Controlling, Preventing, Wildfire in California and Other Pipedreams

Satellite photo of smoke plumes from 2007 fires.

I listened to the 27 October podcast of KCRW’s Left, Right, and Center as I do every week. They discussed the recent fires in California (and other political wonkish stuff).

In the program, the moderator Matt Miller (holding down the center) wondered whether preparations were adequate and whether money could have been better spent (rather than in Iraq) on a few more air tankers (retardant and water-dropping aircraft). During news coverage, all the firefighters he saw said they didn’t have enough air support. The California fires were “a gripping disaster.”

Robert Scheer of (on the left) brought up that no matter where one looks: education, health care, or public services, the amount of money spent on those compared to Iraq debacle is chump change (no disagreement from me).

Tony Blankley (listing to the right) mentioned that he had lived in Topanga Canyon in the 1970s when fire came through and had been grateful for the fire engines coming in to save his house.

These commentators typified much of the debate about allocations of resources for wildland firefighting and its future in California.

First, no amount of equipment will stop a wildland fire in six-ten foot high chaparral in seventy mile an hour Santa Ana (foehn winds). Why no air support? The aircraft cannot fly in winds like that and if they could the dropped liquid would be blown away and dissipated before touching the chaparral (the ‘fuel’ in firefighting parlance). When conditions are right, there just isn’t enough of everything, including aircraft. [see a drop here]

Fires burning during Santa Ana conditions (humidity close to zero and winds over fifty miles per hour) go where the wind pushes them, often jumping mile-wide barriers such as lakes. The standard firefighting technique for such fires has been to keep them as narrow as possible and herd them to the Great Pacific Fuelbreak.

Second, as long as people want to live in the mountains, hills, and canyons of California, the most effective methods for preventing, lessening, and stopping wildland fire are not possible. Chaparral is designed to burn. During the wet winter months, it grows and uses as much water as it can. It goes dormant when the soil moisture drops. The plants’ waxy outer layer and resins within help keep the plant from wilting but it burns readily. In fact, many of these plants making up chaparral forests need to burn to regenerate. Before humans arrived some 10% of California burned annually (about 10 million acres each year).

When Portuguese explorer João Rodrigues Cabrilho (sailing for Spain under the name Juan Cabrillo) sailed along the coast of California, he noted the plumes of smoke from fires burning in the Santa Monica Mountains. The native population set fire to the mountains each year to have the plants resprout later and provide forage for wildlife and thus hunting for them. The Mexican Californios continued the practice when they arrived.

Let’s consider what led up to these latest fires. This summer had been one of the driest on record in Southern California. The drought stressed thousands of trees. Beetles killed many of those trees. Undergrowth beneath these dead trees has been allowed to occur. This lower stuff makes a perfect fire ladder to the dead branches above. On the lower slopes, waxy pyric chaparral which hasn’t burned for years due to effective fire control bides its time. Now toss in low humidity, high winds, and high-voltage powerlines waiting to arc, it’s a disaster smoking a cigarette over a lake of gasoline.

Americans usually think in terms of high priced-high tech solutions. California’s southern neighbors have lower tech methods. Pragmatic Mexicans have placed herds of goats into hilly suburbs to control the chaparral—and have far fewer catastrophic wildfires. In the higher areas where pine trees grow, logging will change the characteristics of the fire ladder by making openings where the fire comes down to ground level again.

Unfortunately, goats and logging aren’t ‘natural.’ As though million dollar homes, gardens, exotic trees, etc., were.


And, just so you can say, you read it here first, look for gripping stories on CNN, et. al, about the massive Southern California mudslides coming to a television screen near you in January. “Why didn’t anyone see this coming?” the newspeople will ask.

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