Live in the woods? Prepare for an era of DIY firefighting; and why we need to rethink our firefighting strategies

MISSOULA, MT – Only you can prevent forest fires from obliterating your house. This twist on the old advice of Smokey Bear* is what the U.S. Forest Service is telling homeowners nowadays. But the agency is having some trouble getting the word out.

The Forest Service’s chief of firefighting, Tom Harbour, left his D.C. office and flew to Missoula to relay that message to reporters here for the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, which wrapped up today.

 Even with more than 10,000 federal firefighters ready to roll every fire season, the Forest Service simply can’t protect the throngs who have chosen to move into the woods in the last few decades, Harbour said.

“When that fire is coming over the ridge at your house, it’s too late,” Harbour said. “From an ecological perspective and a social perspective, we only face two choices: We’re either going to act as a society, or we are going to get acted upon. … The choices we have made as a society have put us in this position.”

Those choices include a century of suppressing fire in the woods, a policy kicked off by the more than 1,700 wind-fueled blazes that coalesced from eastern Washington to western Montana on Aug. 20-21, 1910.

 Next came the individual decisions by so many Americans to move into the woods over the last four decades. Many others moved to suburbs set amid fireprone grasslands or chaparral such as the acreage scorched annually by the Santa Ana winds in southern California.

“It may be the most significant internal migration we’ve ever had,” Harbour said.

Those folks living in the woods and fields are the ones Harbour and other fire scientists want to take action.

Off to have a blast in Lubbock with SEJ board

rm iwest mugI didn't even get through all my back e-mail left over my jam-packed week of learning at the Knight Digital Media Center, and yet I'm headed for the airport. I'm off to Lubbock, Texas, home of Texas Tech University, where I'm due at a meeting of the board of directors of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Texas Tech is considering hosting one of SEJ's excellent annual conferences, and it turns out the university has some acumen in the world of environmental sciences. For instance, in my recent piece on cancer-causing substances flowing off parking lots and driveways, I noted that Texas Tech researchers help demonstrate how the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons harmed aquatic creatures in Texas streams.

So I'm eager to see what else TT has to offer. I just hope we don't hold the meeting in the chemistry department. :>)

-- Robert McClure

100-plus air toxics are killing us

smokestack-by-doe2Air toxics are largely not subject to the kind of strict regulation that "traditional" air pollution like NOX, SOX and particulates are, and yet just the other day we begged off a longer discussion of the topic, opining that air toxics were a subject for another day.

Well, aren't we the lucky ones? Our friends at the Society of Environmental Journalists have just helpfully provided a guide to what's happening with the National Airborne Toxics Assessment. It's an eye-opener.

For example, it turns out there are something like 180 kinds of toxic gunk in the air that are killing us. Bear in mind that there are no ambient air standards for most of these. No lie.

NATA estimates risks for only about two-thirds of the air toxics.  Even considering that limited picture, they do plenty of harm. SEJ's staff has compiled a piercing summary of what NATA shows, including:

The results indicate that almost every person in the US lives in an area where the cancer risk exceeds 10 in 1 million after a lifetime of exposure to selected air toxics, well in excess of EPA’s general target of 1 in 1 million. For 2 million people, the risk is far worse, exceeding 100 in 1 million.