Scenes from a battleground: California struggles in the new era of megafire

photo of burned cars along the side of the road
REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Charred cars along a roadside outside Paradise, California, overrun by flame as fleeing residents jammed the route to safety, is an image we associate more with military action in Syria, say, or Yemen, and to the fate of refugees very different from ourselves.

This may be the year Americans in large numbers come to see — most literally — that containing modern wildfire has become something very like a war, not just in metaphor but in fact.

We’ve become accustomed, even inured, to aerial footage of a woodsy subdivision wrecked by fire. Not so much the charred cars along a roadside outside Paradise, California, overrun by flame as fleeing residents jammed the route to safety. That’s an image we associate with military action in Syria, say, or Yemen, and to the fate of refugees very different from ourselves.

There is cliché, almost, in those familiar TV dispatches from some town teetering before an advancing wall of fire, ultimately surviving with losses limited to a few blocks here and there. It’s entirely different when a city of 26,000 is torched off the map in a matter of hours.

Not so long ago it was stirring to watch firefighters take to the air with loads of water and foam to hold the line against a blaze and protect the ground crews until rain could bring some relief. This past week, though, from the battlefields around Malibu and Paradise, we’ve heard the commanders acknowledge these methods aren’t much use, but there’s really nothing else to do.

This is how the battle goes in the age of megafire, with its expanding zones of lethal risk and its ever-growing losses in lives, homes and confidence. When Gov. Jerry Brown toured Paradise the other day and said, sincerely, that it looked “like a war zone,” he elevated a throwaway line to piercing truth.

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Everybody knows about the record death toll in the Camp Fire that wiped out Paradise and continues to burn near Chico, in northern California. As of this morning, 63 bodies had been recovered — more than  twice the toll of 29 in the state’s previous worst, the tiny Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles in 1933 — and with more than 600 officially reported missing, the count was expected to go far higher. Meanwhile, at least three more have perished in the Woolsey Fire near Malibu.

If you follow these fires at all closely you will hear it said that big and deadly wildfires are nothing new in California, which of course is true. Some history-minded commentator may also point out that even this year’s numbers aren’t much compared to, say, the historic fires near Hinckley, Minnesota, in 1894  (at least 418 dead) or Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in 1871 (more than 1,500 dead).

Because the Midwestern catastrophes were caused by massively irresponsible handling of logging waste, they have no real relevance to what’s going on now in California. These fires grow from natural factors that are amplified by climate change, along trend lines that are clear, alarming and probably irreversible.

Also, accelerating: According to Cal Fire, five of the 20 deadliest fires in state history have occurred this year and last: the current Camp Fire, last summer’s Carr Fire near Yosemite, the 2017 Tubbs and Atlas Fires in the Napa/Sonoma wine country, and the Redwood Valley Fire near Mendocino. (Another five occurred since 2003, meaning half the overall total occurred in just the last 1 5 years.

Not so long ago, a notably lethal fire claimed five or six lives; the total on Cal Fire’s list this morning was 272 (with the Camp Fire toll awaiting update from 56). Of those deaths, nearly half — 144 — have occurred since the year 2000. More than one-third — 100 and counting — occurred in 2017-18.

Though most of us still count lost life as the most important cost of wildfire, it is not the best measure of scale or scope, being so dependent on success factors in firefighting, evacuation, rescue and medical treatment. Cal Fire also keeps statistics on fires by their destructiveness (the measure being structures lost) and size (acres burned). Here, too, the worsening pattern is clear:

  • Of 20 most destructive wildfires in state history, 14 have occurred in this millennium, and seven were in 2017-2018 (besides those listed above, the Thomas and Nuns Fires of 2017).
  • Of the 20 largest California wildfires, 15 have occurred in this millennium, three of those this year and last (Carr, Thomas and the Mendocino Complex).

One other piece of perspective: As of this writing, the total acreage burned this year in California is about 30 percent above the running 10-year average for the state.

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Though it was especially stupid and cruel even by Trump standards, the president’s threat to withhold federal funds as punishment for California’s allegedly poor forest management contains a recognizable grain of truth within the heap of misplaced blame: A century of aggressive fire suppression by the U.S. Forest Service, with state agencies following suit, has created unnatural fuel loads and made American forests more vulnerable to huge fires.

This is especially true in California and the rest of the arid West, and efforts to address the problem with programs of fuel removal and residential fireproofing, though demonstrably successful at small scales, have never been funded at levels approaching adequacy. (Paradise, for example, reportedly had made above-average efforts at proactive risk reduction.) And as the patterns of megafire have worsened, even the amounts earmarked for forest health have been shifted to firefighting.

(Historical aside: It was the Great Fire of 1910 in the northern Rockies that drove the Forest Service into its policy of extinguishing pretty much every blaze within a day after the first smoke plume was spotted. The death toll in that fire, 78, seems likely to be exceeded any day now by the Camp Fire.)

The tinderbox legacy of fire suppression is a bigger factor at the moment in the Camp Fire than in the Malibu region’s Woolsey Fire. The latter grew from the natural partnership of the canyons’ chapparal biomes and Santa Ana winds, which periodically creates the conditions necessary to fire-dependent germination. Here’s how John McPhee described it 30 years ago in a piece called “Los Angeles Against the Mountains”:

When chaparral has not been burned for 30 years, about half the thicket will be dried dead stuff — twenty-five thousand tons of it in one square mile. The living plants are no less flammable. The chamise, the manzanita — in fact, most chaparral plants — are full of solvent extractives that burn intensely and ignite easily. Their leaves are glossy with oils and resins that seal in moisture during hot dry periods and serve the dual purpose of responding explosively to flame.

In the long dry season, and particularly in the fall, air flows southwest toward Los Angeles from the Colorado Plateau and the Basin and Range. Extremely low in moisture, it comes out of the canyon lands and crosses the Mojave Desert. As it drops in altitude, it compresses, becoming even drier and hotter. It advances in gusts. This is the wind that is sometimes called the foehn. The fire wind. The devil wind. In Los Angeles, it is known as Santa Ana.

When chamise and other chaparral plants sense the presence of Santa Ana winds, their level of moisture drops, and they become even more flammable than they were before. The Santa Anas bring what has been described as “instant critical fire weather.” Temperatures rise above hundred degrees. Humidity drops very close to zero. According to Charles Colver, of the United States Forest Service, “moisture evaporates off your eyeball so fast you have to keep blinking.”

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And yet, people still keep building homes in the chapparal — or slightly downhill, trading a reduced risk of losing the place to fire for a higher chance of seeing it taken by the mudslide that follows. And this factor of building in unwise places — whether Malibu or Paradise — is also a huge accelerator of destruction in the megafire era.

So is climate. Two years running, most of California has experienced unusually plentiful spring rainfall, which spurred the growth of lush green fuels-to-be; summertime drought, which dried it into accelerant;  and postponement of the rainy season, which usually arrives with November. It still hasn’t arrived at mid-month, and the fires won’t fade until it does

These patterns result from climate shifts that are not reversible in the short term (and probably not in the long term, either, given the scant available evidence of human willingness to get serious about the situation).

Meanwhile, much of the conversation in California is focused on whether to do something about building codes (hard to make ’em retroactive), changing the liability of the electric utilities whose transmission lines start a remarkable number of wildfires (not exactly a preventive measure), using zoning rules or insurance premiums to discourage new homes in fire-prone areas (don’t hold your breath), requiring new developments in the fire zone to have city-style water lines with fire hydrants, etc. (impossibly expensive).

Some progress is being made, however, in addressing the impact of wildfire on another group of people who are suffering with special intensity right now: the homeless inhabitants of downwind cities afflicted by the smoke — including San Francisco, which has been under an unhealthy-air alert for the better part of a week now.

Bay Area nonprofits are distributing free face masks to filter out fine ash and shelters are expanding their hours to give clients more respite from unconditioned air. Maybe it’s just me, but somehow these measures, too, resonate as the kind of emergency coping you might expect to see in a war zone.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 11/16/2018 - 01:27 pm.

    I don’t know why anyone would want to live in a path that has a high probability of going up in flames. I think anyone who builds from this point forward ( and anyone who builds in FL near the water ) should not be able to buy FEMA insurance.

  2. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 11/16/2018 - 06:21 pm.

    Hopefully, the incoming Governor will persue better forest management policies.

    • Submitted by Tim McCarthy on 11/19/2018 - 10:47 am.

      From the University of California:
      “Of the approximately 33 million acres of forest in California, federal agencies (including the USDA Forest Service and USDI Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service) own and manage 19 million acres (57%). State and local agencies including CalFire, local open space, park and water districts and land trusts own another 3%. 40% of California’s forestland is owned by families, Native American tribes, or companies. Industrial timber companies own 5 million acres (14%). 9 million acres are owned by individuals with nearly 90% of these owners having less than 50 acres of forest land.”
      So, what should California do with it’s measly 3 %? Any specific ideas?

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 11/17/2018 - 08:32 am.

    Cal Fire has estimated 129 million dead trees on Federal land in California. That is called firewood by most of us. Being able to log Federal land helps eliminate old standing dead trees, introduce new growth, improve the wildlife habitat and reduces the risk of fire. Add on for good measure, jobs in the timber industry and lower cost of wood.
    New growth forests have almost a zero chance of becoming a raging fire. I wish folks would look at the benefits of logging and include it as a way to reduce fires. Global warming, as an excuse for poor forest management, is a poor excuse.

    • Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 11/17/2018 - 06:19 pm.

      No problem Joe with sensible logging, i.e. ‘select cut’ which is being done up here most of the time now. Previously, loggers would come in and ‘clear cut’ leaving slag heaps which are/were fire susceptive. In addition, their clear cutting had a negative effect on wildlife and birds. Clear cutting was/is done with only the $ in mind as it is more labor intensive to select cut rather than come in and completely clear cut everything in a 100 acre wood area for example. You can thank people who value a safe, secure and future environment for pushing against clear cutting.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 11/18/2018 - 06:41 am.

        Having done select and clear cutting, they both work in fire prevention. When clear cutting loggers will use therir big equipment to bunch slag and knock down remaining branches, eliminating the most dangerous wild fire cause, tree top to tree top burning. After the first year of clear cutting the ground debris is laying flat and not susceptible to a raging wild fire. Responsible land owners winter burn their piles and all is good. Leaving the land to it’s own, it will burn, like its done for millions of years. Long before man, Mother Nature knew how regenerate the land, raging wild fires.

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