Some fires sim­ply can’t be fought

We need to learn to live with fires, and the re­al­ity that they are in­evitable.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Fer­nanda San­tos Fer­nanda San­tos is a pro­fes­sor at Ari­zona State Univer­sity’s Wal­ter Cronkite School of Jour­nal­ism and Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and the au­thor of “The Fire Line: The Story of the Gran­ite Moun­tain Hot­shots.”

There is a ca­dence to fire sea­son and a pre­dictabil­ity to the head­lines: A wild­fire is burn­ing, homes are threat­ened, res­i­dents are urged to evac­u­ate.

We’ve grown used to watch­ing the air-and-ground as­saults. The im­age of a DC-10 dump­ing re­tar­dant on burn­ing brush is an in­deli­ble sym­bol of our at­tempt to con­trol na­ture. We’ve come to ex­pect that fire­fight­ers will bring flames into sub­mis­sion be­cause they so of­ten have — and this has made us com­fort­able.

Per­haps too com­fort­able. De­spite the re­as­sur­ing im­ages of fire­fight­ers con­quer­ing wild­fires, the truth is that once a large fire is burn­ing, there’s very lit­tle that fire­fight­ers can do to stop it, or to pro­tect homes nearby. Faced with the de­ci­sion to risk their lives to save some­body’s prop­erty or let the prop­erty burn, fire­fight­ers know that there is only one sen­si­ble choice.

Fire feeds on grass and fallen leaves. It uses brush and top­pled branches to climb onto the crowns of trees, where it then takes off. You can­not sub­due rush­ing flames with shov­els, picks, power saws and axes — the tools that fire­fight­ers carry. The best strat­egy is to re­treat.

If fire­fight­ers don’t with­draw or hold back when they should, they pay the ul­ti­mate price. State forestry of­fi­cials made the wrong cal­cu­la­tion in Ari­zona in 2013, for in­stance, and 19 fire­fight­ers died. The men, all mem­bers of an elite, highly skilled team called the Gran­ite Moun­tain Hot­shots, were swal­lowed by a gi­ant wave of flames as they trudged through thick, un­burned brush to­ward a com­mu­nity they were try­ing to pro­tect. Their deaths serve as an aw­ful re­minder that some fires sim­ply can’t be fought.

This is in­creas­ingly the case, as forests in the United States be­come ever more flammable. Larger ar­eas are primed for burn­ing, choked by over­growth and parched by a warm­ing cli­mate that quickly turns grass into kin­dling. Wild­fires have be­come big­ger, more in­tense and more fre­quent. In most Western states, the num­ber of large wild­fires ig­nited an­nu­ally has at least dou­bled since the 1970s, and the fire sea­son is longer by al­most three months.

Over­grown forests have strug­gled through a pun­ish­ing six-year drought in Cal­i­for­nia. More than 100 mil­lion trees died dur­ing these years, ac­cord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion. The drought had weak­ened them and bark bee­tles had fin­ished them off. Al­though last win­ter’s rain and snow­fall lifted the state out of drought, the mois­ture also cre­ated the per­fect con­di­tions for wild­fires. Much of the veg­e­ta­tion that sprouted from the moist soil dried up when the tem­per­a­tures climbed.

This is why the Detwiler fire, which is still burn­ing near Yosemite, spread so quickly. The area was cov­ered in dead trees — fuel for flames. Ten days in, the fire had con­sumed more than 80,000 acres, de­stroyed 67 struc­tures and re­quired more than 4,000 fire­fight­ers to bring it un­der con­trol.

In Ari­zona, where I live, the Pon­derosa pine forests are ripe for wild­fires. Many of these forests had about 40 trees per acre in the 1950s; today, the same ar­eas have as many as 1,000 per acre, ac­cord­ing to some sci­en­tists. Michael Ko­das, the au­thor of a forth­com­ing book on the phe­nom­e­non of “megafires” — es­pe­cially large and dev­as­tat­ing for­est fires — com­pares such forests to crowded cities, where “disease spreads much eas­ier” and the com­pe­ti­tion for re­sources is fierce.

And yet, on the premise that wild­fires can be fought, or per­haps be­cause we are not fully aware of the risks, we con­tinue build­ing homes ever closer to forests and other vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas. Ac­cord­ing to a 2016 re­port by the data com­pany Core­L­ogic, 1.8 mil­lion homes across 13 Western states are at ex­treme or high risk of wild­fire dam­age. One in three of these homes is in Cal­i­for­nia.

Over­all, since 1990, 60% of all new hous­ing units in the U.S. have been built on the edge of forests. Such de­vel­op­ments are big busi­ness for builders and com­mu­ni­ties look­ing to ex­pand their tax base — but an in­creas­ingly risky one.

Rather than as­sum­ing we can fight wild­fires, we need to learn to live with them, and with the re­al­ity that they are in­evitable.

We can do this, first, by tak­ing mea­sures to pre­vent them. Some 95% of wild­fires in Cal­i­for­nia are caused by hu­mans. Na­tion­ally, that rate is 84%. Some­times they are started by an aban­doned camp­fire. Other times, by a cig­a­rette that was care­lessly dis­posed of. The Trabuco Fire, which burned about 20 acres in Orange County last Septem­ber, started when a golf club struck a rock and sent sparks fly­ing. To pre­vent such fires, we need to take se­ri­ously all of the com­mon­sense rec­om­men­da­tions made by Smokey the Bear. Don’t build camp­fires in dry con­di­tions. When you do build one, make sure it is ex­tin­guished.

But we should also pre­pare for in­evitable wild­fires by do­ing our part to make our homes less flammable — by reg­u­larly trim­ming trees, keep­ing tall trees spaced apart, re­mov­ing dead veg­e­ta­tion from un­der decks and pine nee­dles from on top of them, and clean­ing out gut­ters.

Above all, we need to ac­cept that if we choose to live on the edge of wood­lands, our homes may very well end up in the path of a wild­fire and there might be noth­ing fire­fight­ers can do to save them. This means cal­i­brat­ing our pri­or­i­ties to value the lives of fire­fight­ers more than our prop­erty.

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