On The Radio – California fires bring toxic ash


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Ash coats destroyed vehicles near Santa Rosa, California near the end of October. (California National Guard/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | November 6, 2017

This On The Radio segment discusses how ash left from California’s recent wildfires may threaten area residents. 

Transcript: The wildfires raging throughout Northern California have finally calmed down, but the fight isn’t over.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Northern Californians have suffered greatly in the wake of the October’s wildfires that left 42 dead and around 100,000 people displaced. Over 8,000 homes and buildings were destroyed.

Residents of a neighborhood in Santa Rosa are already seeing the effects of the ash, as it has started to cover every available surface. A state of emergency for multiple counties throughout California was issued last month by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Toxic ash could contain any number of hazardous materials, including trace amounts of arsenic and lead, according to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. Many places effected by the ash have already issued health warnings to residents.

Efforts by the state of California have been made to clean up the toxic material and debris before the rainy season commences and washes toxins into local waterways.

For more information, visit Iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

Form the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Climate change made California wildfires more severe


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Smoke looms over homes in California during the Solano fire of 2013. (Robert Couse-Baker/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| October 13, 2017

A report published on Thursday in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review stated that human-induced climate change is likely to blame for the nearly two dozen wildfires ripping across northern California.

The wildfires have burned nearly 190,000 acres so far and killed 31 residents. While the source of the initial flames remains unknown, MIT points out that parts of California recently experienced a five-year drought which was “very likely” caused by climate change. The long drought left more than 100 million dead trees in its wake, which added to the amount of fuel available to this week’s wildfires. Couple that with record-setting heat in California this summer, another consequence of a changing climate, and conditions were perfect for fire.

Climate change is impacting the frequency and intensity of wildfires across the country. Since the 1980’s they’ve become more likely and more severe. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wildfires now last five times as long, occur nearly four times as often and burn an average of six times more land area than they used to.

Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University, recently published a study looking at the impact of human-induced climate change on the size of the area wildfires have burned the western U.S. Referring to climate change, he said, “No matter how hard we try, the fires are going to keep getting bigger, and the reason is really clear.”

Wildfires become more common and intense as Earth warms up


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Smoke billows from the Lodgepole Complex wildfire of eastern Montana. (Montana Public Radio)
Jenna Ladd| July 26, 2017

A wildfire as large as New York City is currently ripping across eastern Montana, and experts say climate change making fires like these larger and more common.

As climate change takes hold, wet areas are becoming wetter and dry areas are becoming drier. Rising temperatures in spring and summer months mean that soils are remaining dry for longer, which makes drought more likely, thereby lengthening the wildfire season.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wildfires have become more likely and more intense since the 1980’s. They last nearly five times as long, occur almost four times as often and burn more than six times the land area on average.

Moving forward, residents of fire-prone regions can expect the wildfire season to lengthen. In the southwestern U.S., scientists predict wildfire season will increase from  seven months to twelve months.

The economic impacts of wildfires are staggering. Since 2000, the U.S. Forest Service has spent more than $1 billion on fire suppression in one fiscal year on two occasions. During the first decade of the 21st century, wildfires cost an average of $665 million per year in economic damages.

In their full report on this issue, the Union of Concerned Scientists say it’s not too late for humans to slow the course of climate change. They write,

“The global temperature is increasing and the climate is changing due to the greenhouse-gas emissions we have already produced, leading to a likely rise in the incidence of wildfires. But it is not too late. What we do now has the power to influence the frequency and severity of these fires and their effects on us.”

Georgia wildfire inches closer to rural communities


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The Incident Information System regularly posts the latest developments in the West Mims Wildfire and other wildfires across the country. (InciWeb)
Jenna Ladd | May 9, 2017

The West Mims Wildfire near the Georgia-Florida state line has been burning for weeks and shows few signs of slowing down.

The wildfire was ignited on April 6th when a lightening strike touched down inside the swampy Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Since then, the fire has torched more than 133,000 acres and counting. Until this weekend, the wildfire did not pose a threat to humans in the area. After the fire crossed manmade fire breaks this weekend, an evacuation notice was sent out to residents of two small rural communities in Charlton county, St. George and Moniac.

By Monday, the fire had already burned about 37 square miles in Charlton county and 210 square miles total. Susan Heisey is supervisory ranger for the Okefenokee refuge. She said, “The accumulated moisture in the vegetation is at record-breaking lows right now. These fuels, they’re getting one little piece of ash and the fire’s just picking up and moving.”

A high pressure system in the southeast United States contributed to temperatures nearing 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the area on Monday, with humidity at just 20 percent. As temperatures remain high for the next few days and dry winds continue to blow across the West Mims fire, spokespeople for fire-fighting effort expect the fire to continue burning wherever fuel is available to it.

So far, there are 624 personnel working to keep the fire under control. A detailed incident report outlines predictions of the fire’s status over the next 72 hours. The report reads, “The drying trend will continue causing more fuels to become available to burn in the swamp. Fire activity will increase in areas that have not seen much heat over past few day. Re-burn potential remains very high.”

Climate change has lengthened the wildfire season in the U.S. by 78 days since the 1970’s. Rising temperatures and more frequent, intense droughts have contributed to more intense wildfires across the country.

Update on the Mutel woodland burn


Last fall,  UI senior science writer and archivist Connie Mutel along with her husband, UI professor Robert Mutel, held a controlled burn of their oak woodlands near Iowa City.

The above video showcases the before and after effects of the burn by comparing an unburned section of the woodlands to a burned section.

The burn was also featured in the September issue of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Iowa Outdoors magazine. Read the full article here.

Also, check out the Iowa Environmental Focus’ interview with Connie Mutel on oak woodlands and controlled burns, and our On the Radio segment discussing the benefits of controlled burns.

Iowa City Landfill fire covered


Millions of tires burned during the 15-day fire at the Iowa City Landfill. Photo courtesy of Aneta Goska and the Iowa Flood Center.

The Iowa City Landfill is once again open to the public following a series of fire-extinguishing efforts.

The “stir, burn, and cover” operation that began June 4, which started by stoking the flames to accelerate the consumption of fuel, ended Sunday as the smoldering remains were covered by a layer of clay.

The tires are expected to burn beneath the layer of clay for at least a few days, and during the time city officials are directing their efforts on containment.

“It could be several weeks,” Geoff Fruin, assistant to Iowa City manager Tom Markus, said Monday. “We’ll monitor the temperatures below the surface. We’ll be able to see any continued burning through surface burning or smoke that breaks the cap.”

The landfill may still occasionally produce smoke, and fire crews will remain on-site to monitor the situation, but no large plumes or flare ups are expected.

Iowa City Landfill fire update


The Iowa Flood Center mobile weather radar unit stationed at the Iowa City landfill. Photo courtesy of Aneta Goska and the Iowa Flood Center.

The City of Iowa City released an update yesterday concerning the ongoing fire at the Iowa City Landfill.

The city advised residents in the path of the smoke plume to avoid exposure – particularly those who have conditions which could be aggravated by the smoke. Various organizations including the Johnson County Health Department, the State Hygienic Laboratory, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources continue to monitor the region’s air quality.

Additionally, the Iowa City Fire Department is planning to conduct a operation known as “stir, burn and cover,” in which they will stir the burning tires to accelerate the consumption of remaining fuel sources and then cover the remains in a layer of clay soil to suppress the fire.

For more information, read the full City of Iowa City press release, and check out a live webcam of the fire, here.