Friday, November 18, 2016

The Chinese Wildfire Hoax

Friends and family back in Georgia have been dealing lately with something out of the ordinary and outside my own experience -- a series of big wildfires scattered all across the Southern Appalachian mountains. One of the fires, the Rough Ridge fire in the Cohutta Mountains, is said to be perhaps the largest in North Georgia's history. I've seen satellite images of smoke covering the northernmost third of the state, reaching down to Atlanta and Athens. It seems a bit unreal.

If it's the same Rough Ridge area that I once went camping with my father and brother, then it is some very rugged terrain firefighters have having to contend with.

Of course, in the heavily wooded mountains of Georgia and North Carolina, there have always been the occasional forest fire, though none from the past that really stand out in my mind.

Back in the days when my father was young, there was the habit of burning off the underbrush in the mountains in springtime, all the better for the grazing cattle that farmers let range freely during the summer. But that practice ended long before I was born.

As a kid, I can recall seeing just one wildfire, from a distance at night. It formed a crooked orange line in the dark as it burned on the side of Talona Mountain (which we called Reed Mountain, for some reason), an isolated "monadnock" that rose within easy viewing distance of my family's home.

And when I was in college at Young Harris, essentially at the base of Brasstown Bald, Georgia's highest peak, there was once a fire somewhere in the area. It was serious enough that the Forest Service asked for students to volunteer to help with the fire fighting. My classes wouldn't allow me to join, but some of my friends did and came back to school at the end of the day sooty and looking a bit exhilarated. I did envy them for the experience.

In any case, never when I was living in Georgia would there be so many fires burning at the same time, especially in November. Typically, autumns were coolish, and a bit wet, not what I would think of as fire season. 

The photos and reports that I'm seeing now seems like a smaller-scale version of something out of the American West, where fire is often enough an inescapable part of life. I know a family in Colorado who had to evacuate their house a few years ago due to an approaching fire and can still point to the spot just across the road where the flames thankfully came to a halt. And this is not not far from Storm King Mountain, where 14 firefighters lost their lives in 1994, a grim reminder of the deadly and destructive power of uncontrolled fire. 

A couple of years ago, we were driving across northern Arizona when the news came over the radio that 19 "hot shot" firefighters had similarly died at Yarnell Hill some 60 miles to the south of us. Later that night, we could see a small fire burning on Dean Peak in the Hualapai Mountains near Kingman, the faint smell of smoke noticeable in the car as as we sped down Interstate 40. 

Of course, fire is also a huge concern in Finland, a country made up almost entirely of forests. Fire prevention is taken very seriously here, and a typical feature of the evening news in summer is the latest update on which parts of the country are under mets√§spalovaroitus ("forest fire warning"), when open fires in woodlands is strictly forbidden. Sometimes the entire country is under such a warning. That was surely the case in the summer of 2006, which was incredibly dry. Finland avoided major fires then, but even in Helsinki you could sometimes not avoid the smell of smoke reaching all the way from across the border in Russia, where numerous fires burned out of control for days, due to the lack of resources or motivation to extinguish them. 

Luckily, no lives or structures have been lost to the North Georgia blazes, and at the moment smoke is the biggest threat to people. But the smoke, if nothing else, is unpleasant and potentially unhealthy. The Atlanta area was placed under a Code Red air quality alert, indicating the smoke can be harmful for everyone, not only children and those with respiratory ailments. 

And conditions don't seem likely to improve. Apparently, there's a chance of rain this weekend for the area, but before that temperatures are still expected to reach 24 C (75 F), which to me seems unnaturally high for a week before Thanksgiving.

Nowadays, when every little thing gets politicized, I'm amazed I haven't yet seen anyone trying to score political points over these unprecedented wildfires, and I hesitate to do it myself (a bit).

I've always been extremely annoyed by conservative pundits or talk show hosts who poke fun at the notion of global warning wherever there is an usually big winter storm somewhere. Erick Erickson comes to mind, declaring something like, "Well, with all the snow covering Buffalo right now, it sure looks like 'Global Warming' to me. Ha, ha, ha!" Or something like that. Appealing to the common sense of the common man.

Hearing this kind of nonsense always makes me want to pull my hair out, thinking "No you idiot, you have to look at the trend, the overall trend. You can't look at just one isolated event and declare that climate change is bogus." Especially, when the event goes against the prevailing trend.

By the same token, you should also guard against making too much of an unusual weather pattern when it seems to confirm the reality of climate change. You never hear folks like Erick Erickson doing that.

That said, rare drought conditions and historically bad wildfires certainly seem to fit predictions of a rapidly warming planet. You would think the warm, tinder-dry conditions in the Southern Appalachians in late autumn would make local people, many of whom voted for Donald Trump, stop and consider that maybe this is a sign of global warming. Maybe it's not a Chinese hoax after all, despite what Trump has claimed over and over again.

You would think they might finally take the issue seriously and be alarmed that the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency might well be a climate change denier.

Or, maybe not. Maybe they'll just breathe in the pungent smell of burning timber and, with a sense of self-satisfaction, think to themselves, "Ah, nothing to worry about. That smells like Trump's America to me!"

Wildfire in California, 2008. 
Photo: Bureau of Land Management.

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