Wildfires and a Complacent Media

When I was sent by Backpacker magazine to “cover” the Yellowstone fires in 1988, I opted, instead, to cover the media’s coverage of those fires. When I announced this deviation from the standard media norm to one of Yellowstone’s communications people — a lady who was literally frayed to the core from the two-month onslaught of interview requests — she was so appreciative, I thought she was going to kiss me right on the lips. She had been working day and night trying, and mostly failing, to make supposedly professional people, holding notebooks, microphones and cameras, understand basic wildfire dynamics, to make people understand, and then to relate that understanding to readers, viewers and listeners, that there are gradations and variations on the wildfire theme. She was trying to make people understand that, mighty though those wildfires were, Yellowstone was not incinerated. She would address the panting press masses, carefully articulating her obviously well-chosen words very slowly, saying something like, “And, within the fire perimeters, only 11 percent of the burn areas are of moderate intensity of higher.” And, ALWAYS, the first question out of the mouth of the first dumb shit reporter parting his or her lips would be something like: “So, Yellowstone is pretty much totally incinerated, huh?” The poor communications specialist would just bite her lip and sigh. As these words are being penned, the largest wildfire in New Mexico history is still active right on the other side of the ridge directly to the west of my house. There have been hundreds of homes burned over near Ruidoso and outside Fort Collins. It is still June, and the wildfire season is already considered “very bad.” Because so much fire has transpired so close to the town in which I hang my hat, I have found myself doing the erstwhile unthinkable: turning on the usually vapid Albuquerque TV news (if it bleeds, it leads) and reading local newspapers, trying to learn if I ought to be preparing for imminent evacuation. What I have found is that, in the almost 25 years since the Yellowstone fires, the media is as awful — and lazy — as ever when it comes to covering wildfires. I mean, what ever happened to the concept journalistic curiosity? Anyhow, while not trying to even a nanosecond to minimize the destruction to human habitat sometimes caused by wildfires, here are a few things to think about next time you’re tuning into a news report dealing with wildfire being delivered by a perky, well-coiffed teenager whose vocational ceiling ought to be, but, sadly, probably isn’t, very low. First things first. The acreage figures used to describe the size of wildfires are, in reality, areas contained within wildfire perimeters. Wildfire perimeters are calculated using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology combined with observations, mapping and photography gleaned from aerial overflights and ground-truthing. Fire size is then calculated using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Thing is, significant areas within a given fire perimeter might not have actually been burned. Depending on the size of the unburned islands within a wildfire perimeter, they are usually counted in the total acreage for the fire. Therefore, fire “sizes” released to the public and regurgitated by the media are often inaccurate. Next, the public is often told, usually by a media that is little inclined to investigate further, that certain acreage within a fire perimeter has been “burned,” “scorched” or “destroyed” (pick your Armageddon-like synonym). Ignoring for a moment that wildfire is a perfectly natural component of ecosystem regeneration, those terms are inaccurate, or at least not accurate enough for use by fire scientists. After a wildfire is contained, the U.S. Forest Service, generally the lead federal agency when it comes to fighting wildfires — even if those fires move onto private land or public land administered by other governmental agencies — issues a Burned Area Report. On-ground observations regarding depth and color of ashes, size and amount of live fuels consumed, litter consumption, plant root crowns and soil crusting are all included in mapping what are called “intensity zones.” Areas within a wildfire perimeter are classified as either: • Low-intensity fire. These are areas that are minimally enough impacted by the fire that they usually do not even contribute to what the Forest Service calls an emergency watershed condition. As a matter of fact, areas of low fire intensity often act as buffers to moderate flood hazards that may originate in more intensively burned areas. Low-intensity wildfires usually occur on rangeland. Within low-intensity wildfire perimeters, duff and debris are only partly burned, soil remains a normal color, hydrophobicity (the soil’s inclination to repel water) is low to absent and standing trees may have some green needles. Land experiencing low-intensity fires can expect that root crowns and surface roots will re-sprout within one year, and water infiltration and erosion potential are not significantly changed from pre-fire conditions. • Moderate-intensity fire. This classification indicates that high-intensity burns are found on less than 40 percent of the affected area. A moderate-intensity rating alerts fire teams that the designated zone is a potential flood source area, as one of the biggest post-wildfire concerns is flooding due to a diminishment of ground cover. Moderate-intensity wildfires primarily occur on steep, lightly timbered slopes with grass, and they often cause some erosion. Within moderate-intensity wildfire perimeters, duff is consumed, burned needles are evident, ash is generally dark colored, hydrophobicity is low to medium on surface soil up to one inch deep, shrub stumps and small fuels are charred, but present and standing trees are blackened but are not charcoal. Land experiencing moderate-intensity wildfires can expect that root crowns will usually re-sprout, roots and rhizomes below one inch will re-sprout, and most perennial grasses will re-sprout. Vegetative recovery in a moderate-intensity wildfire zone is one to five years. • High-intensity fire. This rating indicates that high-intensity fire has occurred on more than 40 percent of the area within the wildfire perimeter. High-intensity wildfires primarily occur in unprotected drainages on steep, timbered, north or east slopes with a dense forest canopy. They are primarily defined by the ominous words: “natural recovery limited.” Within high-intensity wildfire zones, the duff is totally consumed; ash is uniformly gray or white; no shrub stumps or small fuels remain; hydrophobicity is up to two inches deep; soil is darkened two to four inches deep and often is reddish in color; the soil is crusted, crystallized and agglomerated; roots are burned two to four inches deep; and standing trees have been turned to charcoal at least one inch deep (meaning that they are dust from a mortality perspective). Land experiencing high-intensity wildfires can expect that soil productivity will be significantly reduced and that only roots and rhizomes located in deep soil will re-sprout. Vegetative recovery in a high-intensity wildfire zone is 5 to 10 years, and soil erosion is a significant concern.

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