As climate warms, fire-ravaged Sweden gets a taste of California

By On August 05, 2018

As climate warms, fire-ravaged Sweden gets a taste of California

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  • 1 of 4A wildfire burns last month in Karbole, Sweden. The nation’s firefighters are seeking guidance from California because they are trained to put out household blazes, not wildland infernos.
  • 2 of 4People watch a wildfire in Rafina, near Athens, last month. Major blazes have been burning in Greece, Sweden and Portugal, as well as in the Western United States.
  • 3 of 4A house burns as a wildfire rages in Mati, near Athens, last month. Greece, Sweden and Portugal are getting indoctrinated into a disaster that California has known for years.
  • 4 of 4Scorched earth is all that remains where a wildfire raged northeast of Ljusdal, central Sweden, last month. The nation is looking to California for answers to the wildfire threat.

STOCKHOLM â€" A wildf ire sparked, and then another, until more than 50 blazes were burning across the landscape.

This was late July in Sweden, not California.

Familiar foes â€" blistering temperatures and vegetation dried out by drought â€" fanned Sweden’s fires from the Arctic Circle to the country’s southern border. The country, which experiences on average three wildfires through July, was soon overwhelmed.

Officials dispatched nearly every municipal firefighter in the nation. They called for aircraft from Italy, Portugal and Norway and personnel from France, Poland and Germany.

And soon, they began looking to California, shudderingly, for answers.

What has become normal for the Golden State â€" neighborhoods leveled by flames, ash falling li ke snow, firefighters stretched thin â€" is increasingly becoming a worldwide phenomenon because of global warming. But the idea of having to respond more like California is daunting.

California doesn’t have the secret to preventing and fighting wildfires, which have brought devastation and death this year to Redding and the forests east of Yosemite. But it has more answers than most places.

“There are a lot of eyes on California when it comes to wildfires because the state has been so severely hit,” said Per Becker, a senior lecturer on risk management and societal safety at Sweden’s Lund University, about 375 miles south of Stockholm.

California, he said, is the “canary bird in the coal mine, being hit earlier than us by changes in the climate system. We can learn a lot from how California deals with wildfires because their situation is much worse.”

What is clear is that the learning curve will be steep.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, has a $442.8 million budget and years of experience battling major blazes. Within hours of a big fire erupting, California can marshal a pop-up city of responders coordinating from land and air.

No other state, and few countries, have a force like it â€" including Sweden, which has been uniquely unprepared for its onslaught.

The country’s firefighters are trained to put out household blazes, not wildland infernos. The government, controversially, doesn’t own a single firefighting aircraft to drop water or retardant.

In late July, officials sent military fighter jets to drop a bomb on a wildfire near the Norwegian border to smothe r it. They couldn’t control the blaze and saw few other options.

“California has fires all the time,” said Stephen Pyne, a fire historian and professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. “They’ve got the apparatus, the big helicopters and big organization. Sweden does not. Most places suddenly facing wildfires do not.”

Places like Sweden request aid from the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism, which funnels resources to countries in crisis. The system was used in 2013 after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines and during Nepal’s deadly earthquake in 2015.

Soon, though, Swedish legislators could begin considering a national fire suppression organization like Cal Fire. France and Australia have similar agencies.

“In Sweden’s fire and rescue, there is very little knowledge of forest fi res,” said Anders Granström, a professor of forest ecology and management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, northwest of Stockholm. “They are not accustomed to, really, any high-intensity fires.

“One or two people know them pretty well in an organization of hundreds,” he said. “I would guess that, after this summer, our politicians will start asking how this kind of firefighting is done, particularly in the Western United States and California, and other boreal and coniferous regions.”

Last year, U.S. wildfires caused more than $18 billion in damages, scorching 10 million acres, destroying 12,000 homes and killing 66 people. In 2016, half that acreage burned, according to a University of Colorado Boulder study.

The conditions that have turned parts of California into disaster zones again this sum mer are being seen across the northern hemisphere: high temperatures, little precipitation and erratic winds.

Major blazes are raging not only in Colorado, Oregon and Washington but in Portugal, Greece and Spain. In Sweden, little to no rain has fallen since the beginning of May, officials said, and July was the hottest month on record in two centuries. The country is facing its worst drought since 1944, according to the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency.

More than 50,000 acres have burned this summer. Normally, the number is around 5,000. Fortunately, because the wildfires have been concentrated in rural areas, few homes and no lives have been lost.

“Over the long term, the fire risk is expected to increase due to global warming,” said Markku Rummukainen, a professor at Lund University, echoing researchers in California. “Longer summers ... will also be somewh at warmer and drier, with an increased risk for heat waves. The very persistent warm and dry weather since May has created the conditions for the wildfires.”

As American citizen Malinda Triola, 47, deplaned at Stockholm Arlanda Airport on July 21, the last thing she expected to see were reports of major wildfires.

She’s grown accustomed to frequent and dangerous fires in Lake County, where she has lived for 20 years. But this was supposed to be a vacation from such worries.

“It’s awful,” she said at the close of her trip. “We’ve been talking about them the whole time we’re here. We were watching the news. Our relatives, who live here, are really freaking out. We get it because we’ve lived it multiple times now. Really, it’s awful.”

She sought to reassure her relatives in Uppsal a, north of Stockholm, and Malmo, on the southern shore near Copenhagen. At night, she flipped between Swedish news reports and ones from California, where the catastrophic Carr Fire was sweeping into Redding.

She has family there, too. It seemed like she couldn’t escape fire.

“There’s nothing you can do except be prepared,” she told her cousins on both sides of the Atlantic. “Keep a grab bag by the door.”

“I don’t get numb,” said her 55-year-old sister, Pamela Singer of Santa Rosa, the city ravaged by the historic Tubbs Fire in October.

She added that she was “surprised by how prepared we remain. We’re always packed up a little. You never know. But no matter what, as long as people don’t die, it’s OK. Things can be replaced.”

Lizzie Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: ljohnson@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LizzieJohnsonnn

Source: Google News Sweden | Netizen 24 Sweden

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