My grandmother lost here summer cabin outside of Grayling, Michigan in the Great Crawford County fire on 1990. My grandfather had hauled the cabin and out buildings up to Grayling by rail from Detroit in the 1920s (some old houses my Great Grandmother had owned). It was one of many fires that year, but an early one caused by significantly less snow over the prior winter, high winds, and carelessness. The cabin was gone before anyone could react as it appears to have been in the dead center of the moving flames. I recall the story on CNN, but no one realized exactly where it was. My grandmother never recovered. She wasn’t the only one. 20 year later there are trees.
Forest fires happen with increasing frequency. Today in Southern California, the Sand Fire has set more than 35,000 acres of the Santa Clarita Valley ablaze. Difficulties fighting it are not limited to temperatures hitting 101 degrees in the area and dried brush from 5 years of drought conditions. The Soberanes Fire in Monterey County has burned 16,100 acres along the California coast between Carmel and Big Sur. The fire is bigger than the size of Manhattan. The 778 acre McHugh Fire located on the steep terrain south of Anchorage, Alaska. Looking at the map, it seems the west is on fire. A larger and larger portion of the US Forest Services’ budget gets spent on fire-fighting each year – 67% in 2016. Yet fires on Forest Service property account for only 20% of the total fire nationally (1.9 million acres or a total of over 10 million acres in 2015), but this total amount is increasing. Warmer weather in the west has increased the length of fire season, drought has increased the risk, budgets are stagnant so means to prevent fire intensity have been reduced, The only good news is that a University of Vermont study suggests that areas where pine beetle has killed trees is actually thinner and less at risk that heathier forests, if that is a “good” thing.
My friend Dr. Chi Ho Sham did some work on forest fires on watersheds a few year back. He found that forest fires have obvious impacts on people and our customers, but also our water supplies and our water supplies. The ash runs off into streams and is difficult to remove at water plants because it is so fine. Areas burned are far more subject to erosion after rain of snow melt thereby creating a need for more treatment at water plants. This will go on for some time after the rain until groundcover can re-establish itself. Fire retardant and water drops combat some fires although the retardant shows up in streams and water supplies with adverse impacts. Dams and reservoirs will need more frequent dredging due to buildup, and wildlife equilibrium will be disrupted. Forest fires make for interesting news, when they are far away, but few utilities think too much about what would happen if their watershed were impacts. No groundwater utility has thought about impacts on surficial groundwater although that might be an interesting study. But we should all have plans, should watch our watershed, and be cognizant that far away fires might give us the opportunity to study what could possibly go wrong at our utilities. Meanwhile, our thoughts are with those in the realm of the conflagrations. Be Safe!!
Current Fire map – July 2016 Sources; http://activefiremaps.fs.fed.us/
Satellite photo of fire outside San Francisco Source NASA Earth
FIre outside Santa Clarita CA July 2016Source CNN