U.S. Fires Release Enormous Amounts of Carbon Dioxide

Large-scale fires in western and southeastern states can pump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a few weeks as the states’ entire motor vehicle traffic in a year, according to newly published research by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Their paper, “Estimates of CO2 from fires in the United States: implications for carbon management,” is being published online today in the journal Carbon Balance and Management. NCAR’s portion of the research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), NCAR’s principal sponsor.

“This study provides much-needed insights into the complexities and feedbacks among the Earth’s biosphere, geosphere and ‘anthroposphere’ [human-affected realm],” said Cliff Jacobs of NSF’s atmospheric sciences division, which funds NCAR. “These research results are important information for policy-makers.”

The authors, Christine Wiedinmyer of NCAR and Jason Neff of the University of Colorado, used satellite observations of fires and a new computer model, developed by Wiedinmyer, that estimates carbon dioxide emissions based on the mass of vegetation burned.

They caution that their estimates have a margin of error of about 50 percent, both because of inexact data about the extent of fires and varying estimates of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by different types of blazes.

Although last week’s fires in southern California broke out after the paper was written, Wiedinmyer applied the new computer model to analyze their emissions.

Her preliminary estimates indicate that the fires emitted 7.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in just the one-week period of October 19-26–equivalent to 25 percent of the monthly emissions from all fossil fuel burning throughout California.

Overall, the study estimates that U.S. fires release about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, the equivalent of 4 to 6 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning.

“A striking implication of very large wildfires is that a severe fire season lasting only one or two months can release as much carbon as the annual emissions from the entire transportation or energy sector of an individual state,” the paper states.

Fires contribute a higher proportion of carbon dioxide in several western and southeastern states, especially Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington, Arkansas, Mississippi and Arizona. Particularly large fires can release enormous pulses of carbon dioxide rapidly into the atmosphere.

“Enormous fires pump a large amount of carbon dioxide quickly into the atmosphere,” Wiedinmyer says. “This can complicate efforts to understand our carbon budget and ultimately fight global warming.”

Carbon dioxide emissions from fires pose a significant challenge as policymakers focus on limiting greenhouse gases because of concerns over climate change.

The impacts of fires on climate change are complex and difficult to predict, say scientists. Long after a fire sweeps through an area, new vegetation eventually may absorb as much carbon dioxide as was released during the blaze.

Fires are likely to become more frequent and widespread as temperatures warm around much of the globe, which means that more carbon dioxide may be released into the atmosphere. The fires could complicate efforts to rely on forests to help absorb carbon dioxide.

“The fires that are burning today in the United States are part of the legacy of the past century of fire suppression,” says Neff, an environmental scientist.

“Our attempts to control fire have had the unintended benefit of sequestering more carbon in our forests and reducing the impact of human combustion of fossil fuels. However, as these forests now begin to burn, that stored 20th century carbon is moving back into the atmosphere, where it may compound our current problems with CO2.”

The study found that evergreen forests in the South and West are the dominant U.S. sources for carbon dioxide emissions from fires. Fires in grasslands and agricultural areas, where vegetation is less dense, emit far less carbon dioxide.

The extent of the fires varies widely from year to year, but typically the emissions have a small peak in the spring from fires in the southeastern and central United States, and a larger peak in the summer during the fire season in the West.

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Poor air from wildfires a health threat

LOS ANGELES – Even as many of the wildfires in flame-ravaged Southern California died down and residents returned home, lingering dust and soot-laden air made it difficult for many to breathe even a sigh of relief Saturday.

Air quality remained poor in the central San Bernardino Mountains and parts of the San Bernardino Valley, as well as swaths of Orange and Riverside Counties. In San Diego County, where only two of five major fires was more than 50 percent contained, the air was especially dismal Friday.

That worried Joe Flynn, 48, as he prepared to return home to Ramona, northeast of San Diego, after he and thousands of other evacuees sought shelter Qualcomm Stadium this week.

But the pull to get back to normal was even stronger.

“Sure I’m worried about breathing that stuff up there,” he said. “It’s not cool but everyone is dying to get back home.”

Satellite pictures showed thick smoke continuing to hang over the entire region, affecting schools, events and the health of residents all over Southern California.

Residents staying in areas with bad air were advised to avoid exerting themselves. Children and people with heart and respiratory conditions were urged to stay indoors with the windows and doors closed and the air conditioner on.

“In the immediate aftermath of a fire, we’re all at risk of the fine particulate matter we can inhale,” said Julia Robinson Shimizu, a spokeswoman for Breathe L.A. “In general it’s good to limit outdoor strenuous activity at least seven days after the fires have ended.”

The University of California San Diego Medical Center saw an increase in patients coming in with breathing troubles they believe were related to air pollution, spokeswoman Jackie Carr said.

Mayor Jerry Sanders said the NFL’s San Diego Chargers would play Sunday’s game scheduled at Qualcomm. The stadium can seat more than 70,000 people.

But Ross Porter, a spokesman for the American Lung Association of California, urged fans to use caution when deciding whether to attend.

“Sometimes its better to sit quietly at home and watch it on TV,” he said.

Meanwhile, about 23,000 homes were still threatened by five major blazes in three counties. Altogether, more than a dozen fires raced across more than 503,000 acres — the equivalent of 786 square miles — although many of the blazes have been contained.

At least three people — and possibly as many as seven — have been killed by flames. About 1,700 homes have been destroyed and damage estimates have surpassed $1 billion.

On Friday, tens of thousands of displaced families began returning to their fire-ravaged communities, but it will likely be months or even years before they recover what they left behind when they fled giant walls of flames.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s office said he would appear Saturday at an Orange County fire command post to discuss efforts to find arsonists and to warn about charlatans peddling insurance scams to fire victims.

On Friday, the governor signed an executive order he said would cut red tape by directing state agencies to aid fire victims with such things as filing for tax extensions and unemployment insurance.

On the other side of the Cleveland National Forest, residents in the Riverside County town of Corona worried that flames they had watched on the news all week might reach them. They filled an elementary school Friday to hear that there was no imminent threat. Some packed valuables in their cars, just in case.

“Your feelings are real but we want to relieve some of that anxiety,” John Hawkins, Riverside County fire chief, told residents.

Also Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein urged Congressional leaders to provide an additional $1 billion for firefighting and fire recovery efforts.

The National Weather Service had some good news for firefighters: Winds were forecast to be light on Saturday, with highs hovering around 80 in most of the active fire areas.

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Some Calif. fire evacuees return home

SAN DIEGO – Thousands of evacuees from areas hard hit by this week’s Southern California wildfires were returning Friday to neighborhoods stripped bare, but other communities remained emptied because of blazes that remained threatening and unpredictable.

Southeast of San Diego, a fire that already has destroyed more than 1,000 homes was churning its way toward Julian. The town of 3,000, nestled in the rolling hills of a popular apple-growing region, was under mandatory evacuation.

East of San Diego, firefighters were trying to keep flames from Lake Morena, which is surrounded by hundreds of homes.

“Until you get a control line around each and every individual fire, there’s a potential of them blowing out anywhere,” said Fred Daskoski, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Fires in seven Southern California counties have raced across 494,355 acres — about 772 square miles — in less than a week. They were fanned earlier by Santa Ana winds that produced gusts topping 100 mph.

Of the 1,800 homes lost so far, 80 percent were in San Diego County, where several fires remained far from being fully contained . The property damage there alone surpassed $1 billion.

Shelters were clearing out Friday; the last of more than 10,000 displaced residents who sought refuge at Qualcomm Stadium were to have left by day’s end.

The NFL said it had decided against relocating Sunday’s game between the San Diego Chargers and the Houston Texans.

Mayor Jerry Sanders said the league informed him it intended to play the game as scheduled. The city would be able to provide enough public safety personnel to handle the game without impeding wildfire recovery efforts, Sanders said in a news release.

Officials have opened assistance centers where displaced residents can get help with insurance, rebuilding and mental health counseling.

“The challenge now is starting to rebuild and getting them the resources they need to do that,” San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said Friday. “The county and city of San Diego are very committed to helping these people.”

The state has come under criticism for failing to deploy sufficient aerial support in the wildfires’ crucial first hours. An Associated Press investigation revealed that nearly two dozen water-dropping helicopters and two cargo planes were grounded by government rules and bureaucracy as flames spread.

The Navy, Marine and California National Guard helicopters were grounded for a day partly because state rules require all firefighting choppers to be accompanied by state forestry “fire spotters” who coordinate water or retardant drops. By the time those spotters arrived, the high winds made flying too dangerous.

Additionally, the National Guard‘s C-130 cargo planes were not part of the firefighting arsenal because long-needed retrofits have yet to be completed. The tanks they need to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant were promised four years ago.

“When you look at what’s happened, it’s disgusting, inexcusable foot-dragging that’s put tens of thousands of people in danger,” Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said.

The wildfires are directly blamed for killing three people, a 52-year-old man in Tecate along the Mexican border and a couple in Escondido. Their bodies were discovered in the charred remains of their hillside home. Seven people died of other causes connected to the evacuations.

Border Patrol agents also found four charred bodies in what was believed to be a migrant camp east of San Diego, near the Mexican border. Medical examiners were trying to determine their identities and whether they had died in a fire that destroyed almost 100 homes.

In Orange County, local authorities, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating a fire that destroyed 14 homes. It was believed to be started by an arsonist.

Five people have been arrested for arson since wildfires broke out across Southern California this week, but none has been linked to any of the major blazes.

Among the structures threatened Friday was the Palomar Observatory in northern San Diego County. Crews were clearing brush and lighting back burns around the landmark building, Daskoski said.

The observatory, home to the world’s largest telescope when it was dedicated in 1948, did not appear to be in immediate danger, said observatory spokesman Scott Kardel, who had been evacuated but was in contact with staff who remained.

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NASA’s high-tech wildfire weapons

  • Story Highlights
  • Unmanned aerial vehicle assesses the damage from wildfires in California
  • The vehicle is a cousin of the Predator B, a wartime surveillance plane
  • Ikhana captures thermal-infrared imagery used to pinpoint hot spots
  • NASA also has 2 Earth-observing satellites to monitor the wildfires

This week, Ikhana flew over blazes like the Witch fire in San Diego County to determine the direction of the flames and send thermal-infrared imagery to scientists for layering over Google Earth maps. The combination of data and maps was then used to dispatch firefighters and equipment to sites in need and to determine which areas should be evacuated.

But Ikhana won’t become the standard for high-tech firefighting just yet, according to Everett Hinkley, the liaison and special-projects group leader for the U.S. Forest Service.

The UAV is extremely expensive compared with manned airplanes, and each mission requires lengthy preparation time. These are essentially test flights for the drone, the goal being to hone operators’ skills for a time when the technology is more affordable and widespread.

Ikhana’s main task is to scan the wildfires at close range and send thermal-infrared imagery to a central server accessible by agencies such as FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, emergency-service centers in Southern California, and even the Pentagon.

Experts are then called on to interpret the data with people on the scene to incorporate this valuable information into their maps. Eventually, NASA plans to include UAVs in a whole network of devices that will monitor natural-disaster sites at different scales, from satellite imagery down to ground-level data.

Right now, in addition to Ikhana, that network includes two high-tech satellites that are also being used to monitor the wildfires. The Terra and Earth Observing-1 (EO1) satellites have sensors that use telescopes and cameras to scan the planet for natural disasters and send data back for scientists to review.

The Terra’s sensor has a one-kilometer range — large enough to locate hotspots from space but too huge to focus in on specific sites. The EO1 has a 30-meter range for closer views of natural disasters, and the UAV delivers even more detailed information. NASA is working to combine these tools to create a web of sensors that rescue workers could use to find the information they needed quickly and efficiently

“It’s kind of like going to the weather channel for fire,” says Dan Mandl, the EO-1 mission manager at NASA. “Every sensor in the world becomes a data feed, and we’re using RSS technology [so] anyone can locate and subscribe to it.”

Instead of having people intercept the data, the process has become automated, which speeds up the information-gathering process, Mandl says. An image from the EO1 used to take two weeks to analyze, but the first images from the fire in Southern California were analyzed in less than 10 hours.

“The fire workers need to have as much data as possible about the location of the fires,” Mandl says, “because the big problem is that fires don’t stay still.”

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Fire evacuees seek return to normal

SAN DIEGO – The NFL stadium where thousands of displaced residents sought refuge is closing as an evacuation center, a symbolic show of progress against wildfires still menacing Southern California.

Once sheltering more than 10,000 people, Qualcomm Stadium was home to just 350 on Friday morning. It was to close later in the day.

Across San Diego County, the region hardest hit by the firestorms that began last weekend, thousands of evacuees have been trickling back to neighborhoods stripped bare of houses, trees and the familiar signs of suburbia.

The lucky ones will find their homes still standing amid a blackened landscape. Others, like Robert Sanders, are not so fortunate.

The 56-year-old photographer returned to a smoldering mound that once was his rented house in the San Diego neighborhood of Rancho Bernardo.

Among the possessions he lost to the flames and withering heat were his transparencies, melted inside a fire-resistant box, and a photograph of his father.

“I’ve lost my history,” Sanders said. “All the work I’ve done for the past 30 years, it’s all destroyed.”

Thousands of people lost their homes this week to the wildfires that left an arc of destruction from Ventura County to the Mexican border.

In all, fires raced across 490,000 acres — or 765 square miles, an area half the size of Rhode Island. They were fanned early in the week by Santa Ana winds that produced gusts topping 100 mph.

Of the 1,800 homes lost so far, 80 percent were in San Diego County. The property damage there alone has surpassed $1 billion.

Still unsettled is whether the San Diego Chargers will play their home game against the Houston Texans at Qualcomm on Sunday. Mayor Jerry Sanders said the stadium should be ready but indicated the decision will be made by the NFL and the team.

Officials have opened assistance centers in the hardest-hit communities, where displaced residents can get help with insurance, rebuilding and even mental health counseling.

“The challenge now is starting to rebuild and getting them the resources they need to do that,” San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said Friday. “The county and city of San Diego are very committed to helping these people.”

A show of the federal government’s support came Thursday when President Bush toured the fire-ravaged area with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bush pledged the government’s cooperation.

“We want the people to know there’s a better day ahead — that today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life’s going to be better,” he said.

As the governor and president witnessed the devastation, the state came under criticism for failing to deploy sufficient aerial support in the wildfires’ crucial first hours.

An Associated Press investigation revealed that nearly two dozen water-dropping helicopters and two cargo planes sat idle as flames spread, grounded by government rules and bureaucracy.

The Navy, Marine and California National Guard helicopters were grounded for a day partly because state rules require all firefighting choppers to be accompanied by state forestry “fire spotters” who coordinate water or retardant drops. By the time those spotters arrived, the high winds made it too dangerous to fly.

Additionally, the National Guard‘s C-130 cargo planes were not part of the firefighting arsenal because long-standing retrofits have yet to be completed. The tanks they need to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant were promised four years ago.

“When you look at what’s happened, it’s disgusting, inexcusable foot-dragging that’s put tens of thousands of people in danger,” Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said.

The wildfires are directly blamed for killing three people, a 52-year-old man in Tecate along the Mexican border and a couple in Escondido. Their bodies were discovered in the charred remains of their hillside home.

Border Patrol agents also found four charred bodies in what was believed to be a migrant camp east of San Diego, near the Mexican border. Medical examiners were trying to determine their identities and whether they had died in a fire that destroyed almost 100 homes.

In Orange County, local authorities, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating a fire that destroyed 14 homes. It was believed to be started by an arsonist.

Even as evacuees returned home and fire crews began mop-up duties in some areas, the wildfires continued to threaten homes in others.

An aerial assault was helping firefighters corral two blazes in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, a thickly wooded resort area where 313 homes have been lost.

Sean Clevenger’s home was a rare sight — part of an oasis of seven unburned houses in a neighborhood that was largely destroyed by fire in the mountain community of Running Springs.

“I still can’t believe this is my neighborhood,” he said, staring across the street at a plume of flames rising from a broken gas main amid rubble.

“Right there was a red house and everything was green around it,” he said. “Now I look out and I see a lot of sky through the trees.”

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Stars flee as wildfires hit Malibu

Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated and thousands of homes remain at risk tonight as wildfires tear through southern California, US authorities said.

Homes were ablaze from the beaches of Malibu – where celebrities including Barbra Streisand, Mel Gibson and record company executive David Geffen have houses – to the mountain retreats east of Los Angeles and south to Orange and San Diego counties to Mexico.

President George Bush declared a federal emergency as temperatures are still set to increase and conditions worsen as the gusts of the Santa Ana wind fanning the blazes increase in strength.

Mr Bush said: “All of us across this nation are concerned for the families who have lost their homes, and the many families who have been evacuated from their homes.

“We send our prayers and thoughts with those who’ve been affected, and we send the help of the federal government as well.”

As the fires burned for a third day, two people have died as at least a dozen wildfires destroyed more than 1,200 homes and businesses. At least 346,000 homes were evacuated in San Diego County alone, sheriff’s officials said.

But the total could be much higher, and state officials were still struggling to estimate how many people have fled.

Since they began on Sunday, the fires have burned at least 245,957 acres, or 384 square miles – an area larger than New York City.

Walls of flame whipped from mountain passes to the edges of California’s celebrated coastline, spreading so quickly that even hotels serving as temporary shelters for evacuees had to be evacuated.

Among those affected, British actress Jane Seymour said her husband James Keach was fighting the fire around their Malibu home.

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California wildfire losses top $1 billion

By GILLIAN FLACCUS, Associated Press Writer

SAN DIEGO – The devastating wildfires in Southern California have caused at least $1 billion in damage in San Diego County alone, officials said Wednesday, as easing wind gave firefighters hope that they begin to gain ground against the flames.

The fires, now in their fourth day, have destroyed 1,500 homes and caused at least a half-million people to flee — the largest evacuation in state history. At least 1,200 of the damaged homes were in San Diego County, and officials believe that number will rise.

“Clearly, this is going to be a $1 billion or more disaster,” Ron Lane, San Diego County’s director of emergency services, told reporters during a news conference.

The announcement of San Diego‘s staggering losses came as President Bush signed a major disaster declaration for California in the wake of the wildfires that have burned about 410,000 acres, or 640 square miles.

The declaration puts in motion long-term federal recovery programs to help state and local governments, families, individuals and certain nonprofit organizations recover.

“Americans all across this land care deeply about them,” the president said after a Cabinet meeting convened to coordinate federal relief efforts. “We’re concerned about their safety. We’re concerned about their property.”

The fierce Santa Ana wind that has stoked the explosive blazes had started to moderate slightly across the region Wednesday although stiff gusts continued to blow through some canyon areas. Forecasters said the wind eventually would be followed by cooling sea breezes.

The shift could allow for a greater aerial assault and help firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Crews were anticipating an injection of additional firefighters and equipment from other states, mostly throughout the West. Frustration over the firefighting effort began to emerge Tuesday when a fire official said not enough had been done to protect homes.

Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather told reporters that firefighters’ lives were threatened because too few crews were on the ground. He said a quick deployment of aircraft could have corralled a massive blaze near Irvine.

“It is an absolute fact: Had we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire,” he said.

Twenty-one firefighters and at least 24 others have been injured. One person was killed by the flames, and the San Diego medical examiner’s officer listed four other deaths as connected to the blazes.

The state’s top firefighter said Prather misstated the availability of firefighters and equipment. Eight of the state’s nine water-dumping helicopters were in Southern California by Sunday, when the first fires began, along with 13 air tankers, said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Grijalva said the fires, spread by wind that at times topped 100 mph, would have overwhelmed most efforts to fight them.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dismissed the criticism when questioned by an ABC News reporter, and praised the rapid deployment of fire crews and equipment across a region from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.

“Anyone that is complaining about the planes just wants to complain because there’s a bunch of nonsense,” he said. “The fact is that we could have all the planes in the world here — we have 90 aircraft here and six that we got especially from the federal government — and they can’t fly because of the wind situation.”

Thousands of people packed emergency shelters, where many had an agonizing wait to find out whether their homes had survived.

“I’m ready to go, but at the same time, I don’t want to go up there and be surprised,” said Mary Busch, 41, who did not know whether her home in Ramona, in San Diego County, was still standing. She has lived at the evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium since Monday, sleeping in her SUV with her 11- and 8-year-old sons.

Others were eager to return to houses they were confident had survived.

“I called my home and my answering machine still works, so that’s how I know we’re OK,” said Rancho Bernardo resident Fuli Du, who packed his belongings Wednesday preparing to leave Qualcomm.

He spent his 41st birthday Tuesday at the stadium, where he has been living with his wife and two young sons.

More evacuation orders were issued Wednesday. Residents of the San Diego County communities of Fallbrook and Julian, an area devastated by a 2003 wildfire, were ordered out of their homes. Officials also were evacuating De Luz, an unincorporated community north of Camp Pendleton that was being threatened by a wildfire on the Marine base. The fire also closed Interstate 5 and the Metrolink commuter rail, snagging the morning commute.

However, residents were allowed to return to some areas of San Diego County including Carlsbad, Chula Vista, Del Mar, Encinitas and Solana Beach.

“There are some hot spots and issues there, but we wouldn’t be letting people go back if it weren’t safe,” county spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said.

The city of San Diego was assessing whether to allow people to return to their homes in Rancho Bernardo, one of the hardest-hit areas, Mayor Jerry Sanders said.

So far, the fires have inflicted the worst damage in San Diego County, where five blazes continued to burn. The largest fire had charred 196,420 acres — about 300 square miles — from Witch Creek to Rancho Santa Fe, destroying 650 homes, businesses and other buildings. Other hard-hit areas included San Bernardino County, where hundreds of homes burned in the mountain resort communities near Lake Arrowhead.

Source:Associated Press

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