Recovering After Wildfires As wildfires continue to burn across the United States, fire experts at opposite ends of the country discuss this year's fire season and whether climate change is a factor. What is the best way to help an ecosystem recover after a fire? Should it be left alone, or replanted?
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Recovering After Wildfires

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Recovering After Wildfires

Recovering After Wildfires

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Maybe you missed the story that happened then last week and was talked about or maybe it was sort of fallen into the radar screen. I just want to read you a little headline from it.

It has to do with the Allstate Insurance Company. Allstate Insurance will stop writing new homeowners policies in California beginning in July because they want to - they're worried about their catastrophic insurance, you know, exposure to the wild fires and earthquakes. Well, not much, you know, we could do about earthquakes. We can do something about wildfires, but it just shows you when the insurance companies become involved, there is really something, there is to worry about.

And so for the rest of the hour, we're going to look at wildfires across the country. Fires have been burning in New Jersey, in Minnesota, in Arizona. Nearly 200 wildfires are burning in Florida. A massive fire there, along the Georgia Florida border, has scorched thousands of acres and the Okefenokee Swamp. And in fact, Florida is another state that Allstate said they're not going be writing new policies for.

On the other side of the country is a fire earlier this month burned nearly 800 acres of Los Angeles famous Griffith Park. It's scorched the tourist resort of Santa Catalina Island. We've been following that fire.

Now, is this an ominous sign? Fire season isn't even under way yet, officially in California. But as they say in Latin, res ipsa loquitur, the object speaks for itself. Things are burning already out there and they're having record droughts, which could make the Santa Anita winds even more destructive than they have been in the past.

Joining me now to talk more about the fires in both California and Florida, and what might be in store for us in the weeks and months ahead, are my guests Johnny Keeley, adjunct professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is also a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center at Sequoia National Park in Three Rivers, California. Also with us is Kevin Robertson. He's a fire ecology research scientist at the Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee.

Thank you, gentlemen, for being with us today.

Mr. KEVIN ROBERTSON (Fire Ecology Research Scientist, Tall Timbers Research Station): Good to be here.

Professor JOHNNY KEELEY (Ecology and Evolutionary Scientist, University of California, Los Angeles): Thank you for the invitation, Ira.

FLATOW: You are welcome. Kevin Robertson, can you give us an update on what's happening in Florida?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, right now, the Bugaboo fire, which is the biggest fire, is - have a fire break all the way around the perimeter of the fire. So, they are hoping that, that would be contained soon. The only parts that aren't put out yet are the ones that are headed towards those fire lines and of course, there's a lot of peat and muck burning on the interior of that fire. And about the same thing is true on the Georgia side on the north side of the Okefenokee or the Sweat Farms in the big turnaround fires, which have breaks around them, but they're just trying to hold those breaks and keep it from getting outside that perimeter that they've built up.

FLATOW: This is a fire that's in the swamp, is it not?

Mr. ROBERTSON: A lot of the fire has been in the swamp, but the swamp is kind of like a bow where you've got the wettest part in the middle and the edges are pine flat woods for the most part. So, most of the fires up out into the higher areas and that's where they build these lines. It's hard to build lines in the swamps, so they've mostly been built on the outside perimeter of the swamp to keep it from getting out.

FLATOW: I mentioned earlier that they we're having these fires in California and it's not even fire season yet. Is that also true in Florida?

Mr. ROBERTSON: We have not yet got to what is thought of the height of the fire season, which is usually June. We are getting pretty close there but again, June is usually the biggest month. It's usually not quite there yet.

FLATOW: And you're having a bad drought?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Very bad.


Mr. ROBERTSON: The Okefenokee Swamp's down about a foot in half in water, which may not sound a lot, but that's exposed to a lot of peat and muck that usually isn't above water.

FLATOW: When you have six-foot maximum depth or something like that.

Mr. ROBERTSON: That's right. 50 percent.

FLATOW: That's a lot of water.

Mr. ROBERTSON: And we've hardly had any rain really since February, for the whole state, and southeast Georgia is the same situation.

FLATOW: John Keeley, tell us about the Griffith Park. How much was burned?

Prof. KEELEY: Well, the Griffith Park Fire wasn't a particularly large fire, something on the order of about 800 acres.

FLATOW: And how do you go about deciding what to replant once the life stuff is burnt?

Prof. KEELEY: Well, that's actually a very contentious issue right now. The Griffith Park - just to give people a little background - it's one of the largest urban parks in the country. It's something over 4,000 acres in size, has a variety of values to it. It has a lot of recreations sites, zoos, museums and that sort of thing. But it also has a lot of the natural vegetation that used to cover the Los Angeles basin but now it's pretty much obliterated.

Things like chaparral and walnut woodlands and communities that you just can't see anywhere else within the basin or very few places in the basin. And so there's some concern about how to manage the conditions after these fires. The people who are particularly concerned about the recreation value of this land are very concerned about mudslides and erosion, and that's not necessarily a given, but we have a good rainfall year this winter, we could have problems like that, and so there's concern about managing to prevent erosion on those sites.

Oftentimes, the practices that are used to inhibit erosion, though, may have negative impacts on natural ecosystems. And so those citizens who are most concerned with the natural heritage of the park are concerned that managers don't - do the wrong type of treatment, and that might have negative impacts on the values that they mostly value.

FLATOW: Do people want to just go out and reseed the park with, you know, new plants?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, reseeding has been a practice that has been used in the state for probably 75 years or more. And so it's a natural response to reseed. There's a lot of concerns about seeding. One is that you often create more problems by seeding than you have initially. For example, one of the characteristics after fire in many parts of the Los Angeles basin now is that you get this growth of this exotic mustard all over the burned area.

And this is basically a result of seeding practices from the 1930s and '40s when mustard was routinely spread across burned areas. And the seeds have just stayed there, and they come back after each fire. And so it's an example where the - somebody once told me it was an example of what they call Seboride(ph) effect, which apparently is after the newscaster Eric Seboride who apparently said, on a number of occasions, that most problems begin as solutions. And when it comes to seeding, a lot of people believe that.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. I mentioned Allstate has taken an unusual step. I mean the insurance companies are usually got their finger in the wind and know which way it's blowing, no pun intended. They have - aren't they telling their policyholders now, those living in wildfire areas, that if they don't clear the brush away from their homes, they're not going to be insured?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, I can't speak for the insurance companies, what they're doing at this moment. For the last several decades, though, the insurance companies have been changing the conditions under which they will ensure people. And I used to live in Southern California, and I know my policy in one company was revoked because of the big fire in the area. So it's been an issue for many years. I can't speak to what they're actually doing at this moment.

FLATOW: John Keeley, can we say this is all linked to global warming?

Mr. KEELEY: I don't see that there's any evidence that it's linked to global warming. The fires that we're seeing now are a perfectly natural phenomenon for this type of climate condition. We're now experiencing one of the driest years we've had on record, and it's a common pattern throughout the 20th century that whenever we have a dry year, we generally have a very long fire season.

And our season began in March with a 2,000-acre fire down in Orange County. And we've got a couple this month, and it appears as though it will be a very long fire season, but that's not unnatural. We - whenever you have a dry year, you have a long fire season.

FLATOW: What if you have two, three, four, five dry years in a row? Then, you start worrying?

Mr. KEELEY: I think people are already worried. I've talked to a fire battalion chief, for example, recently and he said most everybody he knows is very worried right now because yeah, they expect to have a very long fire season.

Mr. ROBERTSON: Over here in Florida, we've had about 10 years where it's been drier than usual. We're down to about 10 percent over the last 10 years, although it does vary a lot from year to year. We had a big hurricane season just two years ago, but last year, it's kind of funny to say, unfortunately, we haven't had any hurricanes or hadn't had much tropical activity, which is part of the reason that we have such a bad drought this year. We didn't get our usual tropical storms and hurricanes.

FLATOW: Do you have the feeling that this is a trend that this drought, kind of, season is going to be a trend, or do you think that you'll - reverse itself - it will reverse itself soon enough?

Mr. ROBERTSON: It's impossible to predict the future, I suppose, but it has been drier than usual over the last 10 or 15 years. We know that for sure.

FLATOW: How does - Ken, if something stays dry for a few years, is it possible to recover what's lost, or is that gone forever or might take 20 or 30 years to come back?

Mr. ROBERTSON: It takes a long time for the hydrology to bounce back. That's why this longer-term drying period has not really been corrected by big hurricanes like the ones that we had a couple of years ago. I don't - it depends on what the future weather is like. If we have a few years of extra precipitation or more than usual, then we'll start to make it up. But it's not something that will happen in a month, or six months, or even a year.

Mr. KEELEY: And we certainly here in the West have seen some good examples in recent years of changes in the landscape that are likely to take centuries, perhaps, to recover from. For example, pinion pine in the southwest has experienced, in the last several years, massive dieback. And those pine woodlands are probably not going to recover for centuries - if they recover at all - depending on what the future climate holds.

I think the answer to the question about whether we're seeing climate change is that the evidence is pretty clear that on average, we are seeing an increase in temperatures, and as temperature goes up, fire season usually becomes longer and oftentimes associated with bigger fires. But there's nothing about the data on climate change to suggest what will happen on any given individual year. We expect there will be wet years and dry years over the next century, even if there is an average increase in temperature.

FLATOW: But should there be places where people should not live and should be discouraged, or told if you're in there and there's a fire and it goes in there, you're on your own?

Prof. KEELEY: Well, I think there certainly are places where we're starting to see that may be the answer to catastrophic losses from fires that we've seen in recent years. For example in 2003, there were thousands of homes burned in Southern California, and people often attribute this to the size of the fire, but we have had massive fires in the past with a relatively no damage.

For example, 1932 was the second largest fire on record, and not a single home was burned. Today we have urban sprawl that has moved people into watersheds of dangerous fuels, and so now, we are seeing the possibility that these fires are causing a lot of damage. And I think in many people's minds, they believe that in the long run, land planners are probably going to do more to solve the fire problem in this part of the world than fire managers.


I'm Ira Flatow talking with John Keeley and Kevin Robertson. Kevin, do you have enough resources in Florida to fight these fires?

Mr. ROBERTSON: They seem to be doing pretty well so far for what I've heard from the front. They feel like they've got what they need to build those perimeters, but they are a little nervous looking into the next month without much prediction of rain in the near future, and pretty soon we'll have thunderstorms coming in off the coast at this time of the year, which is usually where the fire - fires get worse in June, which might bring some precipitation, but it also brings lightning, which probably means more wildfires, so we don't think we're out of the woods yet.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's see I can get a call or two in. Let's go to Dustin in Worley, Idaho. Hi, Dustin.

DUSTIN (Caller): Hello. How are you?

FLATOW: Go ahead.

DUSTIN: Actually, I had a recommendation. I think it was two years ago the PBS series "Fire Wars" - not PBS series, sorry - the NOVA series on PBS put out a special on "Fire Wars." And it's a five-year long-run firefighter. I thought it was the most direct and succinct and understandable kind of explanation of the difficulties of wild land firefighting, as well as, kind of, how we got into the situation. So I'd just put that recommendation out there.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling.

DUSTIN: All right. Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. So let me ask you, John Keeley, where do you stand? You just wait and watch and you're really, sort of, helpless.

Prof. KEELEY: Well, they - I think the number one thing that fire suppression forces can do is just be prepared. And I believe just here - I live in the Sierra Nevada, and just last - I think - Saturday was the beginning of CDF staffing up their local station to be prepared for fires, and that's about the main thing that could be done from the firefighting perspective.

I think there's potentially more that can be done in terms of alerting the public and preventing fires. One of the prevention measures which is not particularly popular but has the potential for effecting change is road closures into certain wild land areas during very severe conditions. It's something that has been tried in parts of Southern California in the past. It has been very successful, but you know, clearly it's not going to be popular with the public and politically it's not very popular.

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, you need to bring the topic of prescribed burning as well, which is our best defense against wildfires that we have hard time controlling. In the areas where we prescribe burn, frequently the natural systems around here the (unintelligible), we think had a fire return (unintelligible) about one to three years, which is really frequent. In Florida, a hundred years ago or more it's a very grassy place where now it's a very shrubby place with these very flammable shrubs that are evergreens that burn very, very well. And of course, that in people's homes when they get to be 15, 20 feet high around their subdivision.

So Tall Timbers is trying to promote prescribed burning very strongly even in places where there are residences and try to let people know that that's their best defense at getting - against the fire that's going to be so strong that we can't control it, it's going to overrun their subdivision.

Here in the Red Hills, where we are, we do a lot of prescribed burning and people, for the most part, are accepting of it. And we even burn right up along the side of people's homes. And in - for the most part, I think they appreciated (unintelligible) about it, but they understand that reducing fuel load is going to make the fires something that we can easily control.

FLATOW: Well, gentlemen, I wish you all the luck this fire season.

Mr. ROBERSON: Thank you very much.

Prof. KEEELEY: Thank you very much, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you both for taking time to be with me. John Keeley, adjunct professor, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, UCLA. He is also research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center at Sequoia National Park. Kevin Robertson is fire ecology research scientist at the Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, Florida.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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