Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Campfire-Related Tragedy

Of all the threats brought about by natural events that we sometimes refer to as "disasters," flooding takes the highest toll in human life. In hurricanes, for example, it isn't the wind that directly causes the most deaths — it's the flooding, some of which is caused by the wind blowing water ashore in what's called "storm surge" and some of which is caused by swollen rivers due to intense rainfall.

While wind is impressive, water is downright powerful stuff. Each gallon weighs nearly 8.5 pounds, and when it's moving it creates an enormous force that people simply are not strong enough to stand against. If you get caught in moving water, you're going to move with it. If it's fast-moving water, you'll get swept away.

That's what happened to a 12-year-old girl in Flagstaff, Arizona this week. A heavy thunderstorm dumped a load of water on an area that had been denuded only a month before by wildfire. When the water hit the ground, it just ran downhill as fast as gravity could pull it, with no vegetation to help slow the gathering flood. Soon, it was a roaring black river rushing through a subdivision where no river was supposed to be. The little girl was caught in the flow and swept down a culvert. They still haven't found her.

But here's the strange way one event links to another. A month ago, the wildfire that killed off all the vegetation in that area was caused by a careless camper who failed to fully extinguish a campfire. This is Smoky The Bear 101, but it still happens. That lingering campfire ignited the wildfire that stripped away the vegetation that might have helped reduce the threat of flashflood when the thunderstorm hit. In a sense, that careless camper is directly responsible for the loss of this little girl's life.

So what do we learn from all this?
  • Be careful with your campfire. Make sure it's dead out before you leave. 
  • Be aware that burned out areas are prone to flashflood, mudslides, etc. when big storms hit. Stay tuned in to what the weather is doing, and leave those areas ahead of the storm. 
  • Children (and adults) might be curious and attracted to something exciting like a sudden rush of water nearby. Teach children to run away from rushing water. They should run perpendicular to the flow of water, not parallel to it. They should run uphill. 
  • Do not drive through rushing water that is crossing a road. It takes very little current to sweep away a vehicle. And the roadway might be damaged by the flow of water, leaving a crater you cannot see below the water. 
Floods are a serious threat. Already this year in China, more than 1,000 people have died or disappeared in floods. The worst year ever for that country was 1998 when 4,150 died in floods. 

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