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Creating Our Own Hell on Earth

Climate Warming Causes Drought Fueled Mega-Fires

by Tom Turnipseed

Five years ago my wife and I discontinued using our lawn irrigation sprinkler system. Now we only water our small vegetable garden. Facing evidence of climate change, we are trying to do our part to save water.

With water supplies rapidly shrinking, Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia declared a state of emergency for 85 counties and asked President Bush to declare it a major disaster area on October 20, 2007. A drought of historic proportions is affecting Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, as well as parts of North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia. Meanwhile, drought is feeding a fiery fiasco in California.

In the past five days, parts of southern California have become out-of-control, raging infernos as another hot dry summer turns dehydrated forests into combustible tinder‑boxes. On October 21, 2007, CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley reported that "recently there has been an enormous change in Western fires. In truth, we've never seen anything like them in recorded history. It appears we're living in a new age of mega-fires -- forest infernos ten times bigger than the fires we're used to seeing." According to the number of acres burned, 7 of the 10 busiest forest fire seasons in the United States have occurred since 1999 based on records going back 47 fire seasons to 1960.

Pelley said last year's was the worst in recorded history, and this year is already a close second, with two months to go. More than eight million acres have already burned this year. After 30 years of fighting fires, Tom Boatner is now the chief of fire operations for the federal government. He says, "A fire of this size and this intensity in this country would have been extremely rare 15, 20 years ago, but they're commonplace these days, Ten years ago, if you had a 100,000 acre fire, you were talking about a huge fire. And if we had one or two of those a year, that was probably unusual. Now we talk about 200,000 acre fires like it's just another day at the office. It's been a huge change."

Pelley also talked with Tom Swetnam, a fire ecologist at the University of Arizona. Swetnam has the largest collection of tree rings in the world, that go back 9,000 years, with each one of those rings capturing one year of climate history.

Swetnam says recent decades have been the hottest in 1,000 years, with a dramatic increase in fires high in the mountains, where fires were rare in the past. "As the spring is arriving earlier because of warming conditions, the snow on these high mountain areas is melting and running off. So the logs and the branches and the tree needles all can dry out more quickly and have a longer time period to be dry. And so there's a longer time period and opportunity for fires to start. The fire season in the last 15 years or so has increased more than two months over the whole Western U.S.," Swetnam says.

Swetnam contends that climate change -- global warming -- has increased temperatures in the West about one degree and that has caused four times more fires. Swetnam and his colleagues published those findings in the journal "Science," and the world's leading researchers on climate change have endorsed their conclusions.

Pelley mentioned to Boatner that there are a lot of people who don't believe in climate change. Boatner replied, "You won't find them on the fire line in the American West anymore. Cause we've had climate change beat into us over the last ten or fifteen years. We know what we're seeing, and we're dealing with a period of climate, in terms of temperature and humidity and drought that's different than anything people have seen in our lifetimes."

On October 24, 2007, Ellie Venom with the Conservation Voters of South Carolina wrote a guest column titled "Lacking Vision on Energy" in The State paper in Columbia, South Carolina. She is highly critical of Santee Cooper, South Carolina's publicly owned utility, for their proposed construction of a 1,320 megawatt pulverized coal plant in a rural area along the great Pee Dee River. Rather than their pumping tens of thousands of tons of toxic pollutants into the air and water every year, Ms. Veno contends they can invest in efficiency and conservation to meet the demand for electricity. She says, "Our state's lack of vision on energy, whether at the federal, state or local level, is a grim reminder that South Carolina is still wandering lost in the energy dark ages."

When the US Senate tried unsuccessfully to amend the most recent energy bill to require utilities to produce 15 % of their energy from renewable resources like wind, solar and biomass, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint voted against it. Ms. Veno says South Carolina politicians have become dependent on campaign contributions from utilities and the coal industry.

Such compromised politicians across our country are ignoring the facts: that CO2 producing fossil fuels such as coal are the primary cause of climate warming; that global warming is occurring at a much faster rate than scientists predicted; that one consequence of global warming is drought; that the US is the primary contributor to the crisis. To save this planet we must each do our part and we must demand that our leaders lead. As we watch the fires in the west, can't we see that we are destroying our beautiful country by our own hand and creating a fiery hell on earth?

Tom Turnipseed is an attorney, writer and peace activist in Columbia, South Carolina www.turnipseed.net

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