October 23, 2007
More Megafires In California Future?

The US West might be facing long massive droughts and the megafire problem now plaguing Southern California might portend even worse problems to come.

Longer term, climate change across the West is leading to hotter days on average and longer fire seasons. Experts say this is likely to yield more megafires like the conflagrations that this week forced evacuations of at least 300,000 resident in California's southland and led President Bush to declare a disaster emergency in seven counties on Tuesday.

Hollywood producers ought to start thinking about a movie script where a megafire threatens to burn all of California. But make a movie better than that one where all an earthquake threatened to dump all of the West Coast into the ocean.

Megafires, also called "siege fires," are the increasingly frequent blazes that burn 500,000 acres or more 10 times the size of the average forest fire of 20 years ago. One of the current wildfires is the sixth biggest in California ever, in terms of acreage burned, according to state figures and news reports.

Megafires seem like a technologically solvable problem. People living in the American West need to start thinking seriously what to do about these fires. Houses can be built with more flame resistant designs and materials. Zoning and forest management practices can reduce the risks as well. Larger amounts of equipment (e.g. airplanes, water trucks) for delivering large amounts of water and flame retardant chemicals can be stockpiled and methods can be worked out to mobilize the equipment more rapidly. Canyon areas could even have water towers and water pumps for delivering much larger quantities of water onto fires.

Malibu seems especially suitable for some large scale projects to extinguish fires. The Pacific Ocean is right there with plenty of water. What is needed is a way to very rapidly pump huge amounts of sea water up into canyons. What would such a capability cost?

These fires don't just create problems while they are burning. The 240,000 acre Zaca fire burned in the hills behind Santa Barbara for months this summer but was put out in early September. The same Santa Ana winds which have been spreading fires down around LA and San Diego have also been blowing up the ash from extinguished Zaca fire. On some recent days that ash has totally hid the mountains behind Santa Barbara from view. I had no idea that airborne ash from an extinguished fire could reach such thick concentrations and cause such limited visibility over such a wide area. The ash gets in one's eyes and makes the air pollution rating very bad.

The ratio of people evacuated to homes burned is instructive. While 1300 homes have burned so far the estimates for evacuees run from a half million to nearly 1 million.

SAN DIEGO As a dozen fires raged along the coast of Southern California Tuesday for a third day, San Diego County took the brunt of the wind-whipped fury that forced the evacuation of more than 350,000 houses, encompassing nearly 950,000 people based on average household size, including 10,000 evacuees huddled in QualComm stadium.

The massive size of the evacuations argues for the development of much better methods for controlling fires. The economic disruption hundreds of thousands evacuated costs a lot of lost production. How best to minimize the impact of fires in the future? Anyone have some good ideas?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 October 23 11:14 PM  Dangers Natural General

HellKaiserRyo said at October 23, 2007 11:47 PM:

Salting the earth near the fires and clearing the brush...

Don't know if it would work.

dbh said at October 24, 2007 5:19 AM:

I believe that most of the prep work you mention is in fact done. Salt water is occaisionally used, but sparingly since it will inhibit new growth after a fire. But water scooping planes, etc. are available and fresh water is often used.

Prepositioning equipment presents a problem because you aren't sure where. In the current conflagration, the range covered by the fires is almost 400miles north to south and almost 200 miles east to west. Prepositioning massive equipment everywhere there might be a fire would be prohibitively expensive.

rsilvetz said at October 24, 2007 8:22 AM:

Folks, NO. I'm so tired of folks not putting the blame where it should be. Nobody in their right mind would let brush accumulate. WE ARE PREVENTED FROM HARVESTING AND CLEARING THE BRUSH IN THE VALLEYS BY ENVIRONMENTAL LAWS THAT HAVE DECLARED ALL SUCH AREAS NATURE PRESERVES. Instead of blaming environmentalists for forcing suicidal behavior, we watch the fires burn and suffer absurd property losses and evacs of millions.

And YES -- I DO LIVE IN SAN DIEGO. Thinking seriously of moving to Henderson, NV.

Wolf-Dog said at October 24, 2007 8:47 AM:

So far the fire storm is still only in Los Angeles area, but is there a possibility that it might reach Santa Barbara?

Fat Man said at October 24, 2007 10:32 AM:

If the area is going to be dryer, it will be less likely to have big fires because it will have less fuel. The real issue here is urban planning. Allowing houses to be built in forests means the houses will burn in forest fires. Permits to rebuild burned houses should not be issued. Just like houses destroyed by hurricanes, the real issue is their location.

tommy said at October 24, 2007 10:40 AM:
Megafires seem like a technologically solvable problem. People living in the American West need to start thinking seriously what to do about these fires. Houses can be built with more flame resistant designs and materials. Zoning and forest management practices can reduce the risks as well.

Yes, but remember that plenty of imbeciles in California still build their houses on steep slopes very prone to mudslides. I have never understood why this is allowed.

Brett Bellmore said at October 24, 2007 2:09 PM:

"Permits to rebuild burned houses should not be issued. Just like houses destroyed by hurricanes, the real issue is their location."

It is, in fact, perfectly possible to build homes which will stand up to hurricanes; You might notice that they don't rebuild every home in Florida after a hurricane passes by. Ditto for earthquakes. The problem here is building codes: It's entirely feasible to build a home you could hole up in while one of these fires passed by. And somewhat cheaper to build one that would merely still be standing when you returned to it. In other words, don't demand that large parts of a state be permanently evacuated just because the building industry is excessively fond of flammable materials.

Anyway, Rsilvetz is right: The chief problem here is that huge quantities of fuel are allowed to accumulate, indeed, clearing it is prohibited. Rather amazing in a state that's so obsessed about alternative energy...

Steven said at October 24, 2007 3:15 PM:

Aggressively fighting fires was a mistake because it allowed forests to become overcrowded and ripe for fires nearly impossible to control.

The Payette National Forest in central Idaho is now letting them burn out.


Randall Parker said at October 24, 2007 5:01 PM:

Fat Man,

There's more to it than location.

There's a pretty good documentary that runs occasionally on a California public access cable channel made years ago about how to reduce the risk your house will burn during a big forest fire. Part of the problem is that hot embers are blown even miles. So wood decks and wood window sills will cause a house to get burnt down. Building codes and retrofits on existing houses can greatly reduce the risk of getting burned down in a big fire.

Also, nearby trees are a problem even if the house has non-flammable surfaces. The heat from a burning tree can raise temperatures inside a house so high that the internals will catch fire spontaneously. There's an easy solution to this too: Cut down nearby trees. Of course, people like nearby trees for the shade and their beauty. So houses burn down.

Robert Silvetz and Steven,

Allowing fires can help wilderness areas. But it is not a solution in high housing density areas. The burning trees will take out the houses that are supposed to be protected. Cutting down trees shrubs is more practical in areas densely populated with humans.

Mthson said at October 24, 2007 7:20 PM:

"Rich Homeowners Get Extra Fire Protection: One Insurance Company Fights Fires, Spraying Pricey Homes With Fire Retardant"

AIG won't say how many homes it is spraying or how much the 2-year-old program costs. But Stan Rivera, director of wildfire protection for AIG Private Client Group, said it is well worth the expense.

Such spraying typically costs about $1,000 on the open market. The average home in AIG's Private Client Group is worth about $2 million.

Since the program was launched in June 2005, three homes have been saved directly as a result, Rivera said. In each case, the fires burned right up to the line where the spray was.

The total property damage has been reported to be more than one billion USD. Combined with the disruption to the economy, that's a pretty large budget the gov has to fight the fire. With such a large budget, it seems like it would be worth it to rapidly bring in firefighters and equipment from even somewhat far away (limited firefighting assets has been stated to be an issue).

Roach said at October 25, 2007 6:15 AM:

Publicly hanging arsonists would be a good start.

K said at October 25, 2007 12:15 PM:

Only a little can be done. Fires are normal to these areas because the brush is so dry late in the year. High winds, in addition to fire induced winds, are normal too.

Others have mentioned what can be done. The key is to reduce damage. The easiest and cheapest tactic is keeping brush away from your house.

Stop houses from burning easily. One problem is that an exterior can be relatively fireproof and the house may still burn. When the fire is hot enough outside the heat radiates in through the windows and builds up within. Less commonly a fire will burn long enough to simply bake the house. Don't store flamable materials on the property or in the garage unless they absolutely must be there.

Social measures are always difficult to implement. But mandate that insurance companies set rates for each house based upon an independent assessment of the design, materials, and site. The state insurance commission has that power. Setting blanket rates by home value within a wide area makes no sense, it is done because it is easy. Independent assessments of homes for sale are made, why not independent assessments of fire risk?

Faster detection of fires. This is undoubtedly being developed and may not be easy. Still, brush fires should have an infrared signature that software can separate from background heat sources. A steady increase in total heat from a location would be suspect.

Fire plans. Each household should rehearse what they will do before leaving the house. Know how long each step will require.

momochan said at October 25, 2007 6:17 PM:

Two recent studies which could be at odds with each other -- or are they?

Homes Fuel The Fires More Than Forests

"Our study shows that fireproofing of homes is important not only for the houses, but also for the forest,"

More Large Forest Fires Linked To Climate Change

The new finding points to climate change, not fire suppression policies and forest fuel accumulation, as the primary driver of recent increases in large forest fires.

Randall Parker said at October 26, 2007 7:47 PM:


I'm skeptical of both studies.

First off the homes versus forests: The big fires in Calfornia burn in brush and forests. They spend little of their time in homes. The Zaca Lake fire near Santa Barbara this summer that burned for months and burned down only a structures. But it burned 240,000 acres.

Sure, fire-proofing will save houses and will even save forests. It is very worth doing. But the bulk of the burning happens in forests.

As for fires and climate change: One has to assume that CO2 build-up has already substantially changed climate to conclude climate change is the biggest cause of the fires. We already know that big drought periods happen naturally. The current drought in the West is not as severe as previous naturally occurring droughts. So our current drought could be just part of the natural pattern of droughts.

I think the bigger problem in California is that the population has grown, mainly due to immigration. So we have pushed into areas which used to have little to no housing in them.

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