Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fire! In A Crowded World

I've been working on the latest science about wildfires and climate change. The plan was to save the broadcast for summer, when the fires start.

Nature isn't waiting. From the first week of April major television networks like CBS reported wildfires all the way from New England, Long Island, down through Virginia, into Georgia - the whole East Coast.

This follows a winter with very little snow. New York got 20 inches less than normal. It's all gone, as places like Boston sizzled into the 90's at the very end of winter. Gardeners started to feel like planting a month early. Farmers feared a continuing drought, with no snow to water the land before seed time.

Forget about normal. Wildfire season started ridiculously early this year in North America, in the first week of April.

TV and news reported thousands of heat records set in the Eastern United States, without ever mentioning "global warming".

It's time for the Radio Ecoshock special, my recordings of a special session on fire and climate. The fire experts gathered at the February conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver 2012.

You'll hear how fires make a hotter climate which feeds more fires, the cycle of positive feedback. An internationally recognized wildfire expert, Dr. Michael Flannigan reports on the latest science and experience in the field. Flannigan also describes a new risk that could tip the climate of the world.

You may have a personal stake in this. Anyone with lungs does. From the University of British Columbia School of Medicine, Dr. Mike Brauer explains new ways of tracking dangerous smoke, which can travel thousands of miles, across international boundaries. I like Brauer's talk, because he also tells us how citizens can protect themselves during a smoke event.

Finally we'll hear from Dr. Fay Johnston from the University of Tasmania. She was part of a team asking the big question: how many people die from fire smoke every year? The answer, and the places most at risk, may surprise you.


Let's get the big picture, from one of my favorite wildfire experts. Dr. Mike Flannigan is a Professor of the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta, and Senior Research Scientist at the Canadian Forest Service. His PHD is from Cambridge. He also trained in meteorology. Flannigan is Editor-in-chief of International Journal of Wild land Fire, and part of the U.S. Assessment on Global Change. Mike is a leader in newly formed Western Partnership for Fire Science.

In the program you hear excerpts from my recording of Mike Flannigan's presentation at "Forest fires in Canada: Impacts of Climate Change and Fire Smoke" delivered Sunday morning, February 19th, 2012, in a special workshop at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science general meeting in Vancouver.

Nobody says more in fewer words than Flannigan. When huge fires erupt, in Canada or internationally, Mike often gets called in. He begins by exploring the fire in Northern Alberta, Canada, where a town called Slave Lake had one third of the place burned out, including the municipal buildings the libraries. Video of that fire appoaching the town here. Photos of the aftermath here. And this could happen to any town or city. Hundreds of homes were burned in Kelowna British Columbia in 20003. I don't have to tell anyone in California or Texas about the huge risks from out-of-control wild fires.

Australians know how deadly fires can be.

Slave Lake had to be evacuated. There was no way to fight such fires, and they moved fast with ferocity. Satellite images show the Slave Lake fire was actually the smallest of four infernos raging at the time.

Remember the fire leader in Texas who said "No one alive has seen fires like this". Except we are seeing them more and more, especially after heat events.

Mike Flannigan makes it clear that climate change is a contributing factor to these fierce fires. The underbrush is tinder dry, even in spring-time. The hotter weather creates a longer fire season. Heat also induces more lightening, which ignites the wild fire.

It's a positive feed-back cycle, at least in the near-term. The burning forests release all the carbon previously held in vegetative matter. Tree trunks are mostly carbon. That release of carbon, and the extra black soot, all drive more warming.

A few years after the fire, perhaps 7 years later, new growth will re-absorb some of the carbon back from the atmosphere. The fire zone changes from a carbon source to a carbon sink. But in the meantime, climate change has been further ramped up.

If you ever wanted to know the basics of wild fires, and why we hear more about them, or get hit with smoke from faraway places, Mike Flannigan is the man to learn from.

You can download my Radio Ecoshock interview with Mike Flannigan in May 2011 from the program titled "FLOOD FIRE WIND - Climate Shift" at (13 minute interview)

About two weeks after this broadcast, you can download a free mp3 of Mike Flannigan's full speech at the triple AS from our Climate 2012 page. All of today's speakers will be there in full.


Can we say there are more fires now than at any time in human history? What about fires in the past hot ages, in previous greenhouse worlds? I listened to two presentations on the history of fire by Douglas Woolford, from Canada's Wilfred Laurier University, and Richard Routledge, Simon Fraser University.

The science was too complicated for radio broadcast. I came away thinking the field of fire archeology is still very young. Do we know enough to answer those questions, to compare our future to the distant past of fire?

I came away from these American Academy presentations thinking we just don't know enough yet. You can dig further into the research that has been done, by downloading those two speeches (for a fee) from

We do know that fire smoke travels huge distances, sometimes smudging out part of a continent. In the soot below, human lungs don't do very well. As we'll hear in our third speaker, hundreds of thousands of humans die every year from inhaling smoke from natural and agricultural fires.


But first, you should hear this Canadian medical expert Dr. Mike Brauer. He explains big advances in predicting the smoke plumes, so people with breathing difficulties can be warned. It's almost like tornado warnings, only more accurate. Pharmacies can know to stock up on inhalers. And Brauer ends with tips you can use to protect yourself, if smoke fills your air.

Mike was introduced by session organizer Charmaine Dean, of Simon Fraser University.

In the radio program, you hear major excerpts from Mike's speech.

In the first part, Mike explains several methods to predict where fire smoke will go. That's important to know if you are a health planner, a hospital worker or doctor, if you have health problems like asthma, - and if you just want to protect the lungs of yourself and your family.

I became even more interested in the second segment, as Brauer explains the public health efforts, and personal things we can do to protect ourselves. If there are going to be more fires, and more smoke, we all need to learn about this.

A smoke plume can travel hundreds of miles over a place like California, or New England (from Canadian fires). Whole parts of Asia have been covered in smoke - like the times Malaysia and Singapore went under a smoke cloud from fires in Indonesia.

We know, from Brauer's study, that in Western-style economies, visits to doctors’ offices and pharmacies will go up. Those places need to stock up on inhalers and other medicines.

People with certain ailments or low lung function need to stay indoors, with the windows closed. Driving around does not help, as Brauer says the smoke is actually worse inside the car.

Brauer struck a chord with me when he recommended simple HEPA air filters for people's homes. I have had one running for the past five years, because we live in a high traffic area. We used to need to dust the place way too often, now much less.

That air filter was running when the wave of radioactivity hit the West Coast about a week after the Fukushima nuclear plants blew up. About a month later I changed out the filters, which were no doubt radioactive. It saved our lungs a bit.

These filters also reduce indoor smoke from fires by about 65% Brauer says. That's better for everybody.

Once again, this is another reason to have at least a few days’ worth of food stocked up too. Nobody needs to go out to the store.


Our final presenter in this week's special on fire and climate change is Dr. Fay Johnston, a physician and environmental epidemiologist at the Menzies Research Institute in Tasmania, the Down Under of Australia. Here is a link to one of her smoke assessment projects. And here is a link to a public article "Fire Smoke Important Contributor to Deaths World-Wide".

Her topic for this session of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science is: "The Estimated Global Mortality Burden Attributable to Landscape Fire Smoke".

Let's find out who really pays the ultimate price for advancing fires in a crowded warming world. We only have time for a few excerpts.

First, what is a "landscape fire" and who is studying it?

Dr. Fay Johnston describes the first attempts to quantify the impacts of global wildfires.

As she says: "a world without fire does not exist." It is natural, but not when humans create the fire conditions, and then set those fires. Her team estimated about 90% of "landscape fires" around the world are set purposely by humans. We do it to clear new land for things like soy beans or palm oil.

Africa is a central location for fires. It is part of their agricultural cycle. The old crop is burned off to prepare for the new one. Radio Ecoshock has had other guests explain that method of agriculture is adding to global warming.

As far as deaths go, we find out there has hardly been any study in the developing world, where most of the fires are, and most of the death happen. To measure health impacts, Johnston's group had to use pollution studies generated in major smoggy cities. It turns out those impacts on lungs work pretty well for people smoked out in the jungle as well. Still, just like medical research, we take studies from the First World and apply them to developing countries, hoping it will work. There's no money to do the research in the heavily populated places where it is needed most.

Isn't that always the case, in this unfair world? Whether its medicine or smoke, almost all research is funded and performed in the developed world, where a minority of Earth's population live and die. It may take another generation to see how climate change and fire do their dance in the most populated, and the most plant rich places on the planet.

To be honest, this study finds smoke deaths from landscape fires are far less serious than deaths from smoking tobacco.

Whereas several millions die because of tobacco, this study estimates about 340,000 people a year die from landscape fires. Around 10,000 of those are in South America, where relative population is low. Over a hundred thousand are in the Sahel region of northern Africa. More than a hundred thousand die each and every year from air-borne smoke in Asia but that is still fewer than die from cooking over smoky fires indoors in Asia.

Two weeks after broadcast, you can find the full speeches by Mike Flannigan, Mike Brauer, and Fay Johnston on the Climate 2012 downloads page at My thanks to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science for allowing me to record on February 19th, and to Simon Fraser University for organizing this session on forest fires, smoke, and climate change.

Our music in this program was from the 1968 hit "Fire" by Arthur Brown. News clips were from NBC12 Richmond, and CBS evening news.

I'm Alex Smith.

Tune in next week for our next big adventure into the future - on Radio Ecoshock.

No comments: