Stories tagged fire

Another danger associated with alcoholic beverages. Be careful not to store your vodka bottles in the way of direct sunlight. Or get ready to call the fire department.

Due to weather conditions including strong winds, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area fire is now consuming 60,000 acres of land. That's about 94 square miles -- or more than one and a half times the area of Minneapolis!

The large smoke plume from the fire is visible from space as captured in these photos posted by the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS).

Mostly I think the photos are pretty, but if you like to geek-out about satellite imagery, you should note that these images use 250-meter resolution MODIS true color and false color imagery.

If you're interested in reading more about the BWCA fire, check out the Strib's latest.


A friendly bear provides heat for the benches: A nice change from what bears sometimes do, right?
A friendly bear provides heat for the benches: A nice change from what bears sometimes do, right?Courtesy HolgerE
Since the dawn of humanity, we Homo sapiens sapiens have lived in fear of non-human animals, hiding in shadows, flinching at every sudden movement, lest it be the leaping of a huge, saber-toothed cat, a swipe of the massive paw of a bear, or, like, some sort of big snake.

Defenseless, we have eked out our existence in the puddles and dusty corners of the world, powerless against the animal threat.

Until now!

We’ve finally figured out how to destroy animals: with fire!

Check it out: on the 12th there was a news story about a Jordanian shepherd inadvertently witnessed the spontaneous combustion of a flock of sheep, and by today I found a story about a Swedish facility burning spare rabbits to heat the nearby town. (Those Scandinavians are so green!

We’re taking back the planet!

For anyone interested (not sure why you would be), here’s the rest of the story: The burning sheep thing had to do with a local waste treatment facility leaking methane and “organic material” into the ground. The soil became saturated, and when sparks from a grassfire hit the fumes… boom! Roast mutton. Also, this was probably a horrible, horrible thing to see.

The rabbit burning, amazingly, is slightly controversial. Stockholm’s parks are over populated with rabbits, so thousands of them are culled (killed) each year. Last year alone, over six thousand of the rabbits were frozen and trucked to a heat producing facility in Karlskoga, in central Sweden, where they were burned to produce heat for the province of Varmland. How… practical. Some folks have claimed that pet bunnies (or at leat the descendants of released pet bunnies) have been rounded up as well, for chewing on the flowers and shrubs in the parks of Stockholm. They aren’t happy about thee bunny burning, and suggest that a system of shelters be arranged for captured (living) rabbits. Tell that to the shivering people a Varmland. Tell them you’re taking their cheap rabbit-heat.

...any Bad Religion fans out there? Oh nevermind. The daily feed from NASA's MODIS Aqua satellite has some cool images of the Los Angeles wildfire. It's shocking to see how close it is to the city. You can follow the images as the fire progresses on the MODIS website for the LA area. Double click to zoom in below:

Last Friday a meat processing plant in southeastern Minnesota caught fire. When it did officials hurried to evacuate all 3,600 residents of the town of St. Charles, who may not have realized that they were living downwind of five huge tanks of the invisible toxic gas anhydrous ammonia.

If you're not familiar with anhydrous ammonia, then you're probably not a farmer who uses it as a cheap fertilizer, a food processor who needs it to run gigantic refrigerators, or an illegal drug manufacturer specializing in Crystal Meth. All of these industries use anhydrous ammonia to produce things that other people in other places want to buy, be it vegetables, cold cuts or illegal drugs. And where there is anhydrous ammonia, there is the potential for terrifying and deadly accidents, from large-scale fires to smaller tank leakages that can injure or kill workers.

If the tanks at North Star Foods containing over 30,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia had burst in the flames of last Friday's fire, this could have sent a cloud of toxic gas floating through the area, injuring or possibly killing everyone in its path. Thankfully firefighters were able to prevent this from happening, but the plant burned to the ground anyway. According to the Associated Press, many residents now fear that they will lose their jobs if the plant decides not to rebuild.

But hold on a minute: You're telling me that you live in close proximity to 30,000 pounds of an invisible toxic gas, which almost burst into flames and could have turned your skin into putty or chemically burned your eyes and lungs, and when reporters ask about the experience, you tell them you are worried about jobs?

Not to be insensitive to the economic realities that rural communities face, but I'm not so sure I would want the plant to rebuild in my community. I'm also not so sure that the people who live in St. Charles have any other choice. As one of the people quoted in the AP article said, "Small towns can't afford to lose a business." What they didn't say was that sometimes economic growth means building a bomb in your backyard.

Fires in Australia wiped out the pretty resort village of Marysville and largely destroyed the town of Kinglake, north of Melbourne, with houses, shops, petrol stations and schools razed to the ground.

"Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours. Many good people lie dead, many injured," Rudd told reporters Sunday, deploying army units to help 3,000 firefighters battling the flames. Yahoo News


Hurricane Ike: Taken from International Space Station
Hurricane Ike: Taken from International Space StationCourtesy NASA

Natural disaster photos from 2008

Our Buzz blog here at the Science Museum of Minnesota has a category for "natural disasters". The links below are to photos I selected from a Telegraph News article titled "Pictures of the year: natural disasters".

My favorite 8 natural disasters photos from 2008

Chaiten volcano in Chile, on May 31
Sichuan Province, China earthquake, May 17
Flood breaks a dam in Nepal, September 7
Flood waters in east Nepal, on August 24
Huge tornado funnel cloud in Orchard, Iowa, on June 10
Tornado debris in Prattville, Alabama on February 17
Brush fire in Los Angeles, October 13
Flood drowned horses in Mexico City on August 26


Mountain pine beetle: download brochure by clicking on Forest Service
Mountain pine beetle: download brochure by clicking on Forest ServiceCourtesy US Forest Service

Why are all the trees dying?

Last summer I spent a week in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain National Park. One question was repeatedly being asked by visitors, "Why are all the trees dying?" In many places every lodgepole pine over five inches was dead as far as the eye could see. From the Mexican border all the way up into Canada millions and millions of acres of mountain pine forest are dead or dying.

Mountain Pine Beetles

A black, hard-shelled beetle called Dendroctunus, which means tree killer, drills through pine bark and lays its eggs in the sweet, rich cambium layer that provides nutrients to the tree. They also inject a fungus to stop the tree from moving sap, which could drown the larvae. Officials claim that this is the largest known insect infestation in the history of North America.

Why is this happening now?

Mountain Pine Beetles used to be mostly killed off by -30 to -40 degree below temperatures. That has not happened for about ten years. Eight years of drought also has weakened the trees and their ability to flush out invaders with sap flow.

Dead trees create problems

Dead trees will eventually fall down. This means removing millions of trees near homes and along roads and trails.

At Vail Ski Resort, for example, which has been particularly hard hit, workers have removed thousands of dead trees and planted new ones. In Yellowstone the beetles are killing the white-barked pine trees, which grow nuts rich in fat that are critical to grizzly bears in the fall. In Colorado and Wyoming, officials have closed 38 campgrounds for fear trees could fall on campers. They have reopened all but 14.

Wildfire is the biggest threat. Many homes and communities are surrounded by dry, dead trees. The Forest Service and logging companies are clear-cutting “defensible space” so firefighters have a place to fight fires. The amount of dead wood is overwhelming, though. Hopefully entrepreneurs will find ways to use it. I am afraid that what is left behind is not going to be very "scenic" for a long time.

Learn more about the mountain pine beetle infestation

Source article: New York Times
Video: Americas disappearing forests
US Forest Service: Regional bark beetle information
Denver Post editorial by Merrill Kaufmann: Battling the pine beetle epidemic
32 page teacher packet (pdf): Mountain Pine Beetle Mania

Flowerpots in full flame
Flowerpots in full flameCourtesy GatheringZero
In my continuing quest to keep the public informed about exploding household objects, I bring you the case of the exploding......FLOWERPOT house fire?! I’m sorry but of all the things that could explode, a flowerpot falls pretty low on my list of potential hazards. The St. Paul Fire Department investigator, James Novak, agrees, “It’s not like everybody has to worry that their house is going to burn down...halogen lights, smoking, candles and Pop-Tarts in a toaster--there are a lot of things higher on the priority list than a potted plant fire.” Nevertheless, the combination of fertilizer, heat and oxygen within the pot can lead to potentially unorthodox flower pot behavior. Consider yourselves warned. As for me, I think a conversation with my fern about fire safety is long overdue.


Lighting a backfire
Lighting a backfireCourtesy LouAngeli2008

As fires continue to rage in the forests of California, I thought I would introduce you to some of the people trying to control them. Smokejumpers are the logical people to start with as they are usually the first on the ground.

Smokejumpers are the elite forces of the US forestry department. Many fires begin in locations inaccessible to the standard means of transportation (trucks, helicopters, or by foot). These firefighters arrive by plane and parachute into remote areas. Often their landing site is the top of a tree or a boulder field. Their kevlar suits provide some protection but their skill set includes tree climbing, practiced falling and general hardiness.

In the beginning, jumpers were required to be unmarried without dependents. They had to be a bit reckless to be able to agree to jump out of a plane into a fire area! Despite the inherent danger of jumping, there have been relatively few fatalities in their long history. Jumping began in the late 1930s as flight technology and airplanes became more sophisticated. During the war, many of the jumpers were conscientious objectors to WWII. In 1981 the first women were allowed into the program. Today there are 9 active bases in the West but they serve fires from Alaska to the North East.

The physical requirements... 7 pull ups, 25 push-ups, 45 sit-ups, and a 1.5 mile run completed in under 11 minutes---all done in one session with a 5 minute break between each activity. So, I am pretty much disqualified right off the bat with the pull ups and even if I were to manage, the running would definitely eliminate me. I view running as a self destructive behavior (who would put themselves through that? sorry El). You must also be mentally and emotionally stable--that is a requirement! A smokejumper’s pack often weighs upwards of 100 pounds...and you have no ride out, you must hike or hitchhike in (after landing) and out of the fire. To see a complete list of physical requirements (including height and weight) check out the West Yellowstone smokejumper website.

What they do : After landing and recovering their gear (which is dropped from the plane in (hopefully) a relatively similar location to where they land) the crew sets out towards the fire. They carry no water save for their thermoses. They control the fire by either creating a fireline/firebreak, a swath of land around the edge of the fire cleared of any brush or fuel that could feed the fire, or they light a backfire . Backfires act much like a fireline/firebreak in that they burn towards the oncoming fire. By doing so, they remove the fuel the fire needs to continue burning. Only if the jumpers are unable to contain the fire are reinforcements called to the scene. Jumpers direct helicopters to drop water on hot spots and systematically work their way through the burn site feeling the ground to make sure that there will be no flare-ups. They can leave when the fire is controlled or fresh firefighters take-over, often times many hours after they first jumped from the plane.

Be sure to check out the links below. Jumpers work from June-Oct so those of you looking for adventure with an extremely selective and tight-knit group, smokejumping could be for you.