US blazes scorch habitats for endangered species

  • >> The New York Times
    Published: 2020-09-17 12:12:49 BdST

The fast-moving fires that swept through Western United States have wiped out critical populations of endangered species and incinerated native habitats that may take years to recover, if they recover at all.

Fire is a critical part of ecosystems in the West, and many plants and animals depend on it to thrive, but the heat and intensity of the wildfires now ravaging California, Oregon, Washington and other Western states are so destructive that wildlife in some areas may struggle to recover.

“Some of these places we set aside may be fundamentally impacted by climate change and may not be able to come back,” said Amy Windrope, deputy director of Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. “That’s just a reality.”

With millions of acres across the west blackened by fire, the effect on humans has been clear: Lives lost, tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes, possessions and livelihoods destroyed, and state and federal fire fighting resources have been stretched beyond the limit.

Residents are even beginning to question whether the changing fire danger will make their hometowns too dangerous to inhabit. Less obvious is the long-term effects to native species.

Wildlife officials all over the West are grappling with how to respond now that the existence of habitats set aside for threatened species appear to be imperilled by megafires made worse by climate change.

“It’s important to make the connection between what’s happening now and climate change,” said Davia Palmeri, policy coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We now have to think about climate change when managing wildlife.”

Fire that raced through the sagebrush steppe country of central Washington this month destroyed several state wildlife areas, leaving little more than bare ground. The flames killed about half of the state’s endangered population of pygmy rabbits, leaving only about 50 of the palm-sized rabbits in the wild there.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Windirope said. “We have very little sage brush habitat left for them, and it will take decades for this land to recover.”

The fires also destroyed critical breeding grounds for endangered sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, and officials estimate the fast-moving flames may have wiped out 30% to 70% of the birds. The survivors are left without the critical brush cover they need to raise young.

The intensity of the fires this month has not been seen in generations, said Molly Linville, whose family has ranched in Douglas County, Washington, for nearly a century. Ranchers in the area were unable to get cattle out of the way, and many died. On the range they found deer and other wildlife staggering around, severely burned.

“One neighbour girl found a porcupine who had all his quills burned off. It took the longest time to even figure out what it was,” she said. “They took it in, and I think it’s going to be OK, but the land — it’s going to take years to come back.”

In Oregon, the fires have largely raged in western pine forests, prompting different concerns. Several endangered and threatened species, including the northern spotted owl and the weasel-like pine marten, depend on the mature mountain forests that bore the brunt of the fires.

“It’s too soon to tell the impact,” Palmeri said. “Birds can fly out of harm’s way, animals can seek refuge underground, but some wildlife may return to find the old-growth forests they rely on gone.”

The impact of hundreds of thousands of acres of barren slopes may spread well beyond the fires’ reach and remain once the flames are out. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is bracing for winter rains that could wash ash and silt into local streams and affect endangered salmon.

“We’re already thinking about how we can respond to that,” Palmeri said. “It’s important we do this restoration work now to try to minimize the impact.”

Newsom says he will soon announce new measures to tackle climate change.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California on Wednesday said he would announce more action in coming weeks to combat the effects of climate change and also pushed back against President Donald Trump’s suggestion earlier this week that the warming of the planet was not contributing to the wildfires that have plagued the West.

“There are no Democratic thermometers and Republican thermometers,” Newsom said. “It’s a question of whether or not you acknowledge facts.”

Still, the governor sought to walk a fine line in characterizing his interaction with the president over climate change as forceful but not counterproductive for communities that desperately need aid from the federal government.

On Wednesday, Newsom highlighted that the state planned to work with the U.S. Forest Service to significantly increase the number of acres treated with prescribed burning, a measure scientists increasingly describe as essential for clearing fuel and rehabilitating ecosystems damaged by decades of total fire suppression.

He also noted that California has long been a leader on environmental policy — dating back not only to his predecessor, Jerry Brown, a Democrat, but also to the tenures of Republican governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan.

Pressed by reporters on whether a fundraising email in which he claimed to have “confronted the President about what’s happening here,” belied what appeared to be a largely polite interaction, Newsom said he does not expect to change Trump’s mind.

“We’ve been forceful in our policymaking,” he said. “We’ve been forceful in our resolve and we’ve been direct in our rhetoric.”

Millions of acres burn in California as weather improves in Northwest.

The prospect of scattered rain in the Pacific Northwest raised hopes for better firefighting conditions in Washington and Oregon on Wednesday, after weeks of oppressive heat, hazardous air and unpredictable fires that have grown with terrifying speed up and down the coast.

Smoke from wildfires wrap Mount Shasta in northern California, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, as viewed from a commercial flight. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

Smoke from wildfires wrap Mount Shasta in northern California, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, as viewed from a commercial flight. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

Although the storm system was not forecast to be significant, the possibility of rain clouds in coastal regions — instead of smoke plumes and falling ash — was a lifeline for residents after weeks of increasingly grim news. More than 30 people have died in wildfires in the past two months, hundreds of homes have been destroyed and thousands of people remain in evacuation shelters.

Inland and to the south, the forecast was less encouraging. Parts of Central Oregon were expecting gusts up to 35 mph in the afternoon that could contribute to a “significant spread” of new and existing fires, the National Weather Service in Medford, Oregon, said. Up to 29 fires were active in the state Wednesday, spread over more than 843,500 acres.

And in California, there was not even temporary relief in sight, with the state fire agency saying Tuesday, “With no significant precipitation in sight, California remains dry and ripe for wildfires.” State leaders, facing not just this wildfire season, spoke about the need to face an indefinite future of fires worsened by climate change.

“Firefighters themselves, with decades of experience, are telling me that they’ve never seen fires like this before because of the extreme aridity combined with wind,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state said at a news conference Tuesday.

As of early Wednesday, there were at least 25 major wildfires and fire complexes, the term given to multiple fires in a single geographic area, burning in California, Christine McMorrow, a Cal Fire information officer, said.

More than 2.8 million acres have either burned since Aug. 15 or are on fire now, she said.

Late Tuesday, emergency officials reported progress on some of the biggest fires around the region. The growth of the Beachie Creek fire, which has burned more than 190,000 acres east of Salem, Oregon, had slowed, and the fire was 20% contained as of Wednesday morning. The August Complex fire, which has burned almost 800,000 acres north of Sacramento, was 30% contained, and the 220,000-acre North Complex fire, to its east, was 18% contained.

Inslee said that Washington state was now in position to help its neighbours, if in a small way, by sharing some of its resources with Oregon.

“We’re confident right now that we have enough personnel and equipment to protect our communities,” he said. “It’s not a lot but it is a gesture that, again, we are all in this together.”

But he also warned residents of Western states that stepping outside exposed them to some of the worst air conditions in the world. The air, he said, was at “historically polluted levels” and “unhealthy at best and hazardous at worst, according to our state health experts.”

Physical hazards remain even in areas where the fires are no longer active, authorities also warned. In addition to damaged structures and trees at risk of collapse, hundreds of electrical poles have been burned, leaving live wires on roadways or at risk of falling on pedestrians. And countless trees and branches are now dangers to anyone nearby. In a dashboard video tweeted by the Oregon State Police, a trooper’s car can be seeing driving through the haze of a forested road when a huge tree suddenly collapses on the vehicle.

Fires put this year’s apple crop at risk in Washington state.

Windstorms and wildfires along the West Coast could have a damaging effect on this year’s apple season. Washington state, the nation’s top apple producer, is expected to see a lower crop volume this harvest season because of recent poor conditions.

Crop volume is expected to decrease 5-10%, according to the Washington Apple Commission, a nonprofit governing body that promotes the state’s apple industry. The state saw a windy Labor Day weekend, causing dust storms in eastern Washington that led to apples falling off trees and damage to trellis systems. As wildfires have raged within the state and smoke has blanketed multiple regions, crop operations have dwindled because of increased safety risks.

“These extreme weather conditions are difficult on harvest timing, and fruit is maturing so there is specific timing you really need to get fruit off of the trees,” said Toni Lynn Adams, the commission spokeswoman.

Washington state has a fairly dry, arid climate, Adams said, with the majority of apples produced in eastern Washington. The commission originally estimated crop volume of about 134 million, 40-pound boxes for the 2020-21 harvest season.

Ines Hanrahan, who owns a midsize farm with her husband where they grow several different apple varieties, said intense wind on Labor Day weekend led to some of her apples bruising, making them not marketable.

“Some of the apples will be compost, they’re not harvestable,” said Hanrahan, who is also executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. “And some of the apples have markings now, making it a second grade fruit.”

She also said less sunshine because of haze from wildfires will affect the size for some apple varieties, but so far smoke has not been detrimental to taste.

Washington state is responsible for 65% of the country’s apple production, including varieties such as Gala, Honeycrisp and Red Delicious, the commission said. Harvest season usually takes place from August to November.

Some of the planet’s most polluted skies are over the West Coast.

The billowing wildfire smoke that has blanketed much of the West Coast with a caustic haze also began settling into the atmosphere thousands of miles away.

West Coast residents from San Francisco to Seattle and beyond have for days suffered from the smoke, which has sent air-quality readings soaring to hazardous levels, closed some schools and led officials to shut parks and beaches while pleading for people to stay indoors. In Seattle, Harborview Medical Center reported seeing a rise in the number of people seeking help for breathing issues — many of the people with underlying conditions such as asthma or lung disease.

“The air outside right now is at historically polluted levels,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington said.

Air that was considered unhealthy to breathe was recorded as far away as Montana and up into Canada, though the high-level haze extended much farther. Propelled by the jet stream and a high-pressure system over the Great Lakes, the smoke began arriving at higher altitudes across much of the continent.

Brian LaSorsa, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in the Baltimore and Washington region, said he first noticed the smoke over the region on Monday, in the upper levels of the atmosphere.

“Obviously we don’t see smoke very often from wildfires,” LaSorsa said.

But on the ground along the East Coast, the air quality remained clear. There was a possibility the smoke could descend, possibly later this week if a cold front comes through, LaSorsa said, but he expected it to stay aloft.

A small town in Oregon fights to save itself from the fires.

As the flames rose higher and the smoke thicker, farmers and ranchers mounted Caterpillar tractors and ploughed the ground around the city of Paisley, Oregon. Then, the men set a controlled burn to deprive the advancing fire of terrain that could have fueled it and diverted its destructive path away from the city.

Several days ago, as the Brattain Fire edged closer, the people of Paisley and surrounding areas went into action as it became clear that firefighting resources were strapped and they would have to fend for themselves. Some evacuated. Others stayed put.

And one group climbed into their heavy machinery, and, at least at the start, diverted the Brattain fire from its destructive path, Mayor Ralph Paull said.

“They built wide swathes of ground by just ploughing, scraping the surface so there is nothing left there to burn,” he said in an interview. “It was seven Caterpillar blades wide and all above the town. They went to work building these lines for 10 miles.”

Paisley, in the south of Oregon, is a small city of about 220 people. It lies on the edge of the Great Basin, with sagebrush on the east and forest on the west. A small, spring-fed river, Chewaucan, runs through it.

The mayor said that success came after setbacks — at one point, the fire jumped the waterway.

The dry, gusty winds and temperatures in the 80s have not helped, he said.

“So it is not a fun time for firefighters to tackle this stuff,” he said.

More back-burning took place Tuesday night, and the efforts ultimately worked, sending the flames away and up a ridge, he said.

“It was about 8 or 9 miles away when it started,” Paull said. “It is all around us. But as long as it takes the fuel away, it goes away.”

Like other communities threatened by the wildfires, the city initiated a level 3 evacuation, meaning, as the mayor put it, one thing only: “Go.”

A helicopter drops water as firefighters battle the El Dorado Fire in Angelus Oaks, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)

A helicopter drops water as firefighters battle the El Dorado Fire in Angelus Oaks, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)

Some did, loading up camp trailers. Their options were to travel south to Red Cross facilities at a fairground in Lakeview, but many did not.

“People know other people. They went to friends’ houses and relatives. Kind of spread out,” the mayor said.

Others stayed put. As he explained, you can’t force people to leave their homes, farms and livestock.

“We have plenty of stubborn people who decided to ride it out,” Paull said.

Right now resources are strapped in the state and along the West Coast. In Oregon, more than two dozen fires are raging.

Recently, helicopter drops have been sending down bags of water, he said.

“I think we are pretty much in the clear,” the mayor said.

Intense fires are testing the limits of traditional firefighting techniques.

The basic techniques for fighting wildfires have changed little in decades. Aircraft dropping water and chemicals from the sky, and on the ground bulldozers, adzes, chain saws and the boots of thousands of firefighters racing to hold back the flames.

But the fires themselves are changing, partly as a consequence of climate change, burning hotter and more rapidly and destroying record acreage.

California alone experienced a fivefold increase in annual burned area between 1972 and 2018, and this year more than 5 million acres have already burned in California, Oregon and Washington state. Over time, wildfires are becoming more frequent, and the seasons are growing more intense.

The increasingly dangerous conditions are testing the limits of traditional firefighting techniques, experts say. “You can’t look to wildland firefighters to protect you if you don’t address the complexities of climate change,” said Jim Whittington, a former spokesman for firefighting agencies.

The firefighters rely on techniques developed over the decades to hold fires at bay.

Along with using helicopters and tanker aircraft to drop the water and flame retardant, there is arduous labour on the ground. Some of it requires carefully burning areas in the path of an advancing fire to try to rob it of the fuel it needs to keep progressing. It can also involve dousing flames with water brought in by truck — or, in rough country, hiked in along with hoses and pumps.

At the most fundamental, though, it means workers using hand tools to dig the fire lines — the borders, cleared of trees and shrub, that can stop a fire from advancing by removing all vegetation and scraping down to the “mineral soil,” the bare dirt.

“Despite our modern 2020 world, with an app for everything, there is no app for digging fire lines,” said Holly Krake, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman working on the Riverside fire in Oregon.

The cost of the fires could be least $20 billion and rising, an expert says.

With more than 5 million acres burned this year and hundreds of homes lost, the economic blow to the region is predicted to be staggering, too.

“We’re setting records year after year,” said Tom Corringham, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “It’s a little early to say what the total impacts are going to be, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the damages are over $20 billion this year.”

And that, he added, is counting only the “direct costs.”

The wildfires in the west have been made worse by climate change, experts say. Higher temperatures and drier conditions have made it easier for vegetation to burn, causing fires to become bigger, more intense, and harder to extinguish.

Corringham studies the economic impacts of extreme weather, which, as you might expect, are at once growing and difficult to count.

In addition to the relatively clear-cut dollar figures associated with fighting the fires and the damage to property, there are health care bills, costs of disrupted business, lost tax revenue, decreased property values and what Corringham described as “reverse tourism” — people fleeing smoke or not visiting certain areas because of it.

Studies show those indirect costs add up to at least as much as the direct ones; some studies say it is multiples more.

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