The CBS evening news on Oct. 21 showed video of three people running down a long curving driveway, flame towering just off the concrete. They were in California, fleeing yet another of that state’s disastrous fires.
Suddenly, the frame was filled with the image of a large tanker plane making a perfect drop of fire retardant, the flames disappearing, a fairy-tale ending.
There are no such endings in the book “Fire Storm, How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future” from publisher Island Press. Instead, author Edward Struzik shows us the worst wildfire can do and has done.
He sets most of his scenes in western Canada, but a deadly forest fire is pretty much the same wherever. He finds these fires around the world, climate being an issue wherever. His cautionary stories touch Minnesota, our future, not our past or present.
Struzik tells us that current methods of fighting such fires need to be updated to keep pace with our rising temperatures, stronger winds, and drier lands. He discusses forest management, and the problem of urban/wilderness interface, an issue almost everywhere, California the most critical at the moment.
The interface is people living in a forest or on its edges, homes just waiting for fire and an unfriendly wind. The problem in Minnesota would be not only the dozens of cities and small towns surrounded by forest, but also the thousands of vacation cabins thickly scattered through the state.
The book does not touch wildlife often, but scorched earth not only kills animals and insects, it can sterilize the ground, making habitat recovery for birds and others long-term.
I recently read a history of the Hinckley fire of 1894. It burned 310 square miles, including the town of Hinckley, killing more than 400 people. So hot were the flames, so fast were they moving that people running to escape were caught and reduced to small piles of ashes.
Minnesota has not had a serious fire in recent years. Those fires are in our future, according to Dr. Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Forest Ecology, who is part of Struzik’s story.
I recently spoke by phone with Dr. Frelich. I asked about the threat the pine bark beetle poses to us. The beetle has killed millions of trees in the west. They have been a factor in some of the western fires.
The beetles have been as close as the Black Hills of South Dakota where logging and intense forest management brought the insects under control in 2016. To reach us the beetles would come east across Canada.
The beetles historically were controlled by winter temperatures. Frelich says that that 10 or 15 winters in a row without deep cold will allow the insects to survive. We are in an era of ever warmer winters, a few of our northern-most counties showing higher than average annual temperature gains as measured across the country.
The reason for higher temperatures is said to be warmer winters.
“Warm climate will wipe out our conifers,” Dr. Frelich said. Replacement trees will burn, and scrub growth will replace them.
We’re talking about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, land already under attack because of warmer weather.
“Red oak and red maple are invading the Boundary Waters,” Dr. Frelich said.
“Temperature gain has essential freed temperate-zone species, and they’re now moving into the Boundary Waters area.
"In warmer and longer summers maple and oak grow faster than fur or spruce species, producing more seeds than the latter,” he said.
Dr. Frelich pointed out that the pre-settlement forest was a mosaic of timber ages, a pattern produced by wild fire that burned itself out, the land then recovering. We now manage forests, killing wildfire and its natural benefits. Human life and property have become dominant factors. There is a price for that. Struzik clearly makes that point in his book.
“Its’s only a matter of time before we get fires like those described in Struzik’s book,” Dr. Frelich said.
The book is soft-cover, 272 pages, illustrated, priced at $23.
Island Press is a publishing house focused on solving environmental problems. It has a back list of 1,300 titles. From now through Oct. 28 all of those are available at 50 percent off. Go to IslandPress.org.