03 January 2008

Global wildfire 2007

Wildfires are an issue in many places around the world, and the past year has seen a continuation of the apparent trend towards larger, more intense fires. Worldwide, wildfire activity was quite pronounced during the past year. This post will highlight some of the major fires observed during the past year or so from around the globe. For sake of brevity, this won't be a complete discussion; I won't note agricultural burning which is more prevalent than wildfire. For a more thorough listing, see the EO Natural Hazards Fire Archive (with excellent imagery), a main source of information for this post. The discussion will be arranged more-or-less chronologically. There will be some bias towards Australia and North America; the nature of the media and the fire coverage makes this a necessity.

Late 2006 and early 2007 saw many fires. This is the peak of the fire season in southern portions of Australia. The past fire season was among the most intense on record, at least in terms of fire weather, part of a jump which has been seen since approximately 2001. Fires in the eastern Victorian Alps in Australia burned out over 1 million hectares beginning in early December and extending well into January. Other major fires in Australia were noted near Dwellingup, Western Australia (which was razed by bushfire in 1961...) and in Tasmania. Fire activity in southeast Australia continued into April.

As austral winter begin, fire activity in the north began to heat up. The Sweat Farm Road fire in Georgia (USA) grew rapidly in April. Other major fires were reported in Georgia and Florida at the end of May, a result of the extreme (and ongoing!) drought in those areas. May also saw a large wildfire in northern Minnesota.

As boreal summer progressed, fire activity progressed northward into the wildlands of the Far North of North America. In June, Quebec reported more than 4.5 times the 20-year average area burnt had already occurred, suggesting an unusually severe fire season. The spruce forests in Alaska were also ablaze in June. In July, the tundra on the North Slope of Alaska was ignited by a lightning strike. This fire burned until October; at 100 000+ hectares burnt, it was the largest tundra fire on record in the state. Fires in Manitoba forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents.

In the western regions of the continental US, the summer saw numerous large wildfires. Utah reported its largest fire on record at 363 000 acres. Idaho and eastern Oregon also saw numerous fires ignited by dry lightning, several which burned in excess of 100 000 acres. Over 2007, Idaho saw nearly 2 million acres burnt by wildfire. Fires from Idaho also extended into Nevada. Large fires in Idaho and Montana burnt well into September.

California is one of the more fire prone regions of the world and it saw several so-called mega-fires during late-summer. Some of these were the Moonlight fire (63 000+ acres) in northern CA and the Zaca (200 000+ acres) fire in southern CA. The most-widely reported fires of the year occurred throughout southern CA in late-October, forcing the evacuation of over half a million people in the state. The image above is from these fires, captured by the NASA MODIS instrumentation.

Other regions of the globe also saw significant wildfire activity. Much of southern Europe experienced an unprecedented heatwave, which was accompanied by widespread wildfires in Italy and other regions of SE Europe, including Croatia where 11 firefighters were killed battling the blazes. Large fires in the Canary Islands forced thousands of evacuations. Perhaps most tragic, more than 60 people were killed in extensive wildfires in Greece in late-August, many of which were deliberately lit.

South Africa experienced extreme wildfire activity in eastern portions of the nation, resulting in the loss of several lives, while simultaneously undergoing floods on the opposite side. In Algeria, several people were killed in scores of forest fires in the Atlas Mountains. In Paraguay (South America) over 1700 fires were started in September, resulting in 400 000 hectares of forest burnt. Following the fires, widespread hunger was seen as the blazes had destroyed much of the season's crops. 50 000 people were left homeless and 8 people were killed.

In Australia, the 2007 fire season has been particularly active until recently, with numerous large fires observed. Much of western Kimberley (in Western Australia) burnt, with fires persisting for several months. Unusual fire activity was also observed in central Northern Territory and in regions south of the Gulf of Carpentaria. While widespread, the fires had little economic impact, burning in sparsely populated areas. In December, wildfires on Kangaroo Island in South Australia and in the Goldfields region of Western Australia have resulted in the loss of life. For updates on the bushfire situation in Australia, see the Australia Bushfire Monitor.

The impact of wildfires over past year has been large, resulting in numerous lives lost and significant amounts of property damaged. Fire activity is seemingly on the increase. And the losses aren't just economic, but everything from air quality to biodiversity is damaged in these events. Several questions arise: Is this level of fire activity unusual? What is the impact of climate change? These questions will be addressed in part 2. The myriad impacts of fires, which are more far-reaching than the active portion of the fires themselves will be discussed in part 3. These will be posted in the next week or two.

1 comment:

Novlangue said...

So what is Mr great 'n' fantastic Kevin Rudd gonna do about reducing car usage? It won't happen spontaneously.