Eucalyptus trees contribute to Portugal’s wildfire problem

When numerous fires burned through large expanses of Portugal in June killing more than 60 people, they were fueled in some areas by monocultures of eucalyptus trees. Many areas around the world grow them in order to harvest the wood, leaves, and oil to make paper and medicine. But wildfires burn rapidly under the trees and through the crowns, fed by the stringy bark, oil, and the leaves and forest litter on the ground that do not decompose. Earlier this year we took this photo after a fire in Chile spread through a plantation.

wildfire eucalyptus plantation
The aftermath of a wildfire that burned through a eucalyptus plantation in Chile, February 2, 2017.

The New York Times published an article today that looks at how eucalyptus and other issues combine to create a wildfire environment in Portugal that is difficult to manage.

Here is an excerpt:

…Even so, Portugal’s wood industry no longer relies on native species like oak and pine. Instead, it is increasingly built on eucalyptus, which feeds a pulp and paper sector that makes up 10 percent of Portuguese exports. The area of eucalyptus planting has more than doubled since the 1980s.

Eucalyptus can be harvested in half the time needed for pine. And unlike other species, “you have absolutely no need for people on the ground” to supervise its growth, said João Camargo, an environmental engineer.

The tree, however, contains a highly flammable oil that helps fires erupt more easily, spread and intensify.

Yet after every fire, more landowners switch to eucalyptus, hoping that a shorter production cycle can allow them to recoup their losses faster and to harvest their trees before the next fire erupts.

It is an accelerating sequence that has turned Portugal “from a pretty diverse forest into a big eucalyptus monoculture,” Mr. Camargo said.

Large fires hit areas in Portugal and France

Above: Satellite photo showing smoke created by a fire in France, July 26, 2017. The red dots represent heat.

(Originally published at 8 p.m. MDT [UTC -6] July 26, 2017)
(Revised at 9:36 a.m. MDT July 27, 2017)

Wildfires in France and Portugal are disrupting the lives of thousands of residents and tourists. Each country has multiple large fires, but one of the largest in France is near the Mediterranean coast 77 km (48 miles) east of Marseille between La Londe-les-Maures and Le Lavandou and has forced the evacuation of about 12,000 people.

Mistral winds spread the fires quickly causing 60 people to be evacuated by boat while others spent the night in gyms, public places, or on the beach.

There was also a 2,000-hectare  (4,950-acre) fire on the French island of Corsica.

More than 1,000 firefighters are working on wildfires throughout the country.

fire in Portugal satellite photo
Satellite photo of smoke created by a fire in Portugal, July 26, 2017. The red dots represent heat. Click to enlarge.

Portugal is also struggling to contain a group of fires about 152 km (94 miles) northeast of Lisbon. It was just five weeks ago that a wildfire southeast of Coimbra, Portugal killed at least 62 people, most of whom were attempting to escape in their vehicles. Those fires were about 63 km northwest of the current blazes that are south of Perdigao burning in dense pine and in some cases non-native eucalyptus plantations. Many areas around the world grow eucalyptus in order to harvest the wood, leaves, and oil to make paper and medicine. But wildfires burn rapidly under them and through the tree crowns. Earlier this year we took this photo after a fire in Chile spread through a plantation.

wildfire eucalyptus plantation
The aftermath of a wildfire that burned through a eucalyptus plantation in Chile, February 2, 2017.

About 2,000 firefighters with 700 vehicles are battling wildfires around Portugal.  As in France, the fires are being pushed by strong winds.

Portugal’s fire season usually begins after July 1 but it got an early start this year.

Sierra Club argues against FEMA’s plan for the eucalyptus trees in Oakland’s East Bay Hills

The Sierra Club and the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund (SPRAWLDEF) filed suit on May 26 over plans by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fund a vegetation-management program in the East Bay hills that would increase fire hazards, threaten endangered species and native wildlife, and increase the financial burden on taxpayers.

“The best way forward is to promote native vegetation that is less flammable and encourages healthy ecosystems and greater biodiversity,” said Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter director Michelle Myers. “That’s a win-win for the environment and for homeowners who want to feel secure that they won’t lose their homes in another Great Fire like the one we lived through in 1991. Unfortunately, FEMA’s approach isn’t in line with the priorities of fire safety and habitat restoration.”

FEMA has over $5.5 million in grant money to disburse for vegetation management in the East Bay Hills from Richmond to San Leandro. These areas contain thousands of acres of highly flammable eucalyptus and non-native pines, which choke out more fire-resistant natives like oaks, bays, and laurel. Flying in the face of the best science and land-management practice, the Sierra Club said, FEMA has signaled its intention to fund a plan to thin flammable non-natives, rather than remove them entirely. The Sierra Club / SPRAWLDEF suit contents that this is the wrong approach.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups including the Claremont Conservancy, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, and the California Native Plant Society have all advocated for removing all of the flammable eucalyptus and pine trees over time so that less-flammable native habitat can reclaim those areas. In contrast to clearcutting, this approach calls for removing eucalyptus in phases, so that native trees — which cannot grow to full size underneath the eucalyptus canopy — are able to thrive. Mere thinning of eucalyptus and pine plantations in fact denudes hillsides to an even greater extent, as it requires the clearing of native plants in the understory.

Related articles on Wildfire Today:

Eucalyptus and fire
Wildfire briefing, March 11, 2015
A view of the potential in the Oakland Hills through the eyes of an Australian
20 years later, potential for another Oakland Hills fire?
Have some plants evolved to promote fire?
Wildfire news, February 1, 2009

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Barbara.

Wildfire briefing, March 11, 2015

Lava from Hawaii volcano continues to spread

Hawaii volcano
Lava flow from the Kīlauea volcano in Hawaii. Photo by Hawaii County Civil Defense.

Lava from the Kīlauea volcano above Pahoa in Hawaii continues to spread, occasionally igniting the vegetation. The latest breakout is about 0.7 miles upslope of Highway 130, officials from the Hawaii County Civil Defense said after a helicopter flight Tuesday morning. Over the last four days the lava has advanced about 240 yards.

Three additional deceased hotshots to qualify for benefits

Decisions by the City of Prescott, the courts, and the Prescott Public Safety Retirement Board have resulted in the families of three additional members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots being approved to receive public safety survivor benefits. In 2013, 19 members of the crew were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona. Initially only six of the men were classified as full-time, permanent employees and deemed eligible for full benefits. More information is at AZcentral.

Group opposes FEMA’s plan to reduce hazardous fuel near Oakland, California

The Hills Conservation Network has sued several organizations in an attempt to halt a project that would reduce the hazardous fuels over 2,059 acres in the East Bay area. Below is an excerpt from Courthouse News Service:

“(C)lear-cutting and chipping of eucalyptus will not achieve the most effective reduction of fire risks in the project areas and instead increases fire risks by disposing of wood chips in layers up to two-feet deep over extensive areas of the project sites,” the complaint states.

But FEMA’s environmental impact statement, which justifies depositing up to 24 inches of mulch from eucalyptus trees, “fails to acknowledge research that highlights the high potential for spontaneous combustion in deeper accumulations of mulch, the difficulty of fire suppression in such fuels, the severe long-term damage to soils by the intense heating in mulch and wood chip fires, and the documented spotting danger posed by mulch and other forms of masticated fuels,” the group says.

“The net effect is essentially trading one fire hazard for another.”

Eucalyptus trees actually help reduce fire hazard by breaking up strong winds and reducing hazard from flying embers, and the complete removal of the eucalyptus forest would constitute a “catastrophic site disturbance” that would open up the ecosystem to invasive species, according to the lawsuit.

Last year we wrote this about eucalyptus trees:

Wildland firefighters in Australia and in some areas of California are very familiar with eucalyptus trees. They are native and very common in Australia and are planted as ornamentals in the United States. The leaves produce a volatile highly combustible oil, and the ground beneath the trees is covered with large amounts of litter which is high in phenolics, preventing its breakdown by fungi. Wildfires burn rapidly under them and through the tree crowns. It has been estimated that other than the 3,000+ homes that burned in the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire in California, about 70 percent of the energy released was through the combustion of eucalyptus.

Florida wildland firefighters concerned about their pay

Below is an excerpt from NBC 2:

Firefighters with the Florida Forest Service are fired up over small wages. They’re making a plea to state leaders to correct what they describe as being “grossly underpaid.”

[…]

Experience – now one the areas of concern being pointed out by a local union representing some of the firefighters with the Florida Forest Service.

“We do see a fairly high rate of turnover because of that,” said Chris Schmiege, Lee County Forest Area Supervisor.

“That”- being low salaries- in a job wage survey conducted by the union- it states Wildland firefighters receive a starting wage of a little more than twenty-four thousand a year for full-time work.

An amount comparable to a cafeteria worker or plumbers assistant which is considerably less than the average for firefighters at the county and local level, amounts ranging from thirty-nine to sixty thousand a year.

Forest Service officials are now calling on help from state leaders.

“We can definitely use the help, but at the same time we’re doing what we’re doing,” said Schmiege.

Which according to Schmiege also includes going out West to work for other federal fire agencies to stay afloat financially. Right now officials say it’s really almost a labor of love.

A view of the potential in the Oakland Hills through the eyes of an Australian

 

1991 Tunnel Fire
1991 Tunnel Fire. Screen shot from the Oakland Wildfire Prevention Assessment District video below.

The Oakland Hills, which was devastated by the Tunnel Fire in 1991, has some things in common with Australia. The most obvious is the eucalyptus trees, a species imported from down under. The volatile highly combustible oil in the leaves causes fires to burn rapidly under them and through the tree crowns. The eucalyptus contributed to the spread of the Tunnel fire, which killed 25 people, injured 106 residents, and burned 3,354 homes.

Christine Erikson has written about fires in Australia and authored a book titled Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty. During a visit to the United States in which she made presentations at conferences, she toured the Oakland Hills. Below is an excerpt from an article she wrote about the experience:

…I felt right at home amongst the swaying eucalyptus trees, which despite much controversy still stand tall in the Oakland Hills. Yet, unlike the ‘Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early’ mantra that is associated with living in eucalyptus dominated (i.e. fire-prone) landscapes in Australia, it was the continuing absence of an official policy on how to better prepare residents for future wildfires in the Oakland Hill that loomed large for me during the fieldtrip. What should residents do if evacuation is not a feasible option in the future? How can residents prepare so a similar disaster is prevented? These questions linger like ghosts at every twist and turn of the narrow, winding mountain roads where smoke, embers and flames resulted in accidents and panic that fatally trapped residents in 1991.

This ghostly presence clearly has not escaped the attention of the local Oakland Fire Department. In addition to official projects, the Department is now “unofficially” advising residents on what they can do to increase their chances of survival. Preparing properties in the Oakland Hills, however, is easier said than done. The recommended ten-metre clearance around residential homes is unrealistic in most of these neighbourhoods dominated by quarter acre blocks. A representative from the Oakland Hills Wildfire Prevention program pointed out that when these two-dimensional blocks are considered three-dimensionally, thus taking into consideration the considerable hill slope, these blocks become one-acre properties in need of defence. He furthermore spoke to the frustration of local building-, planning- and fire-codes not supporting each other. The statutory law of developing a given property, for example, sits within a planning code that does not necessarily follow local fire safety recommendations. 

The video below, produced by the Oakland Wildfire Prevention Assessment District, discusses the 1991 Tunnel fire and what the city is doing now to mitigate the vulnerability the area has to the next wildfire.

Eucalyptus and fire

Eucalyptus
Eucalyptus tereticornis’ buds, capsules, flowers and foliage, Rockhampton, Queensland. Photo by Ethel Aardvark.

Wildland firefighters in Australia and in some areas of California are very familiar with eucalyptus trees. They are native and very common in Australia and are planted as ornamentals in the United States. The leaves produce a volatile highly combustible oil, and the ground beneath the trees is covered with large amounts of litter which is high in phenolics, preventing its breakdown by fungi. Wildfires burn rapidly under them and through the tree crowns. It has been estimated that other than the 3,000+ homes that burned in the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire in California, about 70 percent of the energy released was through the combustion of eucalyptus.

Eucalyptus is one of three similar genera that are commonly referred to as “eucalypts”.

Jon Henley, a reporter who covered the numerous large bushfires a year ago in Australia, has written a book about fire down under, titled “Firestorm: Surviving the Tasmanian bushfire”. Below is an excerpt:

****

“…Gum trees, as eucalypts are known, ‘are like weeds that come up on bombed-out blocks’, adds Jamie Kirkpatrick, professor of geography and environmental studies at the university. ‘They’re fantastically fast growers and great colonisers, but not great competitors.’

Eucalypts typically let through a lot of light, allowing other vegetation types such as scrub and grass to grow beneath them. They can live for maybe 700 years. But they won’t regenerate, Kirkpatrick explains, if what is growing beneath them over the years becomes too dense. Most eucalypt species, therefore — there are more than 600 in Australia, between 30 and 40 in Tasmania — have evolved traits that allow them to survive and prosper in the fires that will clear that undergrowth.

Some, like the mighty, 100-metre-tall Eucalyptus regnans — also known as the mountain ash, stringy gum or Tasmanian oak — hold their seeds inside small, hard capsules; a fire will instantly trigger a massive drop of seeds to the newly fertilised ground.

The myriad bright green buds that sprout spectacularly from the trunks of other eucalypts in the aftermath of a big fire are another kind of regeneration mechanism, bursting through the scorched and blackened bark within weeks of a blaze.

Within five or six years, ‘a burned forest will be looking pretty good’, Kirkpatrick says. ‘And a large proportion of Tasmania’s flora fits into this fire ecology. Pea plants, wattles — their germination is stimulated by heat and smoke. Fire is really, really important in Tasmania.’

At the centre of it all, though, is the eucalypt. Because these trees do not just resist fire, they actively encourage it. ‘They withstand fire, they need fire; to some extent, they create fire,’ Bowman says. ‘The leaves, the bark, don’t decompose. They’re highly, highly flammable. And on a hot day, you can smell their oils.’

The bark and leaves of eucalypts seem almost made to promote fire. Some are known as stringyor candle-barks: long, easily lit strips hang loosely off their trunks and, once alight, whirl blazing up into the flammable canopy above, or are carried by the wind many kilometres ahead of a fire to speed its advance.”

This is an edited extract from Firestorm: Surviving the Tasmanian bushfire by Jon Henley (Guardian Shorts £1.99 / $2.99)

Get it from Amazon Kindle or directly from Guardian Shorts.