ must be used to describe the top level of fire intensity,” one researcher said.
“It’s impossible to escape a mega-fire,” another threw out.
“They’re impossible to control,” said a third.
Soon, I was listening to debates about which fires merited the term “mega.” I didn’t realize at the time the discussion was planning an around-the-world itinerary for me.
“Israel wasn’t a mega-fire,” one of the scientists gathered around the table argued.
Yet, in the first presentation at the conference, Jerry Williams, the former National Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the United States Forest Service and the man who popularized the term “mega-fire,” showed a photo of a burned bus in Israel. The wreckage, which looked like the charred skeleton of some massive, prehistoric caterpillar, marked the spot where 44 Israeli police officer, firefighters and prison guards burned to death in December of 2010. It proved apt that the disaster occurred on the mountain where Elijah brought down fire from heaven to prove the power of his God.
Three weeks after the mega-fire conference, I stood on the spot where that bus burned with little doubt that the fire in Israel, which burned only about 10,000 acres – a small fraction of the amount of land burned in large wildfires around the world that year – was nonetheless a “mega-fire.” Certainly the blaze drew a mega-response. A dozen nations sent firefighters, aircraft and supplies to assist putting out the blaze. The Israeli government contracted Evergreen Aviation’s Supertanker – a Boeing 747 retrofitted to fight wildfires – to fly from California to the forests above Haifa, where it made two drops of retardant before heading home. Israel itself launched a new fleet of firefighting aircraft in response to the tragedy.
But, even given the loss of life and the costs of the response, the fire’s greatest impact might be on the global Jewish culture.
“This is not forest,” Avi Perevolotsky, the head of Israel’s Agronomy and Natural Resources Department, told me as we looked at the sprawling woodlands of Mount Carmel. “It’s a garden.”
Some 70 percent of Israel’s forests were planted by the Jewish National Fund, the organization that also purchased the land that would become Israel, in an effort of provide employment to thousands of immigrants coming to the new nation and to mimic the forests of northern Europe, where many of those Israeli settlers came from. As the forests of Israel spread and thickened, the Aleppo pine – the JNF’s tree of choice, which is known as the Jerusalem pine in Israel – went from making up 10 percent of Israel’s forests to being the nation’s dominant tree species. And as the pines matured, the forests became increasingly flammable.
“They created the perfect fire bomb,” Perevolotsky said. “You have the bomb, which is the pine trees, and the fuse – the native oaks and shrubs.”
But, with the JNF having convinced the Jewish population around the world that planting a tree in Israel is the most Zionist of acts, the response to seeing Israeli forests burn has been to plant more forests. Before the Mount Carmel blaze was out, the JNF committed $10 million to replant the forests there.
So, as I stood where the bus burned and gazed around at charred forests, I wondered if the size of the Mount Carmel fire should be measured in the acreage burned, the lives lost or the image of the fire and the forest it burned that loomed in minds of millions of people around the world – an image that, as a journalist, I helped create.
“I don’t see any reason that Australia wouldn’t be a mega-fire,” another scientist at the Tallahassee conference had commented.
But when I visited the scene of the Black Saturday fires in which 173 Australians perished, I spoke with researchers like John McAneney and Kat Haynes, whose work my colleague at the University of Colorado, Roger Pielke, Jr., showed that despite a warming and drying climate that seems sure to bring more severe fires to Australia, the blazes of February, 2009, were not unprecedented. The biggest driver of the losses of property and life on Black Saturday wasn’t the “mega” nature of the fire, they note, but the number of homes built within ten meters of the bush that burned.
“If you’re within 10 meters of the bush, your house has a 90 percent chance of igniting,” McAneney told me.
In November 2013, firefighers stood at the front of the 60,000 Australians protesting in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane against Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s climate policies. Yet few talk about the fact that in the greater Sydney alone, as many as half a million homes are close enough to the bush to burn.
Australia has long been proud of its rugged self-reliance, and nowhere is that ethos better captured than in the “stay and defend” practice, in which residents are encouraged to equip themselves to defend their own houses from wildfires. But, after so many people perished in their homes on Black Saturday, the nation created a new “catastrophic” level on its fire danger rating scale and created a more complicated message. Residents are still encouraged to stay and defend their properties from bushfires when the fire danger is high or even extreme – authorities note that many homes that burned in the fires of October, 2013 in the Blue Mountains would have survived if homeowners had stayed home to fight the fires. But when the fire danger reaches the catastrophic level, authorities urge residents to evacuate before a blaze even starts.
It’s hard to imagine how communities like the ones that fell into chaos on Black Saturday will respond more effectively to this more nuanced messaging.
“It’s going to happen again,” McAneney said of Black Saturday. “With or without climate change.”
Back at the Tallahassee conference, a few researches argued that socio-economic aspects of fires should earn the “mega” prefix.
“In Portugal, the fires had political impacts,” Célia Gouveia, of Universidade Lisboa, noted.
In Greece, I saw that it can work the other way around – elections can also influence wildfires.
In 2007, wildfires killed 84 Greeks and burned to the edge of the relics of Olympia, home of the first Olympic games. In the 2009, wildfires on Mount Parnitha rolled into the suburbs of Athens, and in 2012, an arsonist burned a third of the island of Chios, destroying many of the famed mastic trees used to produce perfumes, candies and liqueurs found nowhere else on Earth.
After visiting the scenes of the fires, I sat down with Spiros Skouras, an economist with the Athens University of Economics and Business, who was fascinated with when and how the blazes started.
“Immediately it became obvious that there was a really striking regularity which that we had a huge spike in wildfires in the years that there were elections,” he told me.
Spiros showed me a graph on his laptop stretching back to 1950, with a trend line showing an exponential increase in the number and size of wildfires. Stars marking elections topped almost all of the peaks on the graph that indicated big fire years.
“Here’s the really disappointing thing,” Spiros says, pointing to a plateau indicating few fires in the 1960s, when a military junta ruled the nation. “No elections and no wildfires.”
Other researchers noted a number of more-likely causes for Greece’s big fire years – a population abandoning once-cultivated land and managed forests, the declining budget of the nation’s fire service, and overburdened power lines. But there are clear indications that when the nation’s politics overheat, its forests tend to burn.
Greece protects its woodlands, but once they’ve burned, the land is fair game for developers, Spiros said. Local leaders looking for votes are more likely to allow building on a site during an election year, so long as the land isn’t protected because there are trees on it. So people looking to build, burn off the forest before applying for their building permits.
“You get an additional 170 percent increase (in wildfires) due to an election in addition to all of those other factors,” Spiros told me. “Something like eight percent of the whole of the area of Greece has been burned because of an election.”
Back at the Tallahassee conference, as a couple researchers debated whether “burn intensity” or “spread velocity” was a better measure of “mega,” Dan Binkley tried to keep the discussion on track.
“You’re looking at the amount of acres burned,” he noted. “But you can look at the number of lives lost. The definition should have multiple criteria. Property loss, air quality, wildlife … ecosystem change, species extinction…”
It was easy to see why some scientists disdain the term “mega-fire” altogether. While it may get the public’s attention, it clearly will always lack the specificity that scientists prefer, and encourages a view of even beneficial large fires as big, dangerous monsters.
The day after I returned from my fire reporting in Europe I was attending a conference of science writers in Colorado’s Indian Peak when I heard that 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots had perished in the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona. I arrived in Prescott the following afternoon.
Burning about 8,500 acres of chaparral, the fire was even smaller than the Mount Carmel blaze, and downright tiny compared to the Black Saturday fires and other conflagrations that burned elsewhere in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and California during the previous year. Yet, while the fire that killed the hotshots didn’t meet the size standard that has been the first criteria of the “mega-fire” classification, no other fire has had as large an impact on many of the other scales we discussed in Florida two years earlier.
I finished my time in Tallahassee wandering through the park-like forest of longleaf pines and wiregrass, noting how natural and introduced fire can have mega-positive impacts. Those, however, are a much more difficult sell to the mediaand the public it serves.
Somewhere between Tallahasee and Prescott, I realized that those of us trying to communicate both the hazards and benefits of wildland fire will increasingly be forced to measure the size of a fire less in flame lengths or whether the burn can be seen by satellites, and more in the ecological, cultural, political and economic scales that may be less dramatic when the fire is burning, but will stay with us long after the landscape has regrown.
About the author
Michael Kodas is the Associate Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism in the University of Colorado’s Journalism and Mass Communication department, as well as a photojournalist, author and videographer whose work has appeared in the a range of media, including the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Denver Post, National Public Radio, The PBS Newshour, Newsweek, and OnEarth. In 1999 he was part of the team at The Hartford Courant awarded The Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage. He is author of a book, High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed, and is currently working on a book studying the global increase in wildfire.