Wednesday, August 2

Yugoslavs did it. Wolves did it. Climate Change did it. Explanations for European wildfires, from wacky to reasonable.

Wildfire in Split, Croatia - July 17

Canadair water bombers -- unable to take off on Monday due to strong winds -- are expected to join a large number of firefighters, soldiers and citizens in an effort to contain and extinguish the fires.
And although authorities in Croatia are saying that the cause of the fires is yet to be determined, many Croatians believe they are the work of arsonists. 

Retired General Davor Domazet Loso thus voiced his suspicion that the fires have been caused by "Yugoslavs who hate Croatia and Croatians." 

He also blamed these Croatia-hating Yugoslavs of waging "asymmetric warfare" against the country, and also Croats in neighboring states: 

"The Bay of Kotor (in Montenegro), Herzegovina, and Dalmatia are on fire. That cannot be a coincidence. And right at a time when according to forecasts, one was to know that a gale has been blowing for four days," said Loso. 

Citizens, meanwhile, think that the fires have been started on purpose because they broke out in about 20 places within several hours. But Croatia's firefighting services urge caution, and explain that only an investigation can determine the cause. 

The Split-based daily Slobodna Dalmacija writes that despite these suspicions prompted by the wildfire's multiple sources, a number of natural phenomena could have been the cause of the "cataclysmic blaze."
Firefighting commander Drazen Glavin offered one - saying that he was an eyewitness to the fire "literally jumping from place to place." ...
Yup; at one point during the monster wildfire in British Columbia, fire literally jumped across a river that's more than a mile wide.

And all the good general had to do was read headlines at the time to see that if Yugoslavs were at work, they were trying to burn down all of Europe.

Or he could look at the NASA map of fires across Europe. See the Guardian, link below, for the map.

Over in Provence, France, wolves might be to blame, reported the Guardian on July 29:

... Such arson is not a new thing. Sitting with friends in square in Carros – a village that has traditionally been spared tourist scrums but which was quieter than usual –Malika Merzouk, a local resident, explained some of the motives cited in the past for forest arson.
“Some people might set the fires to clear new land to build for example, while others might be trying to bring the price of property down. But either way, it’s criminal and very dangerous,” she added.
Throwing another theory into the mix, meanwhile, her friend Stephan Van der Stuyft suggested that the fires could be caused by wolves that have reappeared in the region after crossing over from Italy.
After being hunted to extinction France in the 1930s, they now number in the hundreds and have been blamed for driving farmers and their sheep off pastures that then become fire-prone shrubland.
“It might be nonsense, but a lot of people seem to be taking it seriously as an idea,” he added. “Still, if you talk to a fireman here they will just tell you that there is no real reason for what has happened. Everything is so dry that sometimes even the spark from a car exhaust can cause something.”  ...
Yuppers; in California during the drought a hippie marijuana grower was trying to avoid the fuzz so he drove across a field rather than taking the road. One spark from the dilapidated pickup's exhaust pipe, and WHOOSH! within moments, a monster wildfire.  I forget the name of that fire -- there were so many in California during the drought -- but it was very well known at the time, and everyone heaped abuse on the hippie.

Of course this doesn't mean arsonists and pyromaniacs and just plain careless and ignorant people haven't contributed to the wildfires. During the fires in France, a fire crew came across a group of campers sitting around a little fire while tiny sparks from the fire were wafting on the breeze. I guess the campers figured that because nothing went up in flames it was okay. 

All it would have taken in those bone-dry drought conditions was one wind gust catching just one of those sparks to touch off an inferno.

Nature is the most dangerous arsonist. I remember watching with a sense of horror and awe the Carlton Complex Fire in Washington state in 2014 -- the largest wildfire recorded in the state's history, burning over 250,000 acres. 

It was actually four fires, started in different areas by four separate lightning strikes on the same day, July 14, which then merged. The most unsettling part was that it was wildly shifting winds that drove these four fires together to form an incredible conflagration; the effect was that the wind was coming from four directions. 

At least some of the fire's fast progress might have been 'crown' fires -- where fire jumps from treetop to treetop; I'd have to check the archives to make sure. But that would have been another reason for the incredible speed and span of the wildfires' paths. 

There was no way firefighters could have gotten that fire under control without help from the weather, so one might say God stepped in. Rain on July 24 slowed the Carlton Complex Fire, ten days after it began, allowing fire crews to contain the fire by 60% by July 26. 

Hundreds of homes were destroyed. Entire towns were ordered evacuated. Incredibly there was only one fatality, and that was a man who died of a heart attack while trying to protect his home from the fire. So he might not have paid attention to an evacuation order -- or maybe he was just caught by surprise. 

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of wildfires that arise during very dry conditions is the deceptive speed with which they can spread. A fire can be at a distance of several miles, then suddenly the wind shifts or picks up force and suddenly it's on top of you. Californians learned that lesson the hard way during the historic drought in the state, and since then people in one drought-struck region after another have been learning the same lesson.   

It's not necessarily drought itself, it's the length of time it's been in existence. So at first Californians who were 'old hands' at living in a fire-prone region weren't factoring in the extraordinarily dry condition of the forests that had crept in from years of severe drought.

Add to this, many trees had been eaten away from the inside and dried out by huge numbers of insects that were attacking trees during the drought. It was like living near forests of bone-dry paper. 

Today, Californians know. When the evacuation order comes in don't stop to pack your most treasured possessions. Grab the dog and run to the car and pray you're not caught in a traffic jam with others fleeing the fire.

As to the wolves theory -- it depends. As we examined during the killer wildfires in Portugal, deserted countryside can be a factor, even a significant one, when there's nobody around any longer to sound the alarm, beat out the beginnings of a fire, and keep the brush and forest at bay with a carefully tended farm.

The theory doesn't apply much if at all when we turn to study the wildfires on the French Riviera. There, fires broke out in a pretty well-populated region, even though one of the factors was that forest and brush had over years crept ever closer to human habitations -- a very familiar situation in southern California. In that scenario, extremely dry conditions could be the biggest problem.  

And the large numbers of people and buildings in the Riviera fire zone meant that fire crews had to focus foremost on saving people and homes, which wasn't necessarily the most efficient way to fight the fires.       

There are numerous factors that play into the outbreak of forest fires and their spread. The factors are amplified in their danger during an extended drought. So I think people are no longer as philosophical as they were about forest fires. Several people in Provence told the Guardian that they considered climate change to be the biggest factor in the Riviera wildfires. 

Could be, but it doesn't have to be climate change; just a cyclic change in weather patterns can raise warning flags. That, and the fact that times have changed since the last bout of severe prolonged drought in human-inhabited areas. Many more people, many more buildings, much more expense to property owners and insurance companies from forest fires.

In that scenario the "Let it burn" viewpoint might not be feasible. And the idea of 'managing' forest fires through controlled burns, which became popular in the closing decades in the USA in the last century, isn't wise during a prolonged drought.

See also What can be done to mitigate devastating wildfires during a time of drought?; August 2, Pundita


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