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Number 613 • September 5, 2013 | Past Issues













Roosting on the Rim: California Fire is Likely a Harbinger of Wildfires to Come

As firefighters begin to contain the mammoth California Rim Fire, it would be comforting to consider the 350-square-mile blaze a one-off catastrophe. Unfortunately, it’s more likely an example of what we can expect from the next major wildfire. And the next.

Although the expansive fire—the fourth largest in California history—is an anomaly in terms of its size and the speed at which it spread, it represents the type of fires that are likely to increasingly occur under climate change. Adding to that morass is the fact that the U.S. Forest Service, facing so many big fires in recent years, has chosen to prioritize suppression at the expense of fuel-management programs.

"We've got to invest up front in terms of controlling and managing these fires," Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, told Reuters. "Just waiting for the big fire and then throwing everything you've got at it makes no sense."

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

In the case of the Rim Fire, about 25 square miles that burned in the blaze had been slated for a fuel reduction, but the state lacked the money to make it happen, according to Reuters.

“This is a colossal unfunded backlog of critically important fuel-reduction work,” John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource, told the news service. “[The projects] would have inarguably made the Rim Fire far easier to contain, far less expensive and possibly not even a major disaster.”

And so continues the vicious cycle of spending money to suppress fires that could have been prevented by fuel management.

“Federal budgets have not increased,” Caitlyn Pollihan of the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition told CNBC News. “So over time the suppression costs have taken more of the bigger piece of the pie, leaving less for forest management activities and other preventive work.”

According to CNBC, wildland fire costs had hit the $1 billion mark at the end of August and the USFS was planning to allocate $600 million from timber, recreation, and other programs to meet firefighting needs. That’s still significantly under the nearly $2 billion spent in 2012—the second highest fire season on record in terms of acres burned.

Then, facing budget shortfalls, the USFS decided to fight fires while they’re small, rather than risk letting naturally burning fires grow to the point where they threatens homes and other assets and require significant resources to control. 

Although a March 2013 statement by USFS Chief Tom Tidwell said those measures were no longer necessary, without an increase in funding and a shift in attitudes on fuel management the cycle will continue.

“It’s not that we don’t know how to deal with this issue,” Tom Harbour, director of Fire and Aviation Management for the Forest Service, told the Durango Herald. “It’s finding the collective will, the collective priority, the collective energy to have this be a significant enough issue that we want to tackle.”

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Down the Fracking Hole: New Technologies Could Trace Contamination—or Lack Thereof

It’s surprising to think there are points on which oil and gas companies and opponents of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, might agree. Especially this point: companies should be able to trace water contamination to a particular fracking operation. That’s been the case with two new tracer technologies designed to fingerprint fracking operations, however.

“People [with contaminated wells] usually say [I know it was fracking] ‘because I’ve got methane in my water,’” Andrew Barron, a technology developer, told High Country News last month. “[But] it’s difficult to discern whether it’s from one source or another. It may turn out it was Halliburton that contaminated your water, and in another case, it may turn out it’s the municipal dump that’s dumping into a stream that has ground water close to it.”

Barron and his colleagues at Rice University and the University of Alberta have created a process in which nano rust particles would be injected into fracking fluid before injection into the well, according to NPR’s StateImpact. These particles could be collected and identified by a “magnetic fingerprint” wherever fracking contamination is suspected. Graduate students at Duke University developed a similar system, BaseTrace, which uses synthetic DNA to perform the match.

The tracers, which are still being field tested, could help provide some piece of mind for fracking opposers and possibly some good will or vindication for frackers.

“This technology is another way for our industry to add a level of transparency to what we do and gain the public’s trust,” Christina Fowler, a spokesperson for Southwestern Energy, wrote to HCN in an email.

Public trust might be a lofty goal considering recent uproars over an abandoned 2011 Environmental Protection Agency study that correlated fracking with drinking water contamination, and University of Texas findings that connect high levels of arsenic with fracking. But with time, perhaps, the addition of such tracers can lead to more informed decision making at the very least, Barron said.

“If the general public and the states have the information, then you can make a decision [about drilling in certain locations],” he told HCN. “Irrespective of which direction you come from, the information is important.

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Disaster News Redux: Fukushima Water Contamination

Previously On the Waterfront: In early August, the beleaguered Tokyo Electric Power Company announced that an estimated 300 tons (about 75,000 gallons) of radioactive water per day was leaking into the Pacific from its crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

The news came just weeks after Tepco admitted to similar ongoing contamination. The company had long denied there was a risk, even after Japan’s nuclear safety chief said the plant had probably been seeping radioactive water since it was damaged in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, according to a July 26 article in the New York Times.

That misstep compounded new water leaks, which overflowed tanks and pits meant to contain contaminated groundwater that had washed into the plant. The Japanese government, which previously had taken a largely hands-off approach, responded by  stepping in to assist Tepco in finding a solution. 

Water, Water (Contamination) Everywhere: On Tuesday radiation levels near the holding tanks were found to be increasing, suggesting that there was likely more unidentified leaks, according to Reuters. Levels jumped from 1,800 millisieverts last Saturday to 2,200 on Wednesday, according to reading by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Reuters stated. Both levels are enough to kill an unprotected person within hours.

About 430,000 tons of contaminated water is currently stored on the site and that amount increases by 400 tons a day, according to a September 3 New York Times report. The containers used to store the water range from weaker bolted tanks sitting directly on the ground to more secure welded tanks, some of which rest on concrete foundations, according to Reuters. Tepco has been directed to move the water to stronger tanks.

The Next Water Way: Although the Japanese government’s involvement is an indictment on Tepco’s mishandling of the Fukushima Daiichi cleanup, it is also a financial lifeline—bringing an additional $500 million to address the water leakage problem. The primary plan thus far has been an ambitious $400 million project that would create a mile-long, 100-feet-deep wall of frozen ground around the reactor buildings, according to an August 7Times article. 

If successful the wall would keep groundwater from entering the buildings’ basements and becoming contaminated, eliminating the need to pump and store it. It’s unclear, however, if the technology, which is currently used in building subways, will be effective at such a scale or if it can be built in time. There are also concerns that the wall, which uses electricity like a freezer might, would be susceptible to power outages near the plant, according to the most recent Times article.

Regardless of how the water issues are handled, Tepco, and now the Japanese government, still have bigger cleanup fish to fry. Eventually, the damaged reactor cores will likely need to be removed or risk groundwater contamination. Because of the way the reactors where felled, that could be tricky. In the meantime, efforts are being squandered on issues such as the water leaks.

“Japan is clearly living in denial,” Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a medical doctor who led Parliament’s independent investigation last year into the causes of the nuclear accident, told the Times. “Water keeps building up inside the plant, and debris keeps piling up outside of it. This is all just one big shell game aimed at pushing off the problems until the future.”

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The Latest Natural Hazards Observer Is Online (and in Print!)

The latest edition of the Natural Hazards Observer is now available online. Featured articles from the September 2013 Observer include:

--To Flee or Not to Flee Wildfire
--Social Connections and Recovery
--Sleeping Through Earthquake Risk
--The Time Has Come to Mitigate and Adapt
--Training for Disaster with Urban Shield

And don’t forget, for those of you who would rather get the print edition, we’re now able to offer readers an Observer subscription for only $15 per year. Those interested in subscribing can sign up on our subscription page using a credit card, or be invoiced later.

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

Call for Instructors
Managing Floodplain Development through the NFIP
Association of State Floodplain Managers
Deadline: September 16, 2013

The Association of State Floodplain Managers is seeking qualified instructors to teach a four-day course on Managing Floodplain Development through the NFIP (FEMA 273). Instructors will also be required to administer a Certified Floodplain Managers exam on the fifth day. Courses will be offered from October 1 to December 31, 2013. For more information on instructor requirements, remuneration, and application submission, visit the ASFPM 273 application site.


Call for Applications
100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge
Rockefeller Foundation
Deadline: September 23, 2013
The Rockefeller Foundation is accepting applications for its 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge. The challenge will give 100 cities worldwide the resources and funding needed to implement their promising plans for urban resilience. Municipal governments (or organizations collaborating with governments) with unimplemented resilience projects should submit a registration application by September 23. Complete applications are due October 14. For more information, visit the Challenge Web site.


Call for Participation
Living with Disability and Disasters Survey
United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
Deadline: September 25, 2013

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction is asking people with disabilities and their caregivers to participate in an online survey to help determine their disaster and preparedness needs. Information collected will be used to inform the UNISDR’s upcoming International Day for Disaster Reduction, which this year focuses on issues related to living with disability and disaster risk.

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Some New Web Resources

National Preparedness Community
If you’ve gotten this far into September without realizing it’s National Preparedness Month, never fear. A quick visit to the National Preparedness Community Web site will have you up to speed in no time. Start by checking out the 2013 toolkit, which is full of banners, logos, outreach resources, and social media plans. When you’re done there, you can post event notices, start a discussion, or join a community of practice. Whether you’re a member of the public, a faith-based or volunteer organization, or a government group, there’s plenty of preparedness to go around.


30 Days, 30 Ways

While we’re on the topic of preparedness, don’t miss this great initiative that makes getting prepared as easy as 1-2-3 (and, well, on up to 30). The Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency has created a step-by-step method for getting prepared one day at a time—with prizes. Each day players tackle a task that brings home an important preparedness lesson. Those that meet the challenge can take home great prizes, but of course, the greatest prize of all is being prepared.


Climate Week NYC

Climate Week NYC will kick off September 23 with a week’s worth of climate-centered events, summits, meetings, and activities. This year’s emphasis is on a low carbon future and topics such as Hurricane Sandy, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fifth assessment, and much more will be front and center. Check out the Web site for a full view of the many ways you can contribute to the discussion.

With all the crowdsourcing going on these days, you might expect to see more weather-related reporting from the masses. Weathermob makes it happen in the simplest of ways. Users worldwide simply report their weather (along with pics and video and fun emoticons) and then stream the result directly to their phone. With the ability to comment and share via social media, this app makes talking about the weather a whole lot more fun than it used to be.


Lego’s Nature’s Fury Challenge

Each year Lego issues a challenge to kids ages 9-16 to solve a scientific problem using Lego. This year, kids around the world will take on problems surrounding natural hazards by identifying a problem, developing a solution, and using robotics that will compete on a disaster-strewn course. Whether you sponsor a team or just stop by to watch the competition, it’s bound to be the most fun you’ve had with hazards in a long time.


Wretched Fate Game

Want know how you might have died if you lived in 1769? 1890? 1960, even? Spin the wheel of wretchedness and find out—consumption, pleurisy, quinsy, or maybe just good old-fashioned influenza. They’re all options in this fun little time waster created by Slate. But even while your speculating on probable past demises, this game will give you perspective and an appreciation for the great strides that have been made in public health.

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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]

September 19-20, 2013
Basement Flooding Symposium
Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction
Toronto, Canada
Cost and Registration: $295, open until filled

This conference will explore the growing issue of urban flood damages in light of recent flooding in Ontario and Alberta, with an emphasis on the impacts of basement flooding for homeowners, insurers and municipalities. Topics include risk assessment, risk reduction, and preventative methods already in place and the effects of climate change on future risk to infrastructure. A workshop following the conference will discuss how climate change impacts and ways to implement adaptations. 


October 16-17, 2013
Sea Level Rise Summit 2013
Florida Atlantic University Center for Environmental Studies
Fort Lauderdale, Florida 
Cost and Registration: $240, open until filled

This summit will address the challenges experienced by professionals and local governments in addressing sea level rise with an emphasis on the impacts to economy, health, and the environment. Topics include the effect of sea-level rise on storm surge, the economic implications of sea level rise, health impacts, vulnerable infrastructure, and creating adaptation strategies for Florida. 


November 3-8, 2013
Annual Mexican Geophysical Union Meeting
Geophysical Union of Mexico
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Cost and Registration: $158 before September 23, open until filled

This annual meeting will address issues such as climate change, geohydrology, environmental geology, and natural hazards. Topics include tectonics in Mexico, applied mineralogy, coastal oceanography, a climatic history of the Mexican basin, and deep-water hydrocarbon exploration in Brazil. Note: Web site and registration are in Spanish.


November 14-16, 2013
2013 Backyards and Beyond
National Fire Protection Association
Salt Lake City, Utah

Cost and Registration: $495, open until filled
This conference will examine fire hazards in the wildland-urban interface and lessons learned from the Firewise Program. Topics include community safety strategies, home construction and landscape design, wildfire planning and suppression, fire behavior, and wildfire technology and policy.


January 7-10, 2014
International Disaster Conference
International Disaster Conference and Expo
New Orleans, Louisiana
Cost and Registration: $300, open until filled
This conference will discuss emergency management policy and successful mitigation practices. Perspectives from homeland security, emergency response, disaster recovery, business continuity, and global security will be presented. Topics include disaster preparation, mitigation, recovery, data security, restoration and remediation, and business continuity.

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Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Supervisory Human Services Specialist, GS-12
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Winchester, Virgina
Salary: $74,862 to $97,333

Closing Date: September 9, 2013
This position is responsible for the disaster assistance policies and procedures of the National Processing Service Center. Duties include supervising disaster assistance operations, respond to assistance application inquiries, analyze disaster housing procedures, and evaluate the efficiency with which the processing service center serves disaster victims. At least one year of experience at the GS-11 level is required.


Risk Assessment Officer
UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
Geneva, Switzerland
Salary: Not Posted
Closing Date: September 13, 2013

This position will implement, monitor, and evaluate UNISDR programs using the Strategic Framework 2025 and Work Program 2012-2015. Duties include monitoring regional progress is risk reduction, creating a database of disaster risk patterns and trends, building methodologies to track disaster loss, impact, and investments, and providing policy advice. An advanced degree in natural or applied science, geography, economics or a disaster risk assessment field and five years experience in disaster risk modeling and assessment are required.


Assistant Professor
Purdue University
Lafayette, Indiana
Salary: Not Posted
Closing Date: September 15, 2013

This tenure-track position will focus on the politics of environmental justice and community resilience in the context of building more sustainable communities. Duties include teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in environmental politics and the politics of race, ethnicity, gender, and class. A PhD in political science, environmental studies, or a related field is required.


Healthcare Coordinator
Georgia Department of Public Health
Atlanta, Georgia
Salary: $39,000 to $59,700 
Closing Date: September 16, 2013
This position coordinates public health emergency planning initiatives for vulnerable populations. Duties include performing public outreach, support emergency planning policy development and coordinate with community-based organizations on issues of population impacts during public health emergencies. A master’s degree in public health, public administration, or healthcare administration and two years experience in program planning and evaluation are required.


Sumter County Emergency Management Agency

Americus, Georgia
Salary: Not Posted

Closing Date: September 30, 2013
This postion is responsible for coordinating operations, communications, technology, planning, and response for the emergency management program. Duties include organizing and maintaining emergency operations centers, coordinating disaster preparedness training, conducting public outreach, and advising local governments on emergency management issues. Knowledge of the county emergency plan, budgeting, and radio and communication equipment is required.

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