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Pick Your Poison

June 11, 2012 - Do you ever play that game: which would be worse - a fire, or a flood?  Once something burns up, it's irretrievably lost.  With flooding, there's the possibility, however small, of saving things.  Fires are terribly polluting, and add a lot of carbon dioxide to the already overloaded atmosphere.  Dirty or polluted water could ruin a home or even a town. In the event that clean-up is possible, it's a labor intensive, dangerous job.  A home with smoke damage might be similarly hard work to clean up.  A home that's burned to the ground probably requires a bulldozer, once the surviving possessions have been sorted.  Insurance is available for both kinds of catastrophes.  In either case, nature is capable of repairing at least some of the local environmental damage.  The psychic, emotional, and physical toll on humans is another matter entirely.

The cost of fires begins with the training of firefighters, and the procurement of sophisticated equipment.  Flood prevention requires similar forethought, and may require expensive infrastructure.  Those living in a flood plain, or close to large bodies of water, generally accept the fact that they may be required to deal with flooding at some point.  They regard the inconvenience and cost as the price they must pay for the pleasure of living near the water.  Fire is predictable in a more general way.  Those who live in, or close to, a wooded area are wary of droughts, knowing that the dehydrated landscape could easily fall victim to a careless camper, a lightning strike, or an arsonist.  But forecasting which way a fire will travel is tricky.  Wind direction, tree species, degree of dehydration - all can influence how fast and how far a fire spreads.

The reason the topic arises, of course, is that several western states are dealing with wildfires, two in particular: Colorado and New Mexico.  At the same time, torrential downpours caused flooding in coastal Florida and Alabama this past weekend.  In fact, by noon on Sunday, West Pensacola, Florida had gotten 22 inches of rain!  Twenty-two inches.  Do I need to tell you that streets, vehicles, and cellars quickly flooded?  Bridges and businesses sustained damage, too, with an all-in initial estimate of $20 million for repairs.  That number is likely to increase, inasmuch as washed out roads throughout Escambia County made assessment very difficult.  Residents were asked to remain at home Sunday evening, as more rain was expected.  More than 100 spent Saturday night in three Red Cross shelters, or in an additional shelter provided by the Navy.  Long-time residents were quoted as saying they had never seen the water as high before.

Meanwhile, hundreds of evacuees have poured into shelters in New Mexico in order to escape a 54-square-mile fire near Ruidoso.  The nearby town of Capitan is also likely to be evacuated, and fire crews are advising residents to get a jump on the situation by clearing out immediately.  The largest blaze, by far, in New Mexico is the one in the Gila National Forest, burning since mid-May.  The fire now covers 435 square miles.  (One of the reasons for the extremely fire-prone condition of western forests is the invasion of the mountain pine beetle in recent years.  For more information regarding the beetle, read my article in Transition Voice: http://transitionvoice.com/2011/06/it%e2%80%99s-not-easy-bein%e2%80%99-trees/ .)

Perhaps the most worrisome fire is the 57-square-mile fire burning 15 miles west of Ft. Collins, Colorado.  Believed to have been set by lightning, and described as "very large, unpredictable and aggressive," the fire is advancing by as much as 40 feet per second across a landscape bereft of water.  Ten air tankers and 400 firefighters are currently battling the blaze.  While Ft. Collins itself is not immediately threatened, the fire is expected to continue growing in size.  The Red Cross and Humane Society are helping residents and their pets with safe havens, food and places to sleep.  If you haven't donated lately to the American Red Cross, it's a sure bet they could use your help, especially since this voracious fire almost doubled in size Sunday night.  It currently occupies 36,930 acres.

Fire crews are working round the clock to evacuate the citizens of surrounding Larimer County, but the speed with which the fire is moving has caught them off guard.  Plans are in place for the evacuation of all county neighborhoods, but it was never anticipated that they would all need evacuating at once.  Additional crews and equipment have been ordered from as far away as Canada.  Because of the numerous wildfires raging out west, crews and equipment are in very high demand.

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