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by Nancy Truher

Land on Fire: The New Reality of Wildfire in the West,

By Gary Ferguson, 2017


Wildfires have impacted western landscapes for a long time. But their impact is increasing. All of the years of the most devastating fires have been since 2006. Megafires (typically defined as those burning more than 100,000 acres) are the worst: it is said that 99% of the burned land comes from 1% of the fires. Longer fire seasons (ten weeks longer per year) of higher temperatures and lower humidity are clearly affected by climate change.

In a natural state, forest fires can be beneficial. They help recycle needed nutrients back into the soil, especially when natural decomposition is slowed by drought. These small fires can burn with flames 3 - 5 feet high, but big fires with heavy fuel loads can shoot flames 150 feet high. These fuel loads are encouraged by the warming of climate change, which also allows larger populations of pine bark beetles, damaging and killing trees that then add to the fuel loads both standing and on the ground.

Most forest fires are started by human activity, either accidental or purposeful. Many are also caused by lightning, but only 1 - 4% of lightning strikes lead to fires. However, in the  face of climate change, the land is drier, and even the number of lightning strikes is increasing: 12% more for every degree C increase in temperature. Scientists are learning more about how, once sparked, fire moves and grows, for instance the development of a fire-whirl, not unlike a tornado.

Major events in the aftermath of forest fires can include erosion and landslides. Big fires, along with climate change, are changing the nature of habitats, including the types of vegetation and the mix of animal life that depends on it. Some plant species are encouraged by fire, but invasive species can also take hold. Severe fires that burn very hot can cause the soil to become impervious to water, which can lead to flooding.

The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy focuses on three critical goals. First, to improve the ability of firefighters to respond; making firefighter communication more effective is a major part of this goal. Second, to restore fire adapted landscapes: minimize excess fuel, thin young, tightly-spaced trees, and carry out prescribed burns, for example.

Third, to make towns and subdivisions in the Wildlife/Urban interface much less prone to catastrophe from wildfire. Groups like the National Fire Protection Association are educating builders and homeowners about how to reduce the risk of homes catching fire. This book lists the top ten ways to protect property from wildfire. In western North America, future extra dry conditions are likely to occur three to five times as often as now, and the length of the fire season is likely to continue to increase. According to climate models now being used by fire researchers, more frequent big wildfires can be expected by mid-century. Normally, forests can act as carbon sinks, absorbing and storing more than one-fourth of anthropogenic carbon. But if forests are too compromised, that storage capacity will decrease, which will further increase climate change. For decades to come, we can expect a turbulent and overwhelming land of fire. Gary Ferguson is an award-winning nature and science writer, having started out working as an interpretive naturalist for the U.S. Forest Service. He has spent 30 years researching the topics of wild lands, history, myth, and narrative psychology and has written more than 20 books. His books focus on ecology and conservation, especially ways in which people interact with nature. In this book he describes the science behind wildfires, and the research that attempts to find a solution. The book was published by Timber Press, Inc., located in Portland, Oregon.