Sunday, July 22, 2007


An overview reminder of the destruction fires can cause and how quickly they travel.

The coming firestorm
Will Angora fire be a prelude to wildfire devastation across the West?
By Daniel James Brown - Special To The Bee
Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, July 22, 2007

In a thousand dusty and brush-choked canyons, in tinder-dry forests redolent with the sweet scent of pine pitch, and on wind-swept grasslands all around the American West, disaster is brewing.

The flames and the dense pillars of smoke rising above South Lake Tahoe last month were merely a prelude to what is already shaping up to be another devastating fire season. In the days since the Angora fire was quelled, hundreds of other fires have erupted all over the West. The outbreak suggests a trend that has been accelerating for decades will continue. The trend is toward more, and increasingly ferocious, wildfires.

Few of us understand just how dire the threat to our lives and our property really is. We have forgotten, or we never learned, a harsh series of lessons from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in what were once the rich pinelands of Minnesota and Wisconsin. There, in a time before wildfire was really taken seriously, a catastrophic series of massive fires killed thousands and destroyed millions of acres of forest. The worst of these holocausts occurred on Oct. 8, 1871, when the town of Peshtigo, Wis., was overwhelmed by a firestorm of staggering proportions.

Perhaps 2,000 people died. Then, on Sept. 1, 1894, two fires converged on the town of Hinckley, Minn., killing more than 400 people in a horrific catastrophe chronicled in my book, "Under a Flaming Sky." The Hinckley firestorm consumed more than 300,000 acres -- 100 times as much land as last month's Angora fire at South Lake Tahoe -- in a matter of a few hours. On Oct. 12, 1918, a series of unstoppable fires raged across the Cloquet and Moose Lake areas of northern Minnesota, killing more than 400 people.

In our modern age, we tend to think that we are immune to such disasters because we enjoy instantaneous communications, we have aircraft that can dump thousands of gallons of water or flame retardant on fires and we can flee fires in automobiles.
But we aren't immune. Large fires remain highly unpredictable in how they evolve. Bombers and helicopters are of limited use in the extreme winds that firestorms generate and feed on. And as the Oakland Hills fire of 1991 demonstrated, cars are of little use on roads jammed with people trying to flee a wildfire. And fire can easily outrun anyone on foot.

We live, in fact, in an age of increasing peril when it comes to wildfire. Between the beginning of 1960 and the end of 1965, wildfires consumed roughly 25 million acres in the United States. Between 2000 and 2005 the figure rose to almost 40 million acres, despite improved firefighting equipment and better spotting and tracking technology. Last year, a record-breaking 9.09 million acres burned between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, a 166 percent increase over the previous 10-year average. Unfortunately, it's a record that's likely to be broken, and soon.