After the blazes: Poisoned water and ‘a flood on steroids’

After the blazes: Poisoned water and ‘a flood on steroids’

SOURCE: E&E News DATE: September 11, 2020 SNIP: Historic wildfires raging from California to Colorado are weakening watersheds and setting the stage for deadly mudslides and flooding and, in some places, threatening to poison critical water supplies. Fueled by record-setting temperatures and strong winds, blazes are wreaking havoc in the West, decimating entire towns like Malden in eastern Washington state, where 80% of the homes and structures — from the fire station to city hall — were burned to the ground. But the fires don’t just pose a threat to things that burn. More intense and larger fires are also shifting the very ground in Western states. Severe wildfires can change the hydrologic response of a watershed so quickly that even a relatively modest rainstorm can trigger flash floods and steep terrain debris flows, said Jason Kean, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Landslide Hazards Program in Golden, Colo. “A debris flow is kind of like a flood on steroids,” said Kean. “It’s all bulked up with rocks, mud, boulders, and then it becomes a different animal that can be even more destructive than a flood.” Burned and denuded land no longer has the vegetative root structure to help stabilize the soil and is easily eroded by rain. Another lesser-known threat to the region’s water is gaining attention in urban areas affected by wildfires: chemical contamination. In cities that have experienced devastating fires, water officials are finding cancer-causing benzene and other volatile organic compounds in contaminated and fire-damaged water infrastructure. Such was the case in the Northern California town of Santa Rosa after the Tubbs Fire in...
California fires burn record 2m acres

California fires burn record 2m acres

SOURCE: The Guardian DATE: September 7, 2020 SNIP: Wildfires have burned more than 2m acres (809,000 hectares) in California this year, setting a state record even as crews battled dozens of growing blazes in sweltering temperatures Monday that strained the electrical grid and threatened power outages for millions. The previous high was 1.96m acres (793,184 hectares) burned in 2018. the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, began tracking the numbers in 1987. Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for Cal Fire, said the most striking thing about the record was how early it was set, with the most dangerous part of the year ahead. “It’s a little unnerving because September and October are historically our worst months for fires,” she said. “It’s usually hot, and the fuels really dry out. And we see more of our wind events.” Firefighters struggled to corral several dangerous blazes ahead of dry, hot winds predicted to raise fire danger to critical levels in the coming days. Evacuation orders were expanded to more mountain communities as the largest blaze, the Creek Fire, churned through the Sierra National Forest. Record-breaking temperatures were driving the highest power use of the year, and transmission losses because of wildfires have cut into...
NASA/NOAA Satellites Observe Surprisingly Rapid Increase in Scale and Intensity of Fires in Siberia

NASA/NOAA Satellites Observe Surprisingly Rapid Increase in Scale and Intensity of Fires in Siberia

SOURCE: NASA DATE: August 7, 2020 SNIP: Abnormally warm temperatures have spawned an intense fire season in eastern Siberia this summer. Satellite data show that fires have been more abundant, more widespread, and produced more carbon emissions than recent seasons. The area shown in the time-lapse sequence above includes the Sakha Republic, one of the most active fire regions in Siberia this summer. The images show smoke plumes billowing from July 30 to August 6, 2020, as observed by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on NASA/NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Strong winds occasionally carried the plumes as far as Alaska in late July. As of August 6, approximately 19 fires were burning in the province. “After the Arctic fires in 2019, the activity in 2020 was not so surprising through June,” said Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. “What has been surprising is the rapid increase in the scale and intensity of the fires through July, largely driven by a large cluster of active fires in the northern Sakha Republic.” Estimates show that around half of the fires in Arctic Russia this year are burning through areas with peat soil—decomposed organic matter that is a large natural carbon source. Warm temperatures (such as the record-breaking heatwave in June) can thaw and dry frozen peatlands, making them highly flammable. Peat fires can burn longer than forest fires and release vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Parrington noted that fires in Arctic Russia released...
Siberian Wildfires Cover Area Larger Than Greece – Greenpeace

Siberian Wildfires Cover Area Larger Than Greece – Greenpeace

SOURCE: Moscow Times DATE: July 20, 2020 SNIP: Wildfires in Russia have burned across an area larger than the size of Greece so far in 2020, Greenpeace Russia said Monday as it criticized the authorities of inaction. Using satellite data, Greenpeace Russia estimated that 19 million hectares (47 million acres) burned across Russia’s forests, steppes and fields from January to mid-July. The country of Greece, by comparison, is more than 13 million hectares in size. Forest fires — some caused by lightning and others by campfires along river banks — covered 10 million hectares, the environmental NGO said. It called on Russian authorities to accelerate efforts on stopping toxic smoke haze from covering major cities in the region, including Yakutsk, Ugorsk and Sovetsky. “This summer has already brought extreme heat waves, oil spills caused by thawing permafrost, and raging forest fires — what next before we finally act on climate?” Greenpeace Russia’s head of firefighting Grigory Kuksin said. Last year’s wildfires in Siberia burned across an area the size of Belgium at their peak and emitted the equivalent of Sweden’s total annual carbon dioxide emissions in one month alone. Experts warn that this year’s blazes, some of which may be remnants from last summer which survived through a historically warm and dry winter, could become the most destructive in...
US south-west in grip of historic ‘megadrought’

US south-west in grip of historic ‘megadrought’

SOURCE: The Guardian DATE: May 29, 2020 SNIP: When Ken Pimlott began fighting US wildfires at the age of 17, they seemed to him to be a brutal but manageable natural phenomenon. “We had periodic [fire] sieges in the 80s, but there were breaks in between,” said Pimlott, the former head of the California department of forestry and fire protection. But no longer. “That doesn’t really happen any more. Now you can’t even blink” between fires, he said. “We’re seeing the kinds of fires we have never seen before.” A recent study published in the journal Science helps explains why, revealing that the south-western US is in the grip of a 20-year megadrought – a period of severe aridity that is stoking fires, depleting reservoirs and putting a strain on water supplies to the states of the region. “You see impacts everywhere, in snowpacks, reservoir levels, agriculture, groundwater and tree mortality,” said co-author Benjamin Cook, of Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. “Droughts are these amazingly disruptive events. Water sits at the foundation of everything.” Researchers compared soil moisture records from 2000-2019 to other drought events from the past 1,200 years. They found that the current period is worse than all but one of five megadroughts identified in the record. Unlike past megadroughts – brought on by natural fluctuations in the Earth’s climate – this current drought has been heavily influenced by human-induced climate change, “pushing what would have been a moderate drought in south-western North America into megadrought territory”, according to the study. “Global warming has made the drought much worse than it otherwise would have been,” said...