What are Peat fires?

Image Credit: 
Main Image: 

Partially decomposed plant matter formed in wetlands harvested as fuel is called peat which is the first stage product in the formation of coal.  Fires resulting from peat are known as peat fires. What makes them different from forest fires is their low temperature, spread  slowly and flameless like a smoldering coal, as they are always burning. When the right situation presents itself, peat catches fire. The problem with peat fires unlike the regular forest fires is that these can go into the soil and travel underground making the fire fighters task much more laborious and difficult as they can surface anywhere. Continuous downpour of rains, wet conditions can keep them in check but they seldom get put out as they can be smoldering underground and traveling below the surface. Factors responsible are lightning, forest fires, arson, mining activities etc. Peat fires can burn as deep as 15 feet and spread very slowly, their low thermal signature and lack of right technology to detect these fires makes it lot harder to recognize them and contain them. The northern European region has high reserves of bogs of peat than trees. Peat fires not only destroy thousands of acres of forest lands but also cause destruction of the peat wetland habitats in which many plants and animals thrive. They release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere contributing to the already elevated pollution problem.



What are the regions where peat is found extensively?

Regions with large areas of peat covers  are easily prone to peat fires. Most of these regions experienced peat fires at some point in their histories. Some of them still have burning peat fires as it is not easy to control them.

  • Okavango Delta, Botswana: The lower Nquoga River Systems have a dense layer of vegetation covered peat deposits. The region comprises of segments of mosaic burning fronts. These segments have been burning for decades in the region. They destroy the bottoms of plants like rhizomes and prevent the regrowth of the same species of plants in these regions.
  • Scotland: Scotland is another country that has a very thick layer of peat in the soil. The peat layer is about a meter thick here. As peat formation is a long and continuous process, the dead plants keep contributing to the formation of peat. Each year, about 1 millimeter of moor is found to get deposited in the soil. So a 2 meters deep peat layer can be calculated to be 2000 years old. In Scotland’s case, the peat fire has supported the whisky industry. For the making of whiskey, briquettes are used which are formed by the dehydration of the peat mass, resulting in a hard briquette of peat in the soil. These briquettes are ideal to produce the right heat for the preparation of Whiskey.
  • Russia: Russia has been experiencing surges of peat fires since 1981. Moscow, the capital city has not been experiencing peat fires that have grown so vehement that they have taken the forms of natural disasters. 64 forests have caused peat fires and as in the case of fires, the resultant gases that are formed on burning of matter such as Carbon dioxide, Carbon monoxide, Nitrogen monoxide and Nitrogen dioxide are released into the atmosphere creating a health hazard to the population. The pollution caused by these peat fires is 8 times more than that of standard emission limits.
  • Indonesia: The thick layers of peat lands in Indonesia have been accumulating for a very long period of time. They are so wet that it is hard for them to decompose. They occupy an area of 20 million hectares in Indonesia. This is about 11% of the total land area of Indonesia. These large areas of peat covered lands serve as huge sinks and store houses of Carbon. When peat fires start in Indonesia, large amounts of Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere which is responsible for increasing the atmospheric Carbon dioxide levels and contribute to the increase in greenhouse gases emissions.



How was peat used historically?

Peat is found extensively in countries such as, Russia, Indonesia, Scotland, Ireland and Northern European regions. Europeans used peat for everyday cooking since trees are much scarcer in the northern European regions. People used peat for most of the fuel requiring activities in their daily life. The deeper the peat, the better it burns, as compressed peat burns better than the upper layers of peat. The upper layers of peat is fluffy and was used as a great soil conditioner for growing crops and plants, which is still in use to this day. Peat was harvested manually by cutting vertically through the peat deposits but now mechanical equipment is used to cut through these deposits many times in a year, depending on the rainfall as it plays an important role in harvesting the peat.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the North Americans used peat for domestic fires and some places still do for cooking and heating. Peat fire was an important segment of domestic life in the Scandinavian countries. The Scottish used it to fuel the whiskey making process and thus the whiskey industry flourished here. Furnaces that occupied the most important part of a house in olden days were used both for cooking and warming. A furnace was filled with a pile of peat logs and they let the fire extinguish in the night so it could smolder and provide warmth during the night hours and air it in the morning to let a flame start and used it for cooking. Baking could be easily done in the peat fire furnaces.




Which regions have Peat fires most frequently?

Underground peat fires are part of peat deposits and are a continuous hazard to the environment as they release huge amounts of smoke that is a health risk to people living around these areas. Asthma patients, heart patients and even healthy people can get affected, from the smoke that stays closer to the ground. A cubic meter of peat will release around 150 cubic meters of carbon dioxide into the air. A hectare, which is ~2.45 acres of drained peat land in central Europe, emits about 25 tons of Carbon dioxide a year from continuing decay and a hectare of wet peat emits about 10-15 tons of carbon dioxide annually not to forget the methane these peat marshes produces which are part of the greenhouse gases spectrum.

North Carolina on the coastal plain region has about 500 square miles of peat and in some regions is as deep as 15 ft. This makes it prone to peat fires which have engulfed thousands of hectares of forests and wildlife. The 2008 peat fire in N.C was triggered by a lightning which was in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, home to the endangered wild red fox and red-cockaded woodpecker. These fires started again in May of 2011 in the Dare County, cause being lightning again, and about 45,000 acres were on fire. About 500 million gallons of water were used daily to contain the perimeter of the fire and extinguish. However, peat fires can go underground and forest authorities have to be monitoring the fires closely to make sure to catch it when it resurfaces again as these fires are never done.

Russia's peat marshes which have caught fire many times in the past and recently in 2010, are of much concern as they have been burning for months, releasing huge amounts of carbon into the air and will affect the global atmosphere. Russia had a similar peat fire in 2002 and these haven’t been extinguished completely and come back after winter as they can smolder undersurface during the colder months. The Russian peat fires has made it the largest contributor to carbon emissions from peat followed by Indonesia, another country that is rich in peat deposits. Indonesia and Malaysia are other countries which face peat fires regularly.



What are some of the Causes of Peat Fires?

One of the biggest root causes of peat fires are draining the peat marshes.

  • Draining of peat marshes to conevert them into agricultural lands
  • Clearing land for Timber
  • Droughts
  • Burnt areas can resume burning later
  • Fires started by humans: throwing out burning cigarettes, arson, camping related activities 




How can we fight peat fires or prevent them?

One of the biggest root causes of peat fires is due to the draining of the peat marshes.

  • Draining of peat marshes to convert them into agricultural lands 
  • Clearing land for Timber
  • Droughts
  • Burnt areas can resume burning later
  • Fires started by humans: throwing out burning cigarettes, arson, camping related activities

As long as we continue to destroy natural landscapes without thinking about the long term effects of such actions, both new and old problems will continue to plague our planet. Peat fires is definitely one of the older ones that has been plaguing us and looks like will continue to threaten lands and nearby cities until we get a better handle on curtailing the fires.



External References
Related Videos: 
See video
Related Images: