Tuesday, October 23

Crying "Fire!" in a crowded world: California wildfires

Fire Wars narrator: "What remains is a paradox: our efforts to control fire have actually made conditions worse, setting the stage for larger, more catastrophic wildfires than ever before."

October 22, 2007
"Like a scene out of War of the Worlds, traffic northbound on Interstate 5 from Oceanside to San Juan Capistrano was packed with cars and trucks loaded with belongings as people headed to relative safety to the north, black clouds of smoke darkening the sky behind them.

"The fire is everywhere in San Diego now. You don't know where you can go to escape it."

"The issue this time is not preparedness," San Diego City Council President Scott Peters said. "It's that the event is so overwhelming."(1)
October 23, 2007
San Diego officials said they were so overwhelmed by the size and number of fires that they initially couldn't get an accurate count of how many homes had been destroyed. They fear the fires may be worse than a 2003 blaze that caused $1.1 billion in damage, destroying 4,847 structures.

"We've never seen anything like this. The fires are coming at us from all angles in the worst possible weather conditions," said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders.

"The fires are really spreading very rapidly," said Neena Saith, an analyst at Risk Management Solutions in London, which models disasters for insurers, in a telephone interview. "In terms of the numbers of homes damaged, we're looking at it being in the top-five events in California history."(2)
The California fires are the story of the week; everything else pales in comparison to the horror of a major American city, in one of the most important economic regions in the world, laid siege by wildfires.

Three days into watching the unfolding catastrophe in southern California, I recalled NOVA's Fire Wars and its terrible warnings. Here are a few excerpts from the documentary:
NARRATOR: So far, in the year 2000, fires have consumed almost three million acres, a million more than an average season. They've burned down hundreds of buildings and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate. More and more Americans are building homes near wilderness areas. Few are prepared to share their property with fire.

NEIL SAMPSON: Most of the time those of us that move out into the countryside don't realize we're in a fire environment because we've never seen a fire there. Fires have been suppressed there for a very, very long time. There's not a person out there that has a memory of a large fire. So in everybody's mind, this is not a fire environment. It hasn't burned.

STEVE PYNE: What we've done is take sort of the two extreme values of American environmentalism, the city and the wild. We're ramming them together and it's sort of matter and anti-matter collision, and, uh, we shouldn't be surprised that it's exploding.

NARRATOR: Even in an environment where wildfire is natural and inevitable, homeowners still expect the government to protect them at almost any cost. One way to do this is regular prescribed burning. But prescribed fires are risky, too, as Los Alamos learned earlier this year. And there's another downside to prescribed fire, smoke.

NEIL SAMPSON: If we use a lot of fire, we may discomfort an awful lot of people, because the smoke and the air pollution is a real problem. So, it's not, uh, a harmless situation. It may be natural, but it's not harmless.

NARRATOR: Time and again, communities limit prescribed burning because of smoke, leaving themselves more vulnerable to wildfire.

WOMAN AT BUS STOP : The most traumatic was having a policeman come to my door and say, pack up your things, decide what you think is important and get ready to leave. The fire came racing down the mountain. I've heard firefighters say that they've fought fires for 25 years and they've never seen a fire race down a mountain like that. It's so dry. [...]

NARRATOR: Whether from prescribed fire or wildfire, there will be smoke. Here in the northern Rockies, only a few hours from Clear Creek, a dozen other big fires are burning. A thick, choking haze lies like a blanket over the region, so wide and dense it can be seen from space.

And smoke is more than an inconvenience for nearby residents. It's a key factor in global warming—how much so is one of the biggest questions in fire science today. [...]

NARRATOR: One purpose of Frostfire is to find out how forest fires contribute to global warming, the gradual increase in the earth's temperature that scientists have observed. So firefighters have cut eight miles of fireline around this entire valley and plan to burn all 2200 acres. [...]

Many scientists believe global warming is connected with the levels of carbon gasses in the air. Carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane, the "greenhouse" gasses, are released by burning fossil fuels and forests. All living things contain carbon, and one third of the earth's carbon is found in these northern forests—some in the trees, more frozen in the "permafrost," the icy subsoil.

DAVID V. SANDBERG: Permafrost exists in this environment with an average temperature of about one degree below freezing all year round. So it doesn't take much in terms of either warming the soil or removing this insulating layer of duff before that melts. And if that melts a tremendous change will happen here.

NARRATOR: If the permafrost melts, huge volumes of greenhouse gasses will be released. This could speed global warming, causing more forest fires. More fires would release still more gasses, fueling a dangerous spiral of climate change and fire.

DAVID V. SANDBERG: This is the layer that really counts. It's where the carbon is. It's where the insulation for the permafrost layer is. So we want a good severe burn that burns down into this duff and moss layer, but one that's controllable and manageable. We've been planning this thing for 10, 15 years. And this is the first chance that we've really seen a condition when we should really get the kind of burn that'll, that'll tell us something.

NARRATOR: Burn day: the scientists and the firefighters are ready.

DAVE DASH (Frostfire burn boss): This is the time for everybody to pay attention and to please follow instructions.

NARRATOR: Dave Dash is the burn boss on Frostfire, the man who decides if conditions are right for the experiment. He has to be sure the 100 firefighters on this burn can keep it under control, and he has to get the right kind of fire for the scientists.

FIREFIGHTER GIBBS: What do you think the winds are?

NARRATOR: Everything has to be perfect: wind, temperature, humidity.

FIREFIGHTER GIBBS: ...equals 72 percent humidity.

NARRATOR: If not, Frostfire could be postponed for another whole year.

DAVID V. SANDBERG: We're this close. It's closer than we've ever been, but we''s got to get 10 or 12 degrees warmer before we're in prescription.

FIREFIGHTER GIBBS: I.C.P., this is Gibbs with the weather.

I.C.P.: Go ahead.

FIREFIGHTER GIBBS: We have a dry bulb of 55, wet bulb of 50. Relative humidity is 72 percent.

DAVE DASH: Okay, let's do the burn.

MAN: Narrow your strip up a little bit between you and Emily.

VOICES: Spot! Spot!

LAURA BIANCA [firefighter]: Too much line.

DAVE DASH: We've been burning two hours, twenty minutes. It's smoky when the wind turns the wrong way, but we've been pretty lucky with the winds, so far. So...

DAVID V. SANDBERG: It's a little weak, but it's going to do the job for today. I think it is ...

DAVE DASH: How far down to the bottom are you? Or how far from the bottom?

VOICE ON RADIO: Well, let me just swing around and tell you. It looks like the column is on...close to 6,000 or so...

DAVE DASH: I would think that through today they'd have enough, that they could get what they were looking for, but...

DAVID V. SANDBERG: It's going wonderful for us. We just got through burning in one of the key research areas and we've got several more to go. But at this point it's hard to go wrong.

NARRATOR: The day after the burn the scientists are hard at work, measuring the fire's severity and recording its effects.

BOB VIHNANEK (U.S.D.A. Forest Service Research): We have pins in the ground, can see one sticking up right here. Those were placed flush with the forest floor material before the burn, and so what is exposed is the area that's, that's burned.

DAVID V. SANDBERG: The bulk of the work is done by hand measurements of every component of the biomass system.

ROGER D. OTTMAR (U.S.D.A. Forest Service Research): ...seventy-two millimeters. It looks like it was a very high intensity burn, but for a very short duration period.

NARRATOR: The results show that this short burn has released 10 tons of potent greenhouse gasses. Multiply this by the thousands of wildfires that burn every year and the answer is frightening.

NEIL SAMPSON: I estimated that in the year 2000 with the fires that were in the 11 western states, that we may have released the equivalent of 75 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere through the carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane that was released. So this is a really, really difficult problem. [...]
Now go back to the beginning, and read NOVA's history of how America came to declare war on wildfires -- and the "paradoxical" results.

1) Southern California's ring of wildfires, Inside Bay Area

2) California's wind-drive fires char 356,000 acres, Bloomberg

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