Forest fires and problems associated with them have been very much in the news in recent time. The problem of prevention and control of calamities of this kind, which threaten all continents-Antarctica being the only exception - is still with us despite the progress of modern science and technology.
In a recent article on this subject American publicist, Dr. D. Gantenbein pointed out that by the late July of 2002 the whole of the American West seemed to be aflaim. More than 1.5 rain hectares of forests had been reduces to ashes by that time-twice as much as the size of average annual losses over the past decade. The National Center for Fire Prevention in Boise, Idaho, remained on high alert for more than a month. Forestry cultivation and management agencies said they had already run out of their combined budget of one billion dollars. And bearing in mind that other organizations also had to spend huge sums on fire prevention and control, the year of 2002 could be regarded as the most expensive "firefighting" year in the history of the United States.
The scale of the damage and losses caused by forest fires are really impressive. According to Acad. A. Isaev, Director of the RAS Center for Problems of Ecology and Forests' Productivity "the area of forest losses from fires on the territory covered by Russia's forestry funds is 5 times greater than the territory of planned forest fellings.., and the scale of annual losses from forest fires is comparable with the size of profits from forestry industry and is much greater in some years."
One can get the impression that these deplorable statistics are the result of the sorry plight of this country's federal services. And this is real-
ly so in many respects. Russia's federal budget for 2001 provided some 50 times lower allocations for that branch as compared with the United States (984.4 mln rubles against 1.8 bin dollars). But what is really paradoxical: the area affected by forest fires in Russia was four times smaller that in the United States (in the year 2000 - 0.87 mln hec. against 3.5 mln hec).
How can one explain these puzzling statistics? To begin with, one has to bear in mind that the United States is located in a much warmer climate, and what experts call global warming has had the most apparent effect on North America where the number of drought years has appreciably increased. And there is yet another important factor to be born in mind: forest tracts in Russia are located mainly in scarcely populated regions. And there is no denying the fact that most fires of this kind are of "human" origin. The most dangerous and devastating of them are those originating and propagating in the "upper echelons" of forests.
This often practically denies attempts to put them out. Columns of fire proliferate over tree-tops, spreading out in fountains of sparks and burning branches. As often as not these fiery tornadoes
cannot be stopped even by rivers measuring tens of meters across. As the aforesaid experts points out, flames are often some 130 m high, consuming about 35 tons of timber in an hour on an area of 0.4 hectares with temperatures of up to 1,100°C and wind velocities of as much as 160 km/h.
Such fiery hurricanes often triumph over some of the most advanced fire-prevention technologies and one has no choice but to simply wait for the Mother Nature to step in with torrential rains...
It is really common knowledge that since time immemorial man has been using fire for winning from virgin forests areas for hunting, pastures, crops and settlements. The results of these efforts are really impressive and can be seen practically all over the world. As was pointed out back in 1961 by the leading German biogeographer Prof. I. Schmidthusen, "fires of natural origin are rarely observed on the grassy expanses of periodically dry tropics... Here the cause of fires is man... With the only exception of flooded savannas, all other fires... originate with the direct participation of man."
In principle, in the conditions of a wet climate the fiery element can cause no catastrophes. What is more, in a number of cases, when fires could not be quenched, valuable forests later reappeared on the devastated territory. And the picture is different in places where a fire occurred at a low level, cindering tree-trunks which remained standing, with the young vendure sprouting up in between.
Summing it up, the central objective in the fighting of fires is to prevent their proliferation. In the opinion of Dr. E. Valendike a number of original methods can be applied to that effect. And the most "effective" of them is what he called the method of "directional" or "controlled" fires which is also the cheapest. The idea is this: along the expected path of a forest fire people light a "fire belt" of their own which is moving towards the main fire and leaves behind a belt of "scorched land". In practice, however, as often as not you simply cannot "play games" with fiery element for the simple reason of a lack of trained personnel. And you also have to know the exact "parameters" of this or that particular fire which is not so simple even when you have at your disposal up-to-date instruments and even space probes.
As for studying a forest fire at a close range-this is a truly risky business, to say the least. You never know in which direction and at what rate the flames will be progressing. And the consequences can be really tragic. Quite recently a forest fire in the United States took a toll of 13 firemen's lives. Flames are progressing especially fast in an uphill direction, as was the case in that particular tragedy.
In our day and age specialists rely not only on methods of remote investigations", but use computer modeling. But say what you may, really impressive results are still few and far between as proved by the situation in the United States where forest fires occur even more often now, causing considerable economic losses.
As seen on a world background, this country of our looks relatively good. In an article published in the V Mire Nauki (World of Science) journal, Dr. T. Potapova says: "Russia's forest resources approach 1.2 bin hectares (22 percent of world forests). For more than 200 years they have been the object of economic activities organized on a scientific basis. Before the October Revolution even in the relatively favorable rainy years forest fires in this coun-
try destroyed areas of 600 - 700 hectares and in the dry year of 1915 a total of 12.5 mln hectares of forests were destroyed. Since 1931 we started using aircraft for forest fire prevention and space technology methods from 1972. In recent time Russia has experienced some 30,000 forest fires in one year with the loss of 1 -2 mln hectares of forests (0.2 percent of the national forest fund). On the average, this is better than the world statistics of 400,000 fires destroying 0.5 percent of forests a year. Thus we could be proud of our system of forests protection. But in the view of many specialists, these quantitative assessments are far from the truth."
Working on new methods of diagnostics, early detection and putting out of forest fires are a number of experts from the Forestry Institute named after V Sukachev of the RAS Siberian Branch, the RAS Institute of Space Studies, the RAS Center for Problems of Ecology Productivity of Forests, the Institute of Optics of the Atmosphere of the RAS Siberian Branch and other centers. But any really significant achievements in this field are few and far between either in Russia, or Western Europe or the United States.
It was back in 1999 that the Government of the Russian Federation endorsed its federal program of "Forests Protection from Fires for 1999 - 2005". But, as Prof. T. Potapova points out, its practical implementation leaves much to be desired. And she also stresses that: "We have the right to be proud of our national system of forest protection and space monitoring and of the achievements of our scientists. A cause for concern is provided by a lack of interest towards these remarkable achievements on the part of those who take administrative decisions on concrete situations. A forest fire is no joke. In the summer of 2002 this was made very clear to the Muscovites and in the early 2003 for the residents of Canberra." Apart from all that it is not only trees that burn out but also drained peatbogs. Discharged into the atmosphere are vast amounts of products of combustion, including those from territories with radioactive contamination and also from zones of accumulation of especially poisonous chemicals.
... One can get up and walk away from an unquenched camp-fire, a burning cigarette end on a windy day, and then there is bound to be a fire and it can be practically impossible to put it out. Such incidents often happened when people start burning out dry grass to clear some patches of land. In a word, preventing a forest fire is a much simpler task than putting it out.
There is one effective means of forest fires prevention which, however, does not get proper attention. What is this "remedy"? One can easily guess at the answer, bearing in mind the fact of the technogenic, "man-made" origin of such fires. That is why the key role in preventing such calamities should be assigned to ecological education and popularization of science in order to bring scientific achievements to the attention of the broad public.
On the basis of publications in the "V MIRE NAUKI" (World of Science) journal, No. 3, 2003
Prepared by Rudolf BALANDIN
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