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History Points to Growing Fires

Aired June 26, 2002 - 13:21   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Now, to check on our Firestorm Alert. Our Miles O'Brien is standing by with more on what's taking place -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: All right, Kyra, we've been looking at the history of wildfires in the United States. Wanted to give you just a sense of where this particular fire fits into the historical picture. Take a look at this map. It gives you a sense of some of the fires we're talking about in the history of the U.S.

One that stands out is the Peshtigo fire. The Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin, parts of the upper peninsula of Michigan happened on October 8, 1871. History buffs will know that on that very same day, right here in Chicago, Mrs. O'Leary's cow tipped over -- and of course you can't see those markings I just put on there, but if you were to see that -- in Chicago, the Chicago fire occurred.

So Peshtigo didn't get nearly as much notice as the Chicago fire. Also, 1894, the Hinckley fire, which occurred in Minnesota. Be nice to get that telestrator available to me. September 1 of 1894, it laid barren 400 square miles, and it was so hot that it melted coins together and actually melted a railroad depot.

In more recent memory, this one you probably will remember. The Oakland Hills fire of 1991. October 19, hot, dry conditions, windy conditions, a fire of suspicious origin. This one began on Buckingham Drive in Oakland Hills. By the time it was all done, 790 structures were consumed. That fire spread at 1.67 meters per second. That's fast.

Now, the South Canyon fire in 1994, a tragic fire if you will recall that one. During that fire, 14 smoke jumpers -- actually, a dozen smoke jumpers and two others who were involved in a helicopter effort were killed when the fire suddenly changed course, and become very explosive. Doubled back on this team of smoke jumpers, and they all perished in that South Canyon fire in Colorado.

And then finally, a Flagler/St. John fire in Florida in 1998. We told you an awful lot about that one as it caused difficulties there.

Now, the question is, why are we seeing now such bigger fires? The number of fires is kind of flat, or level, on average, but the acreage is much greater. Let me show you a graphic to give you some sense of that, and hopefully that will give you some understanding. Back in 1900, there were about 70 trees per acre in this country. This is before clear-cut timbering came into vogue. These were big trees. The kinds of trees that typically, once again, are not normally seen these days, at least on average.

And now, in this year 2002, there are about 1,000 trees per acre. They are smaller, lower to the ground. Their brush is thus more susceptible to fires that begin on the ground. And here's one you might not have thought of, Kyra. With all those root structures, 1,000 trees per acre, as opposed to 70, they draw more moisture out of the soil and thus exacerbate the dry conditions caused by drought.

So, the bottom line is, our forests these days are sort of set up for this, making it more difficult. Add to that the fact that there are houses in the midst of these forests that are so dense -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Miles, thank you for a bit of a history lesson there.

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