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Wildfires and our world

With each passing year the news about climate change seems to get worse, and its effects ever more obvious. In the last twelve months we’ve all witnessed reports from areas as far-flung as Spain and California, which have faced some of the most intense wildfires ever recorded. The bushfire season in Australia in 2019-20 has been so ferocious it’s now been nicknamed the “Black Summer” in that country, smoke blocking out the sun from Sydney to Brisbane. Scientists are generally agreed that climate change is driving these extreme wildfire events around the globe and, worryingly, that we should be prepared for such events to become more frequent.

Here in the UK firefighters are also coming to terms with the increasing threat of wildfires. Strategies to fight them have, however, evolved over many decades in response to major historic wildfires. In a previous blog post we looked at how some major city fires drove the formation of modern professional fire brigades. So now, let’s take a look at some of the “rural relations” of those Great Fires of Rome and London, and how firefighters have adapted to meet their particular threat.

Ancient Wildfires

Wildfires might be getting worse today, but they have been around for as long as there’s been vegetation growing on our planet. A wildfire might be a ‘forest fire’, ‘bush fire’, ‘grass fire’ or ‘moor fire’ depending on the area involved. They may be started by human activity, but often occur naturally as the result of drought and lightning. In fact, there is evidence of natural wildfires burning the prehistoric world long before human beings came on the scene. The primordial forests left evidence of such fires in coal deposits formed over millions of years, fires sparked by volcanic activity, even here in what became the British Isles.

If wildfires predate humanity, they certainly predate fire brigades! As you’ll discover if you visit NESM’s new firefighting exhibits, Britain's modern fire brigades were formed in the 19th Century, growing out of the small insurance brigades that emerged after the Great Fire of London in the 17th Century. Yet while there’d been efforts to fight urban fires long before professional brigades existed, fighting wildfires was usually beyond the capability of the volunteer locals of villages and hamlets, though some would undoubtedly have tried.

Unfortunately, we have little evidence available to tell the stories of specific pre-modern wildfires, but we know that they occurred. (Research has pinpointed a major forest fire in California in the year 245 AD for example.) Historic wildfires threatened human life and property just as much as their more famous urban relations in the pre-modern world, mainly because more people lived in rural areas. But the ferocity of wildfires meant it wasn’t until modern times that humans had a hope of containing wildfires through advancements in technology.

Miramichi Fire (1825)

In the early 19th Century, professional fire brigades were developing around the world. But they were largely city-based concerns, designed to fight structural fires in urban areas where blazes could spread like… well, like wildfire. Rural fire services remained sparse and voluntary, without the means to contain wildfires. The result of such fires was often massive loss of life when people became trapped by fast-moving flames.

In 1825, an unusually hot summer in Canada resulted in one such example, the following October witnessing one of the biggest forest fires ever recorded. The Miramichi Fire, which tore through the province of New Brunswick, was probably sparked by human activity (loggers being the most likely culprits). It destroyed about 16,000 square kilometres of forest, but in an area where people lived and worked amid the woods, the fire also destroyed homes, businesses, and even a jail, killing inmates and, it’s thought, many people in several small towns. One town of 1000 people was reduced to ruins in just three hours as the fire swept through.

As with many massive wildfires, a “firestorm” was created, the intense blaze forming its own wind system! With no significant rural fire services, there was little anyone could do to mitigate the disaster. Many people tried to take refuge by wading into the Miramichi River.

Great Michigan Fire and Peshtigo Fire (1871)

The US faced a similar urban/rural divide in 19th Century firefighting. Cities like Chicago had founded professional brigades in the 1850s, which was just as well; one major city fire we didn’t mention in our earlier blog post was the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It burned from October 8th-10th, making 100,000 Chicagoans homeless. But a less well known fact is that the same gales that fanned the flames in the ‘windy city’ also drove two massive forest fires in the northern United States. One of these- the Peshtigo Fire- was the deadliest wildfire in recorded history.

The rural fire service in Peshtigo had just one horse-drawn fire pump serving an area stretching across 56 miles. It was designed to save buildings but was useless against the raging forest fire that killed up to 2,500 people (far more than died in Chicago). The firestorm was so fierce it jumped the Peshtigo River to destroy an area larger than Rhode Island.

The Great Michigan Fire also started on October 8th 1871 and is thought to have been sparked by loggers, though some claimed lightning was to blame, and others have even suggested that the concurrent fires in Chicago and the Michigan and Peshtigo forests were caused by fragments of a comet. 'Biela’s Comet' had first been recorded in 1772 but is believed to have split apart around the time of the US fires.

Landes Fire (1949)

It wasn’t until the 20th Century that specialist training in wildfire suppression became common for rural fire brigades, and technology was developed to meet the challenge. The 1940s saw great advancements in the training of specialist wildland firefighting crews around the world, with recognition that rural brigades required different skills to their urban neighbours. The 1940s also saw the first major use of aerial firefighting. Helicopters were in use in California in 1947, and the same year the US authorities began experimenting with airplanes adapted as ‘water bombers’ to douse wildfires from above. Smokejumpers, elite wildfire fighters who parachute into affected areas armed with tools to make fire breaks, were also made possible with aircraft.

Just as important were the new strategies put in place by fire authorities in response to major wildfires. Until the 21st Century, the deadliest forest fire in Europe had been that which burned in Landes Forest in France in August 1949. It killed 82 people and was responsible for France enacting a new system of wildfire prevention, the “Defending Forests against Wildfire” initiative. Public information programs aimed at reducing man-made forest fires, were also started in the 1940s, including America’s “Smokey the Bear” adverts.

Chinchaga Fire (1950)

As wildfire fighting techniques grew more sophisticated, experts began to understand that some natural fires were needed as part of normal ecological cycles. Thus, wildfires that don’t threaten human life are often allowed to take their course. The largest recorded fire in North American history, the Chinchaga, burned at least 3.5 million acres of forest, but no attempts were made to stop it, as the area was not highly populated. Still, the autumn of 1950 saw reports of the moon and sun turning blue across the US and Europe. There was talk of nuclear war and even alien invasions to explain the strange phenomena. The truth was that smoke from the Chinchaga Fire was rising to the upper atmosphere, filtering the light in the sky.

Tasmanian Fires (1967)

When it comes to fighting wildfires, Australia is at the forefront of developing strategies and technology. It’s not surprising given the country is among the most prone to wildfires. It’s experienced some traumatic conflagrations such as the Black Tuesday Bushfires on the island of Tasmania in 1967, fires that encroached on much manmade infrastructure, destroying eighty bridges, thousands of power lines and around 3000 buildings including homes and businesses.

In response to such bushfires, Australia has helped develop specialist equipment now used around the world, including Wildland Fire Engines and techniques like forming control lines or fire breaks; removing vegetation with chainsaws and even with controlled fires- literally fighting fire with fire!

The 21st Century challenge

Recently, we’ve witnessed far more frequent and destructive wildfires. The world was shocked to see the severity of blazes in the Amazon Rainforest in 2019. The result of climate change and of deforestation in Brazil, the forest’s destruction has become a major concern for anyone trying to stem the tide of global warming (the Amazon is the largest absorber of greenhouse gases on earth, so is vital in the fight against climate change).

The hotter climate has also increased the severity of wildfires here in the UK. The period from 2018 in particular has seen unusually widespread moor fires from Saddleworth in Greater Manchester to Ilkley in Yorkshire. In the spring of 2020 fires broke out in north Wales and the Peak District. Fire services are now running public information campaigns similar to those in the US, aimed at preventing fires caused through carelessness; discarded cigarettes and disposable barbeques are a particular menace on dry, sun-parched moors.

But in the long term it is the fight against climate change that is most important for preventing future wildfires, and that is a fight we are all a part of.

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