Lack of defensible space around homes a major reason for extent of destruction, says wildfire ecologist
On Monday, journalist, author, and author and environmental activist Bill McKibben tweeted data from CalFire regarding the top 20 most destructive fires in California. He wrote:
“Five of the twenty worst fires in CA history have come since September. Hot new world.”
Image from Twitter
When I came across the tweet, I immediately grabbed a screenshot and sent it off to Earth Island’s own wildfire expert — ecologist Chad Hason, director of John Muir Project.
Is McKibben’s interpretation accurate? I asked. What exactly do these figures mean?
Here’s the explanation that Hanson emailed back, which I’m reproducing with some edits here. It’s worth reading through during this ongoing fire season in the West, when there are so many numbers and confusing data and wildfire causes being cited in the media.
“He is talking about the number of homes burned, which may be accurate. He is not referring to fire size, although the Thomas fire is large — but the others not so much.
“This year there was not much wildland fire in the mountain forests, since we had a big winter in 2016-2017. But the high levels of winter and spring precipitation allowed a lot of grass to grow, and these fires are mostly driven by grass, and shrubs in low elevations near population centers.
“Because there is poor monitoring and enforcement for defensible space in most California counties, and because few counties have meaningful requirements with regards to fire-safe roofing and siding materials, severe impacts on communities can be expected in such circumstances.”
Los Angeles is an exception in this regard, Hanson says. Which is why during the La Tuna fire in September, though there were more than 700 homes within the fire perimeter, only 5 burned.
Hanson has explained before that while a volatile combination of higher temperatures, low rainfall, and dry weather — all in part connected to climate change — is making extreme fire weather more frequent in the West than in the past few decades, that’s not the main reason that certain fires are so damaging.
He says we can avoid the kind of destruction the current fires have wrecked on our homes and communities, “but only if we stop focusing resources on backcountry fire suppression and logging, and instead focus on protecting communities.”
Read our in-depth …more
Climate change, global migration, and border enforcement are coming to an explosive head
When I first talked to the three Honduran men in the train yard in the southern Mexican town of Tenosique, I had no idea that they were climate-change refugees. We were 20 miles from the border with Guatemala at a rail yard where Central American refugees often congregated to try to board La Bestia (“the Beast”), the nickname given to the infamous train that has proven so deadly for those traveling north toward the United States.
Photo by Peg Hunter
The men hid momentarily as a Mexican army truck with masked, heavily armed soldiers drove by. Given Washington’s pressure on Mexico to fortify its southern border, US Border Patrol agents might have trained those very soldiers. As soon as they were gone, the Hondurans told me that they had been stuck here for six long days. The night before, they had tried to jump on La Bestia, but it was moving too fast.
When I asked why they were heading for the United States, one responded simply, “No hubo lluvia.” (“There was no rain.”) In their community, without rain, there had been neither crops, nor a harvest, nor food for their families, an increasingly common phenomenon in Central America. In 2015, for instance, 400,000 people living in what has become Honduras’s “dry corridor” planted their seeds and waited for rain that never came. As in a number of other places on this planet in this century, what came instead was an extreme drought that stole their livelihoods.
For Central America, this was not an anomaly. Not only had the region been experiencing increasing mid-summer droughts, but also, as the best climate forecasting models predict, a “much greater occurrence of very dry seasons” lies in its future. Central America is, in fact, “ground zero” for climate change in the Americas, as University of Arizona hydrology and atmospheric sciences professor Chris Castro told me. And on that isthmus, the scrambling of the seasons, an increasingly deadly combination of drenching hurricanes and parching droughts, will hit people already living in the most precarious economic and political situations. Across Honduras, for example, more than 76 percent of the population lives in conditions of acute poverty. The coming climate breakdowns will only worsen that or will, as …more
Illegal electric fences on farms are a serious threat to the endangered animal
In May this year, a disturbing wildlife video from India began circulating on the Internet. It showed a dead elephant being carted off for an autopsy in a village in West Bengal in eastern India. The elephant had collapsed on a paddy field after reportedly coming in contact with an illegal electric fence. A crane truck awkwardly dragged the elephant upside down along a dirt road and a small crowd followed, taking pictures on cell phones. Burn marks were clearly visible on the elephant’s trunk.
Photo by Bikash Das
Wild elephants are electrocuted with startling regularity in India. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, there was a sharp uptick in 2016 with 43 elephants killed accidentally by damaged power lines or intentionally by illegal electric fences. In the southern state of Karnataka there were ten deaths in the last three six months alone. Karnataka is one of the states where electrocutions have overtaken poaching as a leading cause of unnatural death among elephants. “Every alternate day you hear about an electrocution case,” said K. Vijay, a conservationist with the Ooty-based Nilgiri Wildlife & Environment Association, shortly after a mother and two calves were killed by a fence on a coconut farm in neighboring Tamil Nadu earlier this year.
Asian elephants are an endangered species. But not everyone views them in that light. For some farmers, elephants are a menace because they can demolish a crop within a matter of hours. Wealthy landowners protect their harvest with power fences equipped with transformers that deliver a safe buzz of electricity to deter the animal. But small farmers who can’t afford commercial fences tend to improvise. A “homemade” electric fence is often just a single wire strung out on the periphery of a farm illegally connected to an overhead power line. Because they lack a transformer, illegal fences deliver a full blast of 220 volts of alternating current, strong enough to fell an elephant on the spot.
On paper, there are stringent laws protecting India’s “heritage” animal. Under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, killing an elephant carries a prison sentence up to seven years. But in reality, the system is prone to “influence,” according to one conservationist. A conviction in …more
Some of Trump’s tweets have generated more national coverage than devastating disasters
Which story did you hear more about this year — how climate change makes disasters like hurricanes worse, or how Donald Trump threw paper towels at Puerto Ricans?
If you answered the latter, you have plenty of company. Academic Jennifer Good analyzed two weeks of hurricane coverage during the height of hurricane season on eight major TV networks, and found that about 60 percent of the stories included the word Trump, and only about 5 percent mentioned climate change.
Trump doesn’t just suck the oxygen out of the room; he sucks the carbon dioxide out of the national dialogue. Even in a year when we’ve had string of hurricanes, heatwaves, and wildfires worthy of the Book of Revelation — just what climate scientists have told us to expect — the effect of climate change on extreme weather has been dramatically undercovered. Some of Trump’s tweets generate more national coverage than devastating disasters.
Good’s analysis lines up with research done by my organization, Media Matters for America, which found that TV news outlets gave far too little coverage to the well-documented links between climate change and hurricanes. ABC and NBC both completely failed to bring up climate change during their news coverage of Harvey, a storm that caused the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in the continental US. When Irma hit soon after, breaking the record for hurricane intensity, ABC didn’t do much better.
Coverage was even worse of Hurricane Maria, the third hurricane to make landfall in the US this year. Not only did media outlets largely fail to cover the climate connection; in many cases, they largely failed to cover the hurricane itself.
In the face of Trump's gleeful dismantling of our public lands, let the resistance continue to build
To stand with a Native American friend of 40 years at the site of a desecrated ancestral grave can be a transcendent and disorienting experience. Quiet grief. No words. Very different for me than for him.
For many of us, ten months of day-in-and-day-out whiplash, the feeling of reeling with every newscast, has been deeply depressing. But Monday was different. It was a punch in the gut. President Trump’s slash and burn dismantling of Bears Ears National Monument — from 1.35 million to 200,000 acres — and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — from 1.9 to 1 million acres — was a gleeful attack on nature, five tribes, Obama, and the environmental community. A sickening scene played out in Utah’s State capitol, right down to making Mick Jagger sing “You can’t always get what you want…” at the close of a garish and surreal ceremony.
photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management
We can hope the courts will overturn Trump’s ecocidal, law-flouting actions and that judges will unanimously agree with the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, Ute, and Ute Mountain Tribes, and with the Native American Rights Fund, Earthjustice, Patagonia, REI, and everyone else who is suing the bastards. But this thinly veiled move to open the door to oil, gas, coal, uranium, fracking, and all other manner of industrial invasion of what’s left of our wild public lands reveals what Trump and Zinke and their corporate sponsors are after, and how brazenly they will go about their dirty work.
If you are willing to feel carsick, I recommend you watch Trump’s speech. It’s a piece of work. “Wonder and wealth…” — we can have both!
No mention of coal stripmines or motorized all-terrain boytoys or bullet holes in ancient, priceless petroglyph panels.
I know many of us feel that our decades of work in the name of social and environmental justice are being vandalized by a reactionary patriarchy founded, at least in this country, on an imagined racial and religious superiority. Too true. I know for each of us there are certain days when the destruction feels closest to home, personal. I guess that’s the case for me here. President Obama’s recognition of a sacred cultural landscape to …more
Water filter project improving health, supporting women’s leadership, and safeguarding environment
Photos by Joel Lukhovi | Survival Media Agency
Most people in the district of Gomba, Uganda, don’t have access to clean water. About 50 kids under 5 years old die every month from diarrhea and typhoid, both of which are connected to consumption of contaminated water. The women of the Uganda Women’s Water Initiative — a partner of Earth Island Institute's Global Women's Water Initiative — recognized that there was a big public health problem, and decided to tackle it.
Photo by Joel Lukhovi/Survival Media Agency
In June 2014, the group used a $2,500 grant from Global Greengrants Fund to build 12 biosand water filters in two Gomba elementary and secondary schools to purify kids’ drinking water. Ten mothers and grandmothers participated in building the filters, which effectively remove bacteria by percolating water through various layers of sand and gravel. Although none had ever held a shovel, each was willing to break traditional stereotypes about the type of work done by women and activate for change.
Fast forward to today: The 12 water filters have been installed, and the women say their kids no longer suffer from diarrhea. School absenteeism has dropped by nearly two-thirds now that children aren’t getting sick as frequently, and the women report saving money they used to spend on hospital visits to pay school fees and feed their kids a balanced diet.
Today almost 800 children have access to clean water; 45 women have been trained on how to build biosand filters in their schools and homes. And Betty Birungi, one of the women who participated in the project, was elected to local government, where she continues to advocate for clean water.
Godliver Busingi of the Uganda Women’s Water Initiative also notes the project’s environmental benefits: “Gomba does not have forests, but the trees we do have get cut for firewood and charcoal. Using firewood every day to boil water for a school with 260 pupils is not sustainable at all. The schools are a big consumer of firewood, and so having the biosand filters helps us keep our trees. If we preserve the trees, our environment wins."
To learn more about the …more
Oil experts think economics are “suspect”
Republicans may be celebrating their great tax rip off they sneaked through last Friday night, which included the hugely disputed proposal of drilling of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but opening up America’s last true wilderness to oil exploitation is still far from certain.
Photo by USFWS
Firstly, drilling in ANWR is deeply unpopular with the American public; secondly, it still has to get past the House, where some Republicans are opposed to opening up ANWR; thirdly, even oil industry consultants think drilling now is not economically sensible and fourthly any development will be fought tooth and nail in the courts.
All this means that any drilling is not going to happen any time soon. It is worth remembering that pro-drilling Republicans have tried over fifty times to drill in ANWR already and they have failed.
Firstly, the American public are vehemently against the idea
Yesterday, Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication released a new survey that found that 70 percent of voters oppose drilling in the refuge. Those strongly opposed outnumber those who strongly support the policy by more than 4 to 1. Despite the gleeful scenes late on Friday night by the Republican leadership, a mere 18% of Republican voters “strongly support” the policy.
Secondly, the first hurdle any bill would have to overcome would be the House
Before the Senate vote, 12 Congressional Republicans sent a letter to the leaders of both houses of Congress, objecting the provision which would allow ANWR.
They wrote, in part: “Since the Refuge was originally set aside for the protection in 1960 by President Dwight Eisenhower, Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike have stood together to protect this unparalleled landscape.”
They continued: “For decades, Congress has voted to prohibit oil and gas development in the refuge, with the overwhelming support of the American public. Support for this protection remains strong today. After years of debate, the Arctic refuge stands as a symbol of our nation’s strong and enduring natural legacy.”
If Congress opened up the area to drilling, they warn, “the likelihood that lawsuits would accompany any development is high.”
Since the vote, some Republicans have gone public. Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo is one of those who signed the letter and who is co-founder of the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bi-partisan group working to address climate change.
His spokesperson, …more