MADELEINE BRAND, host:
So just what is going on with all these fires? Joining us to talk about the big picture is Mike Fitzpatrick. He's with the Southern Area Coordination Center, and that's a federal agency that coordinates disaster relief, mainly dealing with forest fires. And welcome to the program.
Mr. MIKE FITZPATRICK (Southern Area Coordination Center): Pleasure to be here.
BRAND: Well, so you have information from a lot of different areas. And we're seeing fires in Georgia, in Florida, in Minnesota. Here in California hundreds of thousands of acres burned. Is this unusual?
Mr. FITZPATRICK: Well, no, not really. This just would be characterized as a typical fire season. This is the time of the year when the South typically sees fires, wild land fires, and the same with the eastern area up in the Great Lakes. The only probably unusual circumstance right now is the intensity with which some of these fires in Florida and Georgia are burning.
BRAND: And why are they so intense?
Mr. FITZPATRICK: Well, probably most direct cause is some record drought down here. We've seen a record number of days, I think 70-plus days at this point without significant precipitation in the southern area. And given this fuel-type down in here, anything that can burn, shrubs, anything from the small, really fine fuels, shrubs and grasses, up to large diameter dead trees. You know, typically, one of the problems you have nationwide is we've been putting fires out for so long, we've got accumulations of dead fuel. So now when we get fires in these dry periods, you're likely to see more intense fire behavior just for that reason.
BRAND: So you're saying because we've gotten better at fighting fires, that we've actually caused more fuel to lie on the ground and cause more fires in the future?
Mr. FITZPATRICK: Well, not cause more fires, but certainly contribute to fire intensity. But yeah, that's the case. We've been very, very successful at managing forest fires, and somewhat to our detriment because in a lot of these places where you've got - where the fire typically comes back in the areas every five or six or seven years, in some places we've excluded fires for 100 years, and so when you do get fires - and you're going to get fires every year from both human and natural causes - you know, if it's dry, you're going to see some very, very active fires. And we've seen that throughout the West for, what, the last, you know, 15, 20 years.
BRAND: Of course, forest fires are part of the natural cycle. So is there some way where we're disrupting that natural cycle and maybe we should let some of these fires burn?
Mr. FITZPATRICK: Well, no question that we've disrupted a natural cycle but we've, you know, done it for a variety of management reasons. You know, recreation, use of the resource, timber resources, things like that. And there's a tremendous program, nationally, right now, of reintroducing fire on a landscape scale into these wild land areas. But again, it's very long term. It took us 100 years to get into the situation. It's probably going to take us about 100 years with good management to get out of it.
BRAND: What about development? A lot of people are worried about people building houses and businesses in places where, well, they shouldn't be, because it's too hot, it's dry, and fires are likely break out very easily.
Mr. FITZPATRICK: There's no question that we've, you know - and what we call the urban interface has expanded everywhere in the country. And every fire that we see now suddenly will have structures involved, where that is where we're protecting or assisting fire departments in protecting structures in what normally or used to be wild land areas. That's just - you know, that's just, you know, a function of a - kind of a growing population and a population that more and more is moving into, you know, suburban and formerly wild land areas.
BRAND: And also places where, you know, in the Southwest, places where it's hotter and dryer and...
Mr. FITZPATRICK: Well, that is happening. There's no question that the, you know, the atmosphere is warming. There's still the question about the cause, but it's getting warmer and dryer. We're seeing more extended drought periods in the West, particularly. And so, you know, what we're seeing, more active fire season is probably not unusual at this point.
BRAND: Mike Fitzpatrick is with the Southern Area Coordination Center. He keeps an eye on fires across the country.
Thank you very much.
Mr. FITZPATRICK: My pleasure.
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