Prof. Crystal Kolden: The Impending Eclipse Apocalypse

August 8, 2017 – Here is one recipe for disaster. It begins with hundreds of thousands of people descending on the western US for the August 21st event, cramming into a narrow, 70-mile wide band called the Path of Totality, looking for places to watch that ensure the highest probably of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. According to a cloud analysis by my colleagues, the interior west, including eastern Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming offer the best bet for cloud-free viewing. Most of these people are from the eastern US, the coastal regions, or Europe, and have never been to the area we refer to as the Intermountain West.

This region is flyover country for a reason. The path of totality over these remote areas crosses relatively few roads, with even fewer of them paved. Much of it is public land, managed by the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the states. Visitors will trickle in over several days, filling every bed and campground available, and then spilling into the wildlands to pitch tents and park cars wherever they can find room. They will ignore campfire bans and build fires on the open ground. Some will fail to put those fires dead out. These visitors are from places where wildfires are not a concern, and they don’t know how quickly one can start and grown.

Grasses and other vegetation will be waving serenely nearby, completely dry and dead and just waiting for an errant campfire spark or a hot carburetor. After a wet winter, many of these fuels are taller and denser than they have been in years. These remote areas usually see fire starts from dry lightning; this year, they may see more human ignitions on one weekend than they have over the last century.

Firefighters know it is coming. Every fire protection unit in the West is waiting tensely for August 21st, knowing that the number of humans and potential ignitions is unbalancing a protection equation in a way that means they can’t win. There aren’t enough firefighters, and many of them are already exhausted from battling fires throughout the west this summer. There isn’t enough equipment, after years of downsizing and outsourcing and reducing the aerial firefighting fleet. Most important, however, it’s just too hot and dry, the product of a changing climate that has yielded record-breaking heat waves nearly every year.

August 21st holds a special place in firefighting history. It is the date of the Big Blowup of 1910, when 87 people died across Idaho and Montana when massive winds fanned thousands of tiny fires in tinder dry forests (also after a wet, snowy winter). Primitive firefighting was no match for the flames, and most of the fatalities were firefighters caught in the inferno. Multiple towns were wiped completely off the map, and the then-booming metropolis of Wallace, Idaho, was evacuated among harrowing conditions that saw 2/3 of the town burn down.

As a fire scientist, I have been asked many times over the years if the Big Burn of 1910 could happened again; if we could see that many fatalities all at once. My answer, until this year, was always “probably not.”

In 2017, however, I fear the worst. I fear hundred to thousands of tiny fires started by eclipse-watchers being blown up by dry, hot winds that are common in the west this time of year. I fear people panicking and trying to evacuate, then getting into accidents that block narrow, single-lane mountain and rangeland roads. I fear hundreds of people trapped in their cars, overtaken by flames, and no way to rescue them or suppression resources to save them. I fear we will finally see the wildfire that kills over 100 people, or many, many more.

In short, I fear a disaster; an eclipse apocalypse. I really hope I’m wrong.

Crystal Kolden studies wildfire as a function of human and climatic influences. After starting her career as a wildland firefighter in northern California, she is now a professor of Pyrogeography at the University of Idaho. 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Probably not too many ‘hot carburetors’ have started fires, but plenty of hot exhaust systems, especially catalytic converters, have started them.
    I don’t know how many folks from outside will come to view the eclipse. The author makes it sound like it is only viewable in the west. The fact is (and this is why it is considered rare and unusual) that the band will cover the entire contiguous United States. No need for folks from the east coast to come west, they just have to get to the Carolinas. Ditto any Europeans.
    The author is so right to point out the danger of wildfires. The roads serving the eclipse band where it crosses the northwest are few and narrow. Most of the visitors will be coming from the cities, and they will be clueless about how easy it is to start wildfires. Just pulling over to the side of the road can start a wildfire. A hot catalytic converter touching the weeds can easily start a wildfire, let alone an ill-considered or badly managed campfire.
    All this trouble for a TWO-MINUTE thrill! That is how long totality will last if you are at the very center of the band. Two minutes!
    Why not just stay near home, go to a hill, and enjoy twenty minutes of partial eclipse. Then go back to your house a few minutes away and celebrate with a beer?

    Stay safe, park away from the dry grass, view the eclipse through proper glasses (there are many unsafe cheapo glasses on sale, be really careful about this; it’s not worth ruining your eyesight to save a few bucks), have fun and try to remember the experience. There will be lots of other eclipses (maybe not another one that crosses the entire U.S. for 70 years, but so what?) and you can tell your grandkids about those instead.

  2. Back in the 90s I knew of a Forest Supervisor up in Central Oregon who started a fire with his vehicle’s catalytic converter. Yes it can happen to anybody. Luckily that time it got quickly put out.

    Having this event on August 21st could not be a worse time for wildfires being started. This year especially with a high pressure system that has been sitting over the West most of the summer and prolonged above average temps. Oregon and Idaho have been baking since June and very little rain. Seattle just set a record with the most consecutive days with no rain. The conditions are definitely there for a really bad situation to set up with all those folks coming to view the eclipse in the peak of fire season. Hope it all goes okay.

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