The Hazy Politics of Wildfires

by Mark Harvey

Airplane drops fire retardant on wildfire

On the morning of July 22, 2016, an illegal campfire in Garrapata State Park near Carmel, California got out of control. Within a day, the fire grew to 2,000 acres. Within two days the fire grew to 10,000 acres. A month later the fire was at 90,000 acres and still largely uncontained. Ultimately the Forest Service and other agencies deployed thousands of firefighters and spent close to $260 million in an effort to contain it. The fire was finally “contained” three months later in October. During the three months of the fire’s life, bulldozers cut close to 60 miles of roads/firebreaks and aerial tankers dumped about 3.5 million gallons of fire retardant on the flames. The bulldozing and the aerial retardant work had little effect and what really helped put the fire out was October’s cooler temperatures and more humid air.

The fact of the matter is most wildfires go out by themselves.

The effort to fight large wildfires with expensive planes, helicopters, fire retardant, and bulldozers has been likened to fighting hurricanes or earthquakes: it’s costly and mostly futile. While developing fire-resistant lines and fireproofing buildings at the urban-forest interface can be very effective, trying to control massive blazes of tens of thousands of acres is like burning money.

Fighting wildfires is big business. When you stage thousands of firefighters in camps, you need catering services, laundry services, mobile housing, heavy equipment, and fuel. Caterers can gross millions of dollars to support large crews and local landowners make thousands of dollars renting their land and facilities for staging areas. Read more »

A Symphony of Vanishing Sounds (The Insect Apocalypse)

by Leanne Ogasawara

I’d been living in Tokyo about ten years, when a friend’s father decided to perform a little experiment on me. Arriving one cool autumn evening at their home in suburban Mejirodai, he waved my friend away, telling her: “I want to have a little chat with Leanne.” Sitting down on the sofa across from him, he poured me a cup of tea. In truth, I can’t recall what we chatted about, but about twenty minutes into the conversation, he suddenly clasped his hand together in delight–with what could only be described as a childlike gleam in his eyes– and said, “Don’t you hear something?”

I was puzzled by this sudden turn of events. I sat quietly for a moment, listening– and then shook my head, no.

He was incredulous (but I couldn’t help but feel he also looked quite pleased with himself) and said: “Are you telling me that you have noticed nothing unusual here this evening?” He cupped his hand around his right ear as if making to try and hear a faint sound.

When I shook my head again, he giddily pulled out a small bamboo cage from under his chair. I immediately realized that he had a bell cricket in there. In fact, the cricket was chirping quite loudly!

How on earth had I missed it?

Seeing my look of distress, he excitedly explained that Japanese people process the sound of insects using the same side of their brain as they do language –while foreigners (he looked at me pointedly) process it on the other side of the brain, as a kind of background noise. He wondered if the sound didn’t actually annoy me? Japanese people, he said, hear the sound of singing crickets as music. He then told me about a recent academic paper that had been published on this very subject (he was, after all, a scientist). Here is a more recent such paper. My friend Chieko had come downstairs by this time and was listening to all this from the corner of the room, rolling her eyes dramatically.

What could I say? I simply didn’t “hear” it. Read more »

Disappearance and Return on the Klamath River

By Katharine Blake McFarland

408px-Klamath_river_CaliforniaLast weekend I slept in the back of my car by a stream in the Klamath River Basin, a territory that stretches across the top of California and into Southern Oregon. This is how you camp when you don't have a tent, and it still does the trick. You still get to watch for shooting stars and you still wake up in the cold and the mist, with no one around for miles.

The Klamath River itself is a river upside down. Like most rivers, it flows North to South, but unlike most rivers, which begin as trickles high up in the mountains, the Klamath begins in farmland and then winds its way down to the mountainous Pacific coast. In other words, the terrain gets wilder and higher as the river runs south. In the droughty state of California, the Klamath's 266 miles of water are sought after like the gold once buried below its banks. Indian tribes, farmers, fishermen, conservationists—and at one point, even, Dick Cheney—have all thrown down the gauntlet over the river. Meanwhile, coho salmon, Chinook salmon, and stealhead trout follow their migratory patterns upstream as they've done for thousands of seasons; but fewer and fewer make the journey each year.

Seven thousand years ago, before the logging and lawsuits and fish kills, when the river's waters were cooler than they are now and cleaner than they'll likely ever be again, salmon were called ney-puy. Yurok Indians built their villages along the river's banks from keehl (fallen red wood trees), used dentalia shells, like tiny white elephant tusks, for money, and danced the u pyue-wes and mey-lee (White Deerskin dance and Brush dance). The first white settlers to meet the Yuork tribe in the early 19th century were fur traders, interested in the territory for its beavers. But interest outpaced supply, and soon both beavers and fur traders disappeared. This was the first time the river's ecology changed because of humans: beaver dams and ponds tempered the river's winterfloods and created wetland habitats for the Northern Spotted Owl and other animals; without them, flooding caused erosion and wetlands dried out.

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