621 - The Fire Last Time: Mapping Blazes Past, Present - and Future

Driving through Yosemite a few years ago, we came upon a blackened patch of the park still smelling burnt. By the look of this map, it must have been the one marked Early 2004, even though it must have been a few years later. Can a forest still smell crispy years after it’s been levelled by wildfire? 

If so, a lot more of Yosemite is going to smell like that in the years to come. The so-called Rim Fire is currently consuming vast tracts of Yosemite and other parts of California’s Sierra Nevada. Starting on August 17, the biggest wildfire in recent memory has already destroyed close to 250 sq. mi (650 km2).

The fire got its name from a lookout point called the Rim of the World in Stanislaus National Forest, close to where it started. From there, it spread north toward Tuolumne City and east toward Yosemite National Park.

The size of this wildfire - about 15% contained by August 27 - is causing problems on an unprecedented scale. Not only is access to several nearby forests restricted to firefighters, and several residential areas evacuated, but smoke is affecting air quality in places as far away as Reno, Nevada and fire is threatening power and water supplies to San Francisco and the Bay Area. 

While the Rim Fire is the largest wildfire currently raging in the American West, it is by no means the only one. The USDA Forest Service Active Fire Mapping Program is showing 38 current large incidents as of 26 August, 10 of which are in California, 9 in Idaho, 6 in Oregon, 3 each in Montana and Washington, 2 each Wyoming and Texas, and one each in Nevada, Utah and Alaska.

With wildfires a phenomenon of such scale, it is hardly surprising that each fire gets its own name, like hurricanes. The one currently raging in Alaska (and about 19% contained) is called, incongruously, the Mississippi Fire, while one just north of the Rim Fire was name-tagged American. A fire that has consumed about 1,000 acres by now in Idaho is called… Incendiary Creek Fire, hinting at the recurring nature of the wildfires in the American West.

As does this map. It shows in a burning orange-and-yellow line, the current extent of the Rim Fire. It also shows, in coloured areas, the devastation wreaked by previous fires, many of them overlapping with the current fiery apocalypse.

“This points to the harsh reality of living, working and playing in the foothills and mountains: forests that burned before and are burning now someday will burn again”, writes Jeff Jardine in his column for the Modesto Bee, which he illustrated with this map, produced by Jerry Snyder of the U.S. Forest Service in Sonora, showing where the Rim Fire touches areas burnt by previous major blazes.

To Jardine, many of those fires are like old (albeit rather nasty) acquaintances: “[T]he Granite fire area […] became a moonscape 40 years ago and still bears some remnants: charred stumps and an area brought back to life through reforestation efforts. […] The 146,000-acre Stanislaus Complex fire in 1987 […] ranks 11th among California's top 20 wildfires by acreage. The Rim fire has them all beat when it comes to devastation. By the time this fire-breathing dragon has been slain, it will have overlapped the perimeter of virtually every major fire in the region since [the 25,000-acre Wright's Creek Fire in] 1949".

Out west, seasonal forest fires are nothing new. As one of the commenters to Mr. Jardine's column reflects: "Family stories passed down from my great-grandmother [recall] the Digger Indians […] burn the underbrush of the forest as they retreated to Nevada. Fall rains would eventually put them out. Forest management by people [who] understood nature and never went to school!"

These days, forests are managed by the Department of Agriculture, and the object of constant arguments over how they should be managed - exploited for their resources, left alone to their own devices, or somewhere in between: benevolently monitored and tweaked by human oversight.

Says Jardine: "View the area via satellite mapping and you'll also see a checkerboard of areas that were clear-cut harvested bordered by areas of lush forest — at least until an updated satellite image reflects the ongoing destruction. Environmentalists claim logging operations are destructive. Some argue that until a couple of centuries ago, such fires eventually burned themselves out and were good for the environment. Fires? They don't concern themselves with political and philosophical differences. They just burn whatever gets in their way".

The area destroyed by the Granite Fire, Mr. Jardine mentions, has bounced back nicely from the wasteland it was in 1973. And so have other areas coloured in on this map. Until the Rim Fire, that is. But it's all part of the great, terrifying circle of life in this part of the world: "They'll become places of beauty and serenity again. They'll also become fuel for another colossal fire someday".


Many thanks to Justin Watt for sending in the map, which he shows here on his blog, Justinsomnia. It was prepared for the Modesto Bee by Jim Lawrence, based on US Forest Service data. Jeff Jardine's column on the Rim Fire can be read here in the Modesto Bee.

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Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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