This post is part of a series on humans' destruction of the natural world.
The actual causes of wildfires are widely misunderstood.With large fires still raging around the West, we can all feel empathy for those who lost their homes and even entire communities, as well as all of us suffering from the smoke. [As well as the incalculable suffering of animals.]
Still, there is a tremendous amount of smoke and mirrors about the blazes and their cause.
The timber industry, Forest Service, and forestry schools are quick to suggest that logging can reduce large blazes. Rushing to log more of the forest will not solve the problem, indeed, it can worsen it. Subsidized logging takes funds away from solutions that can protect communities.
First, we must address many of the misguided information.
1. Climate change is driving the larger blazes we are experiencing in the West. Higher daily temperatures, extreme drought, low humidity, and high winds resulting from climate change exacerbate flammability of the vegetation. Extreme fire weather is driving large blazes, not fuels.
2. Fire suppression has not altered fire regimes in most plant communities. For instance, the Douglas fir forests on the west slope of the Cascades now burning in Oregon tend to have natural fire intervals of 300-500 years. Fire suppression has not altered the natural fire cycle at all.
Most plant communities including lodgepole pine, aspen, sagebrush, juniper, high elevation fir forests, and so on tend to experience fires hundreds of years apart. During this period, they are accumulating fuels, but that is the natural consequence of their ecology, not a result of fire suppression.
3. Forests are not destroyed by high severity fires. They rejuvenate them. Large fires create much needed habitat for numerous species. Consider some studies suggest up to 2/3 of all wildlife species depend on the snag habitat and down logs that result from such blazes.
4. Winds are the driving force in all large fires. When you have high winds, it blows embers over, around and through any “fuel reduction” projects. That is why fires like the 2017 Eagle Fire in Oregon was able to cross a mile and a half of the Columbia River to ignite fires in Washington. There are many other examples of fires crossing 16 lane freeways and other areas with no “fuel”. The idea that we can preclude large fires by more “active forest management” is pure delusion.
5. Indeed, active forest management can contribute to larger and more severe fires because it opens up the forest to greater drying and more wind penetration. One recent study reviewed 1500 fires around the West and found the highest severity blazes occurred in areas with “active forest management” while protected landscapes like wilderness where presumably fuels were higher, burned less intensely.
Climate change and its curses is but the tail end of an age-old human attitude of wanton neglect and hyper-exploitation of nature and living nature (animals) for the sake of human benefit, often for highly questionable activities damaging a huge number of fellow humans.
In response to a recent WyoFile article, guest columnist George Wuerthner refutes ranchers’ claims of “rights” on the Upper Green River allotment and argues the health of grizzly bears and rare fish should take priority. https://t.co/U1nxiMk7gX
— WyoFile (@WyoFile) July 4, 2020
Plus, after logging, you enhance the growth of shrubs, grasses, and small trees which are the fine fuels that carries fires. Removing large trees as advocated by the timber industry is a false solution since large trees do not readily burn—rather it is the fine fuels like needles, small branches and cones which are the main fuel for fires. That is why you have snags left after a fire—the large boles do not burn easily.
6. Much of what is burning in the large California fires as well as elsewhere in the West is not forest at all, but chaparral, grasslands, sagebrush, and non-forested habitat. So “active forest management” would have no influence upon much of the acreage currently in flames.
7. We cannot preclude large fires through forest management, but we can reduce the impacts on humans. A shift from logging the forest miles from communities to an emphasis on reducing the flammability of houses and communities, planning evacuation route, burying power lines, zoning to reduce sprawl, and other measures can help.
8. The ultimate (but not sole) cause of these large conflagration is climate change. We need to address the causes of global climate change and make this a national priority.
9. We cannot preclude large fires through forest management, but we can reduce the impacts on humans. An emphasis on reducing communities’ flammability, planning escape routes, burying power lines, and other proven measures can reduce human suffering.
10. The ultimate cause of these massive conflagrations is climate change. We need to address the causes of global climate change and make this a national priority.
The following materials are excerpted from Quora, unless indicated otherwise. Everything reprinted below this line done as a public service due to gravity of the issues involved.
"How come in the Californian wildfires, the houses are gone but the trees are not?"
There is a common misperception that says wildfires should burn an area somewhat completely, and that it is highly unusual to see sporatic burning of structures, or to see near complete destruction of structures with numerous trees still standing. This misperception assumes that a given burn area had to have been burned by the prinary source of the wildfire, or the "Wall of Fire."
The primary Wall of Fire usually moves very quickly through an area, due to wind conditions and the resulting momentum. This means that only the driest and most compustible materials can burn, before the raging fire rushes onward. In the Paradise fire, for example, the fire didn't have time to reach all the way up into the canopy of the trees. In many sections of neighborhood, the Wall of Fire is not what burned the houses to the ground either. Some of the completely devastated neighborhoods never even met with the Wall of Fire.
So then, how do we explain why trees were left standing when houses were burned to the ground? What devastated many of the structures, and even those not meeting with the Wall of Fire, was something called "Firebrands." These are extremely hot embers, made of varying masses of material, usually vegetation. Firebrands can travel MILES from the original source of wildfire, spreading destruction as they rain down like snow and create "Spot Fires."
Billions of these Firebrands fly into neighborhoods, and they land on flammable roofs, rain gutters choked with dead leaves, and vegetation surrounding the structures. The resulting Spot Fires are much more likely than the "Big Flame Fronts," to take a structures completely to the ground. These Spot Fires can also burn certain areas of a neighborhood and not others. In the Paradise, CA fire however, nearly every structure was leveled.
So then, why didn't Spot Fires take down all those neighborhood trees? Most of them are native trees that were preserved when the neighborhoods were built. These trees have had 10's of thousands of years to adapt to California wildfires. In fact, experts can check the amount of scarring that a tree has and determine how many wildfires it has survived. Sometimes the number is 50 or more wildfires that a tree has survived!
There are a multitude of ways in which native trees have adapted to wildfires. Many trees will shed their lower limbs, thereby removing the lower source of fuel for the fire, and helping to protect the top canopy of the tree. The bark is really quite thick, and it insulates the tree's core from the fire. Some trees actually drop a section of bark when it is able to catch and maintain fire. The burning bark drops to the ground and saves the trunk! Trees can also activate their sap system to distribute sap into all of its cracks and crevices, forming a layer of further insulation from heat and flames.
Trees contain a lot of water, and this acts as a fire retardant. Green wood is incredibly difficult to burn. The truck can still be quite green, even if the branches and foliage are dry. When trees are cut for firewood, it takes about 3 months for the wood to season, or to become dry enough to burn. Freshly cut wood is near impossible to burn, even with gasoline. You might scorch the outer bark, but the inner wood is still intact. The density, size, and even the cylindrical shape of the tree trunk, also help to insulate it from burning. These trees are amazing feats of thousands of years of adaptation to their environment!
I know that this is quite counterintuitive, but large chunks of wood are surprisingly fire-resistant. Sure, the outer layer may get charred, but the inner core remains perfectly strong.
So it is in fires like these. They sweep through, fueled by dry underbrush and grass, driven by high winds. They may singe the outside of trees, and even burn the leaves off, but in many cases the tree is still alive.
But houses, on the other hand, are covered with things that burn (shingles, trim), filled with things that burn (rugs, furniture, cars), and covered in holes that let the fire get in (windows).
If you look at houses which have been rebuilt in burned areas in the past 25 years, you will notice that the houses are specifically designed to be self-protecting. This includes things such as clay roofs, no exterior wood trim, fire shutters on windows, etc.
After all, one’s home is often “more ignitable than the vegetation surrounding it.” This is according to Michelle Steinberg, director of the National Fire Prevention Agency’s (NFPA) Wildfire Division, who describes a common sight after wildfires in urban areas: smoking holes in the ground where houses once stood, surrounded by green trees. Steinberg explains that wildfire doesn’t simply march across a landscape incinerating everything in its path; it needs fuel sources to burn through. When it crosses the wilderness-urban divide and becomes what scientists describe as an “urban conflagration,” manmade structures replace trees and grasses as kindling. Recent urban conflagrations like the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma are particularly devastating because houses are so inherently flammable.
Thus, the goal of wildfire preparation measures is not to fireproof your home and property, but rather to limit its ability to act as a fuel source. “You’re not gonna eliminate all fire,” Steinberg cautions. “You’ll have some embers blowing in, maybe some grass catching on fire. What you want to do is eliminate its ability to do real harm.” Here are five strategies to guide your efforts, starting with the house itself and working outward.
California’s climate can best be described as “cool wet winters, hot dry summers”. Trees tend to be drought resistant, as does the grassland and other plants in the area. Any plant life that couldn’t withstand fire and drought just didn’t make it to the present.
Take the redwood. The bark on a redwood is very thick and the canopy is very high. It takes a hot, hot fire to get through the bark (which is nearly fireproof) and a very large fire to reach the flammable leaves. The same is true of the sequoia. Bristlecone pines, which can survive extreme drought, can be five thousand years old - you don’t make it that long without being able to survive a fire, or fifty fires.
In fact, fire is necessary for some of these trees to propagate. Sequoia seeds won’t germinate in leaf piles, but will in ash. Many species of trees wait until fires before they release their seeds, taking advantage of newly vacant land.
And trees can grow back very quickly after a fire - they’re very resistant to damage and fire often opens up a path to sunshine that a tree can take advantage of. It works the same with ice in my home country. A few years ago we had a massive ice storm that badly damaged trees. Go down the same streets today and you see beautiful trees that have grown past their damage.
And most of the wildfires don’t start in the forest anyway - they start in nearby grassland which can become tinder dry in late summer and starts burning with even the slightest provocation. One improperly discarded cigarette butt can turn into an inferno in moments.
You upvoted this
Thousands of Homes Incinerated but Trees Still Standing: Paradise Fire's Monstrous Path
'It was an urban conflagration,” Pangburn said. “It was structure-to-structure-to-structure ignition that carried the fire through this community.'
“It was an urban conflagration,” Pangburn said. “It was structure-to-structure-to-structure ignition that carried the fire through this community.”
Located in the Sierra foothills at an elevation that favored Ponderosa pines, Paradise might have seemed susceptible to the ravages of a forest fire. But what Pangburn realized is that the Camp Fire had changed its character upon entering the town — and in that revelation lay the hope for preventing tragedies such as this from happening again.
Fires that spread from house to house generate a force of their own. Embers, broadcast by the wind, find dry leaves, igniting one structure then another, and the cycle is perpetuated block after block. Break that cycle and the fire quits, and destruction can be minimized.
Paradise, though, never had that chance. Defensible space and hardened structures could not have kept the firestorm, carried on gusts clocking in the low 50s and feeding on the homes and low-lying vegetation, from reducing the town to ash.
Most telling were the trees. Most of the pines that sheltered this community still had their canopies intact. The needles, yellowed from the intense heat, were not burned — evidence that the winds that morning had pushed the fire along so fast it never had a chance to rise into the trees. But as a surface fire, it lit up the homes that lay in its path.
“I don’t know if there was anything that could have been done to save Paradise,” Pangburn said. “It was some of the most intense fire behavior that I have ever witnessed.”
More than a week later — with 79 fatalities and some 700 still missing, more than 10,000 homes destroyed and 150,000 acres consumed — Pangburn says there is opportunity in this destruction.
“The Camp Fire has been the most destructive wildland fire in the state of California, and we don’t want to experience this again,” he said. “We have to learn from this so that no one else will have to suffer through such an inferno.”
Drawing lessons from tragedy is never easy, especially when those lessons have been known for years.
“Our problem is a society that is unintentionally, but actively, ignoring opportunities because of the cultural perception of wildfire,” said Jack Cohen, who is retired from the U.S. Forest Service where he worked for 40 years as a fire research scientist.
That perception, he argues, is based on myth and fear and complicated by an ongoing narrative that attributes conflagrations like the Camp Fire to such factors as climate change, overgrown forests and urban encroachment into rural areas.
Each has played a role in perpetuating and prolonging recent fires, but they needn’t be entirely solved to minimize losses. There are steps that can be taken to protect homes and communities, he said, steps that require cooperation and political will.
The first step, Cohen said, is to address the misinformation about wildland fires.
Over decades, Americans have become disassociated from the reality of fire. Smokey Bear was almost too successful in demonizing wildfire. There is a time and a place and a set of circumstances when fires are beneficial for the landscape.
But video of flames purling up canyon walls and photographs of firefighters standing as heroic silhouettes against a wall of orange flames perpetuate the belief that fire is both scourge and enemy. The reality is more nuanced.
“People see what they believe, and that prevents change to a readily available, effective approach to preventing these disasters,” Cohen said.
The phenomenon in Paradise that Pangburn described — the fire spreading from structure to structure, tree canopies intact — is not unique to the Camp Fire.
Fire behaviorists have documented it throughout the West, most recently in the aftermath of the firestorms that ravaged Northern California last year.
In spite of this, the popular perception is that wildfires burn through these communities like a wall of flames. In fact, small, burning embers — firebrands — blown in advance of the fire are the primary cause of structural fires.
“When we look at the big flames but not the firebrands, we miss the principal igniter and pay attention to the show,” Cohen said.
Billions of these embers fly into neighborhoods, landing onto flammable roofs, into vegetation around the structure and rain gutters choked with leaves and needles.
Big flame fronts, on the other hand, are less effective in igniting structures because they burn fast — often consuming their fuels in about a minute or less in one location — and move along often so quickly as to not consume the structures themselves.
Yet in the face of increasingly severe and deadly wildfires throughout the country, Cohen maintains that it is possible to decrease the vulnerability of urban development in the face of these events.
“Uncontrolled extreme wildfires are inevitable,” he said, “but does that mean these disasters are inevitable? No. We have great opportunities as homeowners to prevent our houses from igniting during wildfires.”
Examining state fire codes
Pangburn’s assessment — that the Camp Fire in Paradise was an urban conflagration, structure to structure — opens the door for fire behaviorists to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the state’s codes for protecting property in fire-prone, rural environments.
The mandate in California, as stated in Public Resources Code Section 4291, is clear: A 100-foot perimeter of “defensible space” must be maintained in “land that is covered with flammable material.”
While the 100-foot requirement is appropriate, it is important to begin thinking closer to the structure itself and work out in concentric circles, Cohen said.
“We have to take care of everything from five feet out,” he said, “so that when it burns, it doesn’t produce enough radiation to ignite the structure or produce enough flames to contact the structure.”
The goal is to distinguish between structure fires and wildland fires and to understand that communities can be separated from wildland fire.
We don’t have to live in ammo bunkers, Cohen said, and we don’t have to entirely eliminate fire from within the perimeter, just ensure that fires that occur within 100 feet don’t burn long enough or intensely enough to ignite other objects.
A defensible perimeter also provides residents with more safety options as fire approaches.
Cohen refers to the story of the medical staff and patients from the hospital in Paradise who took refuge in a home. Climbing on the roof with hoses and clearing pine needles from the rain gutters, they were able to survive.
“A house that doesn’t burn is the best place to be during a wildfire,” he said.
However, the 100-foot requirement in California stops at the property line, which creates a situation where homes can be built beside one another within that perimeter.
If multiple homes share this perimeter, then each home is a potential ignition source, and homeowners cannot create a defensible space beyond their property line if that means trespassing on someone else’s property.
“All it takes is one house to catch on fire, and the heat and embers put the other houses in jeopardy,” Pangburn said.
Cal Fire is responsible for enforcing the requirements of 4291, but trying to inspect every property, spread out over a million acres, is a monumental task, Pangburn said.
Changing the social dynamic
If Paradise and the other communities destroyed by the Camp Fire are to be rebuilt, then the conversation must address the role that neighbors play collectively in protecting themselves and their environment.
The physics of fire won’t change, Cohen said, “but the social dynamic can. It requires cooperation and planning.”
Paradise could not have been saved, but its lessons have the potential for helping other communities when the next inevitable fire starts to burn.
In the aftermath of major urban fires — the conflagrations that destroyed Chicago and San Francisco, a 1973 blaze that destroyed a Boston neighborhood, a 1982 fire that took out four blocks in Anaheim — reforms led to stronger building codes and zoning laws, insurance requirements and advance fire protection systems.
Fire experts, like Cohen and Pangburn, hope that the devastation of the Camp Fire will lead not just to reform but to a greater understanding of what it means to live in a fire-prone, drought-ravaged landscape.
Fire agencies cannot be entirely relied upon to keep fire away from homes or keep homes from igniting.
“The wildlands firefighter’s job is to contain the wildfire,” Cohen said. It’s up to the community to keep itself safe.
Curwen reported from Los Angeles, Serna from Paradise.
©2018 the Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.