California’s Age of Megafires – IELTS Academic Reading Passage

There’s a reason fire squads now battling more than a dozen blazes in southern California are having such difficulty containing the flames, despite better preparedness than ever and decades of experience fighting fires fanned by the notorious Santa Ana winds. The wildfires themselves, experts say, generally are hotter, move faster, and spread more erratically than in the past.

Megafires, also called “siege fires,” are the increasingly frequent blazes that burn 500,000 acres or more — 10 times the size of the average forest fire of 20 years ago. One of the current wildfires is the sixth biggest in California ever, in terms of acreage burned, according to state figures and news reports.

The short-term explanation is that the region, which usually has dry summers, has had nine inches less rainfall than normal this year. Longer term, climate change across the West is leading to hotter days on average and longer fire seasons. The trend to more superhot fires, experts say, has been driven by a century-long policy of the US Forest Service to stop wildfires as quickly as possible. The unintentional consequence was to halt the natural eradication of underbrush, now the primary fuel for megafires.

Three other factors contribute to the trend, they add. First is climate change marked by a 1-degree F rise in average yearly temperature across the West. Second is a fire season that on average is 78 days longer than in the late 1980s. Third is increased building of homes and other structures in wooded areas. “We are increasingly building our homes … in fireprone ecosystems,” says Dominik Kulakowski, adjunct professor of biology at Clark University Graduate School of Geography in Worcester, Mass. Doing that “in many of the forests of the Western US … is like building homes on the side of an active volcano.”

In California, where population growth has averaged more than 600,000 a year for at least a decade, housing has pushed into such areas. “What once was open space is now residential homes providing fuel to make fires burn with greater intensity,” says Terry McHale of the California Department of Forestry firefighters union. “With so much dryness, so many communities to catch fire, so many fronts to fight, it becomes an almost incredible job.”

That said, many experts give California high marks for making progress on preparedness since 2003, when the largest fires in state history scorched 750,000 acres, burned 3,640 homes, and killed 2 2 people. Stung then by criticism of bungling that allowed fires to spread when they might have been contained, personnel are meeting the peculiar challenges of neighborhood and canyon-hopping fires better than in recent years, observers say.

State promises to provide newer engines, planes, and helicopters have been fulfilled. Firefighters unions that then complained of dilapidated equipment, old fire engines, and insufficient blueprints for fire safety are now praising the state’s commitment, noting that funding for firefighting has increased despite huge cuts in many other programs. We are pleased that the Schwarzenegger administration has been very proactive in its support of us and come through with budgetary support of the infrastructure needs we have long sought,” says Mr. McHale with the firefighters union.

Besides providing money to upgrade the fire engines that must traverse the mammoth state and wind along serpentine canyon roads, the state has invested in better command-and-control facilities as well as the strategies to run them. “In the fire sieges of earlier years, we found out that we had the willingness of mutual-aid help from other jurisdictions and states, but we were not able to communicate adequately with them,” says Kim Zagaris, chief of the state’s Office of Emergency Services, fire and rescue branch. After a 2004 blue-ribbon commission examined and revamped those procedures, the statewide response “has become far more professional and responsive,” he says.

Besides ordering the California National Guard on Monday to make 1,500 guardsmen available for firefighting efforts, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked the Pentagon to send all available Modular Airborne Fighting Systems to the area. The military Lockheed C-130 cargo/utility aircraft carry a pressurized 3,000-gallon tank that can eject fire retardant or water in fewer than five seconds through two tubes at the rear of the plane. This load can cover an area 1/4-mile long and 60 feet wide to create a fire barrier. Governor Schwarzenegger also directed 2,300 inmate firefighters and 170 custody staff from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to work hand in hand with state and local firefighters.

Residents and government officials alike are noting the improvements with gratitude, even amid the loss of homes, churches, businesses, and farms. Despite such losses there is a sense that the speed, dedication, and coordination of firefighters from several states and jurisdictions are resulting in greater efficiency than in past “siege situations.

“I am extraordinarily impressed by the improvements we have witnessed between last big fire and this,” says Ross Simmons, a San Diego-based lawyer who ha evacuate both his home and business on Monday, taking up residence at a Hampton Inn 30 miles south of his home in Rancho Bernardo. After fires consumed 172,000 acres there in 2003, the San Diego region turned community wide soul-searching into improved building codes, evacuation procedures, and procurement of new technology. Mr. Simmons and neighbors began receiving automated phone calls at 3:30 a.m. Monday morning telling them to evacuate. “Notwithstanding all the damage that will be caused by this, we will not come close to the loss of life because of what we have … put in place since then,” he says.

Questions 14-18
Complete the summary below using NO MORE THAN TWO WORDS from the passage. Write your answers in boxes 14-18 on your answer sheet.

Fighting Californian wildfires is still not an easy task because the fires the fire-fighters now face (14)………………in more unpredictable manner in addition to the raging heat and faster speed than ever. Megafires, as they are called, are often (15)…………….bigger than average forest fire. The reasons for this include (16)…………….below the average and the extended (17)………………due to climate change. And according to experts, the government policy has also contributed to this by accidentally making the underbrush the (18)……………….for megafires.

Questions 19-23
Do the following statements agree with the information given in Reading Passage 2? Write

TRUE if the statement agrees with the information
FALSE if the statement contradicts the information
NOT GIVEN if there is no information on this

19. Open space has been disappearing in the past 10 years.
20. The equipment firefighters use today is better than before.
21. The state recruited new firefighters.
22. In the early years, no other states wished to help California to fight the fire.
23. The 2004 blue-ribbon commission did not make any achievements.

Questions 24-26
Choose the correct letter. A, B, C or D. Write your answers in boxes 24-26 on your answer sheet.

24. Why does the author mention Governor Schwarzenegger, California National Guard, Pentagon and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation?
A. To show the active involvement of the Schwarzenegger’s administration
B. To illustrate the cross-state and cross-jurisdiction cooperation in fire¬fighting
C. To demonstrate how the military is more effective at fighting fire than others
D. To give an example of how resources should be mobilised to fight fires

25. How do the locals feel about the improvements made by the state government?
A. glad
B. unsatisfied
C. unconcerned
D. bitter

26. According to Ross Simmons, which of the following statements is true?
A. It’s harder to evacuate people in daytime.
B. People refuse to improve their house in fire resisting ability.
C. People can hardly believe the magnitude of damage today.
D. People are less likely to die in fires now