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Wednesday, November 23

Wildfires rage across 7 parched US southern states: freak event, arson, or climate change?

Good Lord

 Photo by "Aqua" satellite NASA/Goddard/ Jeff Schmaltz/Lynn Jenner/EOSDIS/Inciweb
November 12, 2016 (Image via PBS Newshour)

Below, two news reports on the wildfires, each with a very different emphasis:

November 22, 2016 - 6:51 PM EST
How big droughts, forest fires could be the new normal in Appalachia
By Nsikan Akpan, digital science producer for PBS NewsHour
PBS NewHour
[See website for weather graphic and photo of fire haze]
The South is burning. Wildfires have burned more than 100,000 acres across seven states in the southern Appalachian Mountains since late October. Of the 44 ongoing blazes, the biggest struck northern Georgia and western North Carolina, where whole towns have fled as part of a slate of mass evacuations.
All of which, scientists say, is pretty weird.
“It’s very rare to have this many fires burning this amount of area in the Southeast,” U.S. Forest Service ecologist James Vose. “It’s typically a wet climate, especially in that southern Appalachian region where these fires are occurring.”
This year, the situation changed. The Southeast has experienced a once in a generation drought, with the area seeing little to no rainfall at all since September. 
Columbia University bioclimatologist Park Williams said the epicenter of the drought — the spot between northern Georgia, eastern Tennessee and the western Carolinas — rivals conditions typically witnessed in the American West.
More than 47 million people live in these southern drought areas, which extend from Oklahoma to Virginia, according to the Associated Press.
Those regions are definitely experiencing a one in 50 year event,” Williams said. This aridness arrived just as autumn trees across the region shed their colorful leaves — a highly flammable fuel for wildfires.
Yet climate change indicators suggest droughts of this magnitude are becoming the status quo, Vose said. Though Southeast climate leans toward abundant rainfall, the region is no stranger to drought. It cycles between stretches of dry and moist. But since the 1980s, droughts have become more frequent in the Southeast. Vose said these dry spells are also growing longer, meaning it’s drier for longer when it’s dry, and it’s wetter for longer when wet.
In the past, these dry periods would be interrupted by a rainstorm every couple of weeks, which stymied large fires, Vose said, but the new norm of extensive dry periods means that there is no rainfall to keep the fires in check.
“Consecutive dry periods are predicted to occur as a result of anthropogenic [man-made] climate change,” Vose said. “These trends make larger area burns and more fires perhaps more likely in the future.”
An onslaught of regular droughts will impose benefits and strains to southeastern wildlife. Many native water-loving pine trees will falter, but oak forests thrive in drought-stricken areas, especially those cleared by fire. The human toll may be harder to afford. More than 200 patients landed in the hospital last week in Chattanooga, Tennessee due to breathing difficulties related to wildfire smoke plumes. So far, the U.S. Forest Service has spent $45 million on firefighting expenses.
What triggered the latest wildfires remains unknown, but arson investigations are underway in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky.
PBS Comment Section, in response to the above report:
A 'once in 50 years event' isn't a typical signal of Climate Change. If once in 50 turns into a once in 10 pattern -- that's an example of Climate Disruption.
AMS analyzes about 30 extreme weather events per year, and looks for fingerprints of AGW/CC in them:
Even a read of one year's review is worth the time and effort. It tries to avoid the 'observational bias' of seeing a freak event as a barometer for a trend.
November 23, 2016 - 12:22 AM EST
Firefighters make progress in wildfires, but threat remains By Jeff Martin
In North Carolina, most of the large fires burning in the western part of the state are suspected arsons ...
ATLANTA (AP) -- Firefighters are gaining ground in their efforts to suppress large wildfires burning in the Southeast, but several blazes continue to creep into new areas - and investigators say more fires are being lit each day by suspected arsonists.
There are 44 uncontained large fires in the South, covering a total of more than 120,000 acres, national fire officials said Tuesday.
Arson investigations are underway in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky.
In Tennessee, firefighters have responded to 27 new fires since Friday, and 19 of them are suspected arsons, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture reported. Most of those recent blazes are relatively small, the largest being a 452-acre wildfire northwest of Knoxville.
[Pundita Note: See also Nov 15 AP report, which mentions, "Of the 1,238 wildfires in Tennessee so far this year, officials suspect arson in almost half of them."]
The Southern forests have caught fire amid a relentless drought. More than 47 million people are now living in drought areas, which stretch from Oklahoma and Texas all the way east to the Carolinas and parts of Virginia, according to the latest information from the National Drought Mitigation Center.
In recent days, high winds and falling leaves have been among the toughest challenges firefighters have faced, authorities say.
"Leaves are the biggest concern for firefighters as the unseasonably late leaf fall continues to spread fresh fuel upon the fire," fire managers said in a Tuesday update on one of the South's largest wildfires, the nearly 14,000-acre Tellico Fire in western North Carolina.
More than 5,000 people from local, state and federal agencies have been battling the wildfires across the South, authorities said. The U.S. Forest Service is investigating what caused many of the larger blazes.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has reached out to the Forest Service, offering to help investigate, Special Agent Larry Priester said. So far, he said, the agency has not joined the probe. "Their main focus now is just getting the fires contained," he said.
In North Carolina, most of the large fires burning in the western part of the state are suspected arsons, authorities have said. A $10,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for them.
Some wildfire arsonists set fires for the thrill of it, while others are motivated by social or political causes, according to documents from the U.S. Fire Administration.
"We've had people in the past who said 'I like the lights of the fire,'" said Brian Haines, a spokesman with the North Carolina Forest Service. "People have strange reasons for starting fires."
There have been a handful of arrests in some of the smaller fires, including a man in Kentucky whose hobby was to broadcast weather reports on social media. He was charged with arson after police said he admitted to starting a wildfire to draw attention to his selfie videos on Facebook.
The fear is that whoever has started many of the large blazes might continue to set more fires.
The Guardian reported on November 2 that "the drought conditions are being caused by a deflected jet stream, carrying moisture and rain further north and allowing high pressure to persist through the southeastern US."   

So what's going on in those Appalachian states? Maybe a perfect storm of factors.      

Yet despite the very high incidence of arson cited in the AP report, there is not a word from interviewed officials to suggest that some of the deliberately-set fires could be related to forest clearing for marijuana farming. 

Of course it's still early days with investigations. Yet I hope that Associated Press will eventually launch their own investigation. From all I've read about illegal pot growing in those mountains, I suspect officials there have averted their eyes about the connection between wildfires and pot growing. If so, they have to stop doing that, given the change in the weather pattern in U.S. southern states noted in the PBS report. 

In any case, from the AP report it looks to me as if much stiffer penalties need to be imposed for 'wildfire arson' -- and use of the slash-and-burn land clearing method.


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