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Number 594 • September 6, 2012 | Past Issues













1) Fight Fire with Fire? Not on This Budget

With wildfires raging pretty much everywhere, the U.S. Forest Service has returned to a rather rudimentary approach to stanching blazes—smite them all. The practice isn’t a back-to-basics maneuver or even one that the Forest Service sees as wise. It’s all about the money.

“We don't want to do this long-term,” Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard told USA Today. “We know being able to use fire makes good sense, and we know some forests are very good at it. And in their ecosystems, it's the thing they should be doing.”

For decades now, foresters have seen the value of letting wildfires—especially remote and uncontrollable fires—burn basically unhindered. The practice is often results in hardier ecosystems and creates natural firebreaks that can stave off bigger, future fires.

This year, though, steadily dwindling funds have made it more cost effective to fight blazes while they’re small, rather than chance letting a naturally burning fire grow to the point where it threatens homes and other assets and requires significant resources to control. The sticky wicket led Hubbard to issue a May 25 memo that requires regional foresters to approve any exceptions to the suppression directive.

“Fire on the landscape in the right place under the right circumstances is still something we want to occur,” Hubbard told Richard Manning for an OnEarth article. "We’re just under the gun on a suppression budget.… This is not a policy shift because we thought we were headed in the wrong direction. It is a financial shift.”

A financial shift that could cost more money in necessary fire suppression efforts later, according to critics.

“At a time of both drought in the interior West and overall increases in average global temperatures, we will be seeing more fire on the landscape and not less,” Andy Stahl, of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics told USA Today. “Yet this policy attempts to put our hands over our eyes and deny that reality.”

Even so, the Forest Service has little choice but to pinch firefighting pennies—and that’s not entirely because of this year’s record wildfire season.

The scores of blazes are estimated to cost the agency more than a $1.4 billion before the year is out (the Forest Service only has $948 million budgeted for suppression this year, about $500 million less than last year, according to OnEarth). Even though that’s a significant overage, the Fire Service should be fiscally assured, thanks to 2009 legislation  that created a contingency fund for just such an outsized fire season.

But it’s not. As it turns out, those contingency funds were appropriated for other purposes by Congress during the 2011 budget standoff, according to McClatchey News. The news service reports that $200 million was taken from the fund in 2011 and another $240 million in 2012. There’s no mention of how much, if any, remains in the fund.

While the appropriations seem arbitrary, there are claims that the Forest Service might have made its own bed this season by stalling efforts that would have pooled resources with other land management agencies.

An in-depth Denver Post article on Sunday detailed how an 11-year effort called the Fire Program Analysis aimed to use a data-crunching program to look at factors such as wilderness acreage value, wildlife habitat, cultural resources, and forested acres near homes to determine where budgets should shift to provide the most benefit.

Although the U.S. Agriculture Department's Forest Service and five Interior Department agencies—the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs—began the program with seeming objectivity, a trial run of how the system might redistribute resources spooked the Forest Service and caused it to drop anchor, according to the article.

“We're talking about a couple of billion dollars in federal wildland-fire funds here,” former National Park Service Fire Program Planning Manager Stephen Botti told the Post in an earlier article on the same subject. “Any time you tinker with that, it becomes political in a hurry. There was pushback from the bureaus that the answer was not acceptable. This was mainly the Forest Service objecting to that.”

The Forest Service denies that it tried to thwart the program and cited concerns about the model, according to Sunday’s article.

"It was more a matter of the feedback we got from the planning units," Hubbard said. "The politics just didn't come into it."

It’s unclear what difference implementing the original FPA would have made this season. The Forest Service is starting to use a revised model as a decision-making tool to allocate fire fighting resources and plan national budgets, Hubbard told the Post. But under the present fight-everything mandate, there may be precious little to plan.

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2) One Man’s Trash: Tsunami Debris Excite Imaginations While Busting Budgets

It might just be trash from the other side of the world, but for many, debris from the March 2011 Japanese tsunami has a sort of message-in-a-bottle appeal. For others, though—like the state and local governments charged with removing it—it’s a headache that’s only beginning.

When the first debris began washing up on U.S. shores this spring, they were curiosities to be contemplated—a football, a motorcycle, a 188-ton floating dockthat gave Oregon tourism a boost. Now, though, the dislocated fragments are beginning to pile up—and no one really knows how much it’s going to cost to take out the trash.

“If we could plan for it, then we could write a check, but right now it’s as if we’ve been thrust into a dark room,” Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation’s Chris Havel told the New York Times in August. “We can’t budget that way.”

It’s impossible to say with how much clean up will cost, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration overview of the issue (NOAA is the federal agency responsible for marine debris removal). The type of debris to be removed, the amount washed ashore at a given time, and the type of shoreline to be collected from are all wild cards, the document states.

Still, given the uncertainties, the agency has put the preliminary price tag on tsunami debris at about $4,300 per ton. According to Japanese estimates cited by NOAA, there could be up to 1.5 million tons of debris floating in the open sea, and its arrival isn’t expected to really start reaching U.S. and Canadian shores for a few months.

“We’re really eying the coming winter like a stranger in a dark alley. We don’t know what’s going to jump out and mug us,” Havel told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s going to be a significant problem.”

Coastal communities are already taking a hit. Oregon, for instance, spent $250,000 on debris removal in three months, according to the New York Times. Its two-year debris removal budget is $85,000. Washington and Alaska are also looking at shortfalls that the $250,000 in NOAA debris removal grants aren’t likely to assuage.

“This is a slow-rolling disaster,” Julie Hasquet, a spokeswoman for Senator Mark Begich of Alaska, told the New York Times. “This is a major disaster, and it needs to be treated as one.”

Financial help does seem to be floating out there, but much like the debris, there’s no real indication of how much or when it will arrive. Japan on Tuesday, for instance, announced that it would contribute an unknown amount.

“Although Japan is not obliged to retrieve debris on the North American side of the Pacific, we can't say we will do nothing about it as we received enormous support from the United States and other countries after the disaster,” an official at the Cabinet Office told AFP.

In the meantime, there are others that are more sanguine about the arrival of debris—groups of enthusiasts that are organizing to collect, categorize, and in some cases, return what was lost. They’re the message-in-a-bottle crowd.

“I’m constantly struck by the idea that this is a very small planet,” Ken Campbell, who kayaks the Washington coast looking for flotsam, told the New York Times. “Something that happens on the other side of the ocean has become something you can see and touch in your backyard. It’s a pretty powerful thing.”

While we’re on the topic: The National Science Foundation last month issued a solicitation for Rapid Response Research Grants to study potential threats from debris fields on western U.S. shores. Similarly, the Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Grant Program has indentified debris removal and disposal as a preferred grant topic.

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3) Mayan Apocalypse: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

While folks have been having a lot of fun lately imagining ways that an alleged Mayan-predicted apocalypse could manifest on December 12, the demise of the actual Mayan civilization seems to have been much more mundane.

There’s a chance, according to a recently released report, that the once-thriving Yucatan Peninsula culture succumbed to a combination of issues all too well known in our own society—drought, environmental degradation, increased population density, and a collapse of trade and the economy. Another recent study modeling rain and deforestation levels reached a similar conclusion.

The first report, which was published last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Arizona State University professor B.L. Turner, examined archeological data for environmental clues to the depopulation. They found that at the same time the Maya were clearing large swaths of forest to be used for agriculture, they were also experiencing drought, according to a Smithsonian article on the report.

Clearing the land contributed to even less rainfall, causing crop failure, soil degradation and game die-off—all at a time when there were more people for the land to support. Eventually, the fabric of Mayan society began to rend.

“The old political and economic structure dominated by semi-divine rulers decayed,” the Christian Science Monitor quotes the report as saying. “Peasants, artisan-craftsmen, and others apparently abandoned their homes and cities to find better economic opportunities elsewhere in the Maya area.”

The second study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, uses climate models to determine that an up to 20 percent reduction in rainfall during the Yucatan rainy period coupled with deforestation at the time might have accounted for up to 60 percent of the drought, according to the report abstract.

While misunderstandings of the ancient Mayan calendar might seem to point to the end of days, perhaps their inability to adapt does provide some insight into how likely we are to engineer our way out of the current climate peril.

Turner told Smithsonian that the Mayan downfall came despite the Maya having "developed a sophisticated understanding of their environment, built and sustained intensive production and water systems and withstood at least two long-term episodes of aridity.”

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4) Save the Date: Natural Hazards Workshop 2013… and 2014!

While it’s not too early to remind you to save the date for the 38th Annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop—that would be Saturday, July 13 through Tuesday, July 16, 2013—we do need to get a little ahead of ourselves.

You see, 2014 is going to be a momentous year for summer conferences and meetings. July 13-19, when we’re normally having rousing discussions about disaster in Broomfield, the International Sociological Association’s World Congress of Sociology will be held in Yokohama, Japan. Hot on the ISA's heels will be the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute's National Earthquake Engineering Conference, July 20-26 in Anchorage, Alaska.

Recognizing the indigestion this smorgasbord of conference choices will create, we’ve decided to do something drastic—host the Hazards Workshop in June!

That’s right, 2014 will see the Hazards Workshop held in Broomfield, Colorado, on Sunday, June 22 through Wednesday, June 25, 2014. So please plan any weddings accordingly, and we'll look forward to seeing you there!

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5) Call Outs: Calls for Papers, Abstracts, Proposals, and More

Call for Panel Proposals
Interdisciplinary Panels on Disaster Research
The Society for Applied Anthropology
Deadline: September 10, 2012
The Society for Applied Anthropology is accepting panel proposals and papers to be presented at its annual meeting March 19-23 in Denver, Colorado. The conference theme focuses on how society can provide all its members with access to basic resources. The series of panels being solicited will examine interdisciplinary disaster research and practice. For more information on the conference, see the Web site linked above. Proposals should be sent to Susanna Hoffman by e-mail.


Call for Nominations
2012 Clayton R. Christopher Award
International Association of Emergency Managers Region 4
Deadline: October 12, 2012
The International Association of Emergency Managers Region 4 is accepting nominations for the Clayton R. Christopher memorial award, which recognizes devotion and outstanding contributions to emergency management. All U.S. IAEM members are eligible for the award. For guidelines and a nomination form, please visit the Region 4 Web site.


Call for Presentations
2013 Backyards and Beyond
National Fire Protection Association
Deadline: December 31, 2012
The National Fire Protection Association is now accepting proposals for educational presentations at its Backyards and Beyond Conference, to be held November 14-16, 2013, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Presentations should be related to community safety, home and landscape design, wildfire research, technology, policy, and wildfire planning. For more information or to submit a proposal online, please visit the abstract submission Web site.

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6) Some New Web Resources

START Risk Communication Guides for Emergency Managers
Emergency managers can now add risk communication to their skill set, thanks to these easy-to-follow guides issued by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). The guides are specifically written to assist emergency managers in understanding both theory and best practices of risk communication. With useful resources and a communication checklist, these guides will help you communicate effectively during all stages of disaster.


SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline
Sometimes disaster survivors just need someone to talk to, but who'd think to ring up dear old Uncle Sam? Turns out the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration is sitting by the phone 24/7/365, just waiting to talk to people who are feeling anxious about or having trouble coping with disaster—counselors will even respond to text messages! Not only does the Web site offer downloadable brochures and wallet cards to help identify when someone's having trouble coping and how to contact the service, but it also has specific advice for a range of current disasters, including drought.


Planning Transportation for Pandemic Flu
Someday, there will be a Guide for Public Transportation Pandemic Planning and Response. Until then, there’s this Web site, which is chock-full of useful research and documents on pandemic planning in general (including an A-Z list of state pandemic plans), and transportation in particular. The site was developed as a way to frame the upcoming guide and engage stakeholders at the same time, so stop in and see what it has to offer—and what you can offer in return.


National Disaster Recovery Funds for Archives
When disasters strike, archives and special collections can be especially vulnerable. In order to make sure the nation’s irreplaceable records are recovered, the Society of American Archivists has created a special fund to help defray the costs of time, storage, and recovery of damaged materials. Grants of up to $2,000 are available to any institution that hosts archives or special collections.


Evaluating the Effectiveness of Offshore Safety and Environmental Management Systems
This just-released report from the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies examines the safety and environmental management systems of offshore drillers and concludes that regulators can do little to promote a culture of safety—it must come from within the organization. On the other hand, the way in which regulators measure and enforce safety systems can insure oil industry players are motivated to encourage safe practices.

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7) Conferences, Training, and Events

[Below are some recent announcements received by the Natural Hazards Center. For a comprehensive list of upcoming hazards-related meetings, visit our Web site at]

October 16-17, 2012
Assessing Wildfire Hazards in the Home Ignition Zone
National Fire Protection Association
Aurora, Colorado
Cost and Registration: $395, open until filled
This workshop will discuss how to reduce wildfire risk in the “home ignition zone” that surrounds residences in the wildland-urban interface. Topics include an overview of wildland-urban fire dynamics and past disasters, public misconceptions about the wildland-urban interface, assessing home ignition zone hazards, and identifying requirements for safer construction.


November 2-3, 2012
Children’s Disaster Services Volunteer Workshop
Church of the Brethren
Denver, Colorado
Cost and Registration: $45, open until filled
This workshop will teach ways to comfort, relieve stress, and calm the fears of young children during disaster and other traumatic situations. Topics include a shelter simulation, the needs of children after disaster, the role of play in the recovery process, and how to set up and operate a children’s disaster services center.


November 12-15, 2012
Fourth International Conference on Drylands, Deserts, and Desertification
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Beersheba, Israel
Cost and Registration: $430, open until filled
This conference will discuss challenges of living sustainably in arid environments and offer possible solutions. Topics include water resource management tools, architecture and urban planning to make arid environments livable, intergovernmental management of water resources, dryland ecosystem benefits, agricultural productivity using minimal irrigation, and remote sensing tools in drylands.


November 15-16, 2012
Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters in China
Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters and the China Program Center
Boston, Massachusetts

Cost and Registration: $300, open until filled
This conference will examine best practices and lessons learned in reducing the socioeconomic impact of disasters on vulnerable communities in China with a focus on how such lessons can be improved and applied internationally. Topics include sustainable land use planning, traditional and public policy practices in managing floods, strategies for integrating disaster risk reduction into business planning, culture-based disaster support for the poor, the role of media in disaster, urban reconstruction policies, and the role of women, children, the elderly, and the disabled in postdisaster reconstruction. 


November 20-22, 2012
Second European Conference on Flood Risk Management
Deltares, HR Wallingford, Samui, and Flood Control 2015
Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Cost and Registration: $939, open until filled
This conference will examine the trend that is moving from flood protection to comprehensive flood risk management, including advances and innovations in risk analysis. Topics include flood hazard analysis and probabilities, vulnerability and societal resilience, damage assessments, flood defense and nonstructural flood control, risk communication, disaster risk reduction, and policy, zoning, and regulation.


December 11-14, 2012
Extreme Natural Hazards and Their Impacts
Union Commission on Geophysical Risk and Sustainability
Orange, California
Cost and Registration: $400 before September 30, open until filled
This conference will present scientific knowledge about extreme natural hazards from around the world. Topics include recent earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions, the connection between climate extremes and natural hazards, early warning, satellite sensor monitoring, and disaster management in developing countries.

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8) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Emergency Communications Coordinator
University of Colorado Boulder
Boulder, Colorado
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: September 9, 2012
This position will manage campus emergency notification and communication systems. Responsibilities include prioritizing campus emergency communication projects, developing budget projections and proposals, serving as the point of contact for the CU Alert System, developing procedures for campus emergency communication systems, and developing a long-term strategy for research and evaluation of emergency technologies and notification. A bachelor’s degree in emergency management or public administration and at least five years of project management experience are required. Experience in emergency management and higher education is preferred.


Technological Hazards Program Specialist, GS-13
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Oakland, California
Salary: $96,867 to $125,926
Closing Date: September 10, 2012
This position will assist in developing national radiological preparedness program guidelines. Responsibilities include supporting the development of state and local nuclear power plant emergency management plans, advising Region 9 site specialists, and assisting with report development, travel budgets, and exercise preparation. One year of experience in a position that required knowledge of nuclear science, biological effects of radioactivity, and nuclear industry terminology is required.


Physical Scientist/Geologist, GS-14
United States Geological Survey
Reston, Virginia
Salary: $105,211 to $155,500
Closing Date: September 17, 2012
This position will coordinate the Earthquake Hazards Program seismic, geodetic, and geomagnetic monitoring efforts. Responsibilities include implementing the Advanced National Seismic System, serving as ANSS spokesperson, and articulating the goals, capabilities, and benefits of ANSS. Duties could include serving as a senior expert on controversial, uncertain, or incomplete physical science, resolving physical science program issues, or making long-range and controversial proposals in high-level public forums. At least one year of experience at or above the GS-13 grade level is required.


Disaster Readiness and Response Specialist
American Red Cross
Pleasantville, New Jersey
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will develop initiatives to make regional Red Cross disaster services more visible and serve as a disaster readiness expert to staff and volunteers. Responsibilities include ensuring adequate disaster response, coordinating disaster training, performing readiness and response duties, managing shelter and vendor agreements, and coordinating volunteers. A bachelor’s degree and at least three years of experience implementing social service programs is required. Supervisory experience and in-depth knowledge of the Red Cross is preferred.


Emergency Management Coordinator
Gloucester County
Gloucester, Virginia
Salary: $54,864 to $82,296
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will coordinate the county emergency management program. Responsibilities include developing emergency plans, conducting training, and serving as the county representative to federal, state, and regional emergency management agencies. A bachelor’s degree in emergency management or public safety and at least three years of experience are required.


Project Tsunami Seismologist/Engineer
URS Corporation
Los Angeles, California
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will map tsunami hazards in various regions of the world. Responsibilities include developing earthquake or landslide-generated tsunami models, performing wave propagation and inundation calculations, developing probabilistic estimates of tsunamis, researching tsunami modeling improvements, and developing fragility models to describe the impact of tsunamis on structures. A master’s degree in geophysics or hydraulic engineering with a specialization in tsunami modeling is required.

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