“We keep trying to stop the fires” Char Miller

We keep trying to stop the fires
Essay -Published in High Country News here August 12, 2010 by Char Miller

Scorched earth and gnarled oaks lit up like flares. Blackened skies and the whomp-whomp-whomp of helicopters aloft as evacuees huddle in a local school. This quick-cut imagery can mean only one thing in California: The summer fire season has begun.

Although the first major fires in the Southern California counties of Kern and Los Angeles have been contained, the larger lessons to be drawn from this trio of late-July fires already are obvious. The stunning devastation from last summer’s Station Fire, and the political inferno it ignited, is driving a much-more aggressive firefighting response this summer.

Take the wind-whipped Bull Fire. It started July 26 in the Sequoia National Forest, and within three days had swept through 16,000 acres of grass and brush along the Kern River, near the town of Kernville. Nearly 2400 fire-fighting personnel battled the blaze, at their command an impressive arsenal of 124 fire engines, five bulldozers, 16 water tenders, and 14 helicopters. That ground and air technology, combined with 99 hand crews doing the essential back-breaking labor to clear fire lines around the perimeter, was a sign of the seriousness with which this early outbreak was taken.

Every bit as significant was the swift reaction to the West Fire. It flared up July 27, not far from major wind farms. The same gusting force that turns those turbines propelled the fire through the kindling-dry landscape; within two days it had burnt through an estimated 1400 acres. However small it may have appeared, the West also drew a major crew to extinguish it: more than 1000 firefighters from county, state, and federal agencies worked in conjunction with eight helicopters, nine fixed-wing aircraft and a fleet of engines and dozers.

They also got a governor. Not one to miss a fire-action photo-op, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made an appearance at Tehachapi High School, command post for the West’s operations. He did what governors should do, praising the first responders and declaring Kern County a disaster area, a declaration that frees up additional state funding for the emergency. But his most critical contribution was in showing up. His presence underscores that politics, not science, is determining when and how fires will be fought.

True, one reason so many firefighters raced to the West Fire, and another 1750 were quickly dispatched to the fast-moving 14,000-acre Crown Fire near Palmdale, is that these areas have not burned in a very long time. The fuel load, and thus the level of fire danger, was (and remains) extreme.

Yet another reason why so many resources were hurled at Bull, West, and Crown fires is the searing memory of the 2009 fire that got away. Last August, a small, arson-ignited fire in the Angeles National Forest blew up into the single largest conflagration in the history of Los Angeles County. When the Station Fire finally was brought under control in October, it had torched more than 250 square miles of the San Gabriel Mountains, killed two firefighters and destroyed countless structures.

Its charred acres have become an in-your-face warning to firefighting agencies across the state. So have Congressional hearings that charged the Forest Service with mismanagement and media investigations that unearthed damning evidence about a possible cover-up of its actions. Because no agency head wants to endure such public scrutiny, and because no one wants to bear witness to the anguish of burned-out communities, every fire now is going to get hit hard.

This is not the smartest response. Not all fires must be controlled; some are essential to maintain ecosystem health. Not all firefighting makes economic sense, either. Yes, the commitment to protect human life is non-negotiable, the swift punishment of arsonists is essential and the need for more funds to fireproof the wildland-urban interface is critical.

But it is also true that Californians and other Westerners must become a lot smarter about where they choose to live. If they decide to reside in fire zones, they need to learn how to safely inhabit those areas so as not to endanger the lives of those racing to their rescue.

In the immediate aftermath of the Station Fire, these cautionary insights have gone up in smoke. Now that fire has become so politicized, whenever and wherever sparks fly, a small army of firefighters will storm in and flame-retardant will rain down.

Char Miller is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is director of the environmental analysis program at Pomona College in California and the author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism.

11 thoughts on ““We keep trying to stop the fires” Char Miller”

  1. So Char, do you have any ideas about how to improve the situation? How do you think, for example, litigating the use of fire retardant will work?

    Also, do you think that the structure of the fire organization, being separate and yet a part of the FS, and a part of a multiagency effort, contributes to, or helps with, the problem. For example this op-ed. I don’t know much about the fire organization, and even less the Station Fire, still I wonder when it’s time to be accountable, to what extent is it clear what is the responsibility of the incident command, compared to the local officials?

  2. The Station Fire was a disaster lurking for the last decade. With “old growth” chapparal dominating the formar landscape, this is a perfect example of how “unstewardship” results in “unintended consequences”. There has been no timber industry in SoCal for 20 years, so the Times cannopt blame them. If the Angeles NF had done much in the way of fire safety, they surely would have been assaulted in the press and litigated by “chapparal huggers”.

    Toda’s fire folks also seem to think they are exempt from NEPA laws. They seem to think they are now the leader for managing forest lands, in the west. Fires will continue to trump all other formal forest planning. All too often, projects are planned and prepared, only to burn before they are implemented. Only when the public demands that Congress write laws that will make it through the courts, will the gridlock be broken.

  3. Foto.. a look at the Angeles project website here suggests they are conducting numerous fuels reduction activities. So it seems we may have to look deeper.

  4. Of course, it is key to have “plans” in the pipeline, especially knowing that money will be dug up or stolen from elsewhere. However, effectively reducing fuels on a scale that would have an impact just isn’t very possible right now. The San Bernardino NF was flying fuels out by helicopter! All 4 SoCal Forests are fumbling their way along, trying to deal with decades of fuels build-ups. They have little in the way of contracting and project preparation expertise.

    The deeper look shows that the brush problem didn’t get dealt with. 2000 acres worth in the last 2-3 years is pretty inadequate over the whole Forest. There were other projects planned, but they didn’t get done for one reason, or another. Just think if the Station Fire would have burned during the Santa Ana winds!

  5. I am having trouble imagining a solution to the problem, though.
    In terms of future settlement into brush or treed country we could make and enforce zoning to not allow it.

    But for now, all I can imagine is that we could make sure that insurance companies (and ultimately homeowners) paid their fair share of firefighting costs.

    We could make sure there are fuelbreaks around areas of a certain density of human habitation and leave the rest to burn, and let insurance pay to rebuild. This would have to be accompanied by evacuation plans.

    I don’t think depopulating communities in fire- prone areas is very practical or just, as I’ve said before. To be just, we would also depopulate in earthquake prone areas, flood prone areas, etc.

    What other ideas are floating around?

  6. There are no clear or easy answers for how to resolve the fire issues in the larger LA region. In truth this area has always burned; the chapparal to an extent is a fire-adapted species. But the larger issue is not about natural forces so much as it is about the human presence: with close to 20M people living the Southland, and a large number of them seeking homes in and around the fire zones, even if we had the money to create and/or incentivize the creation of defensible space–which we don’t–almost any fire anywhere will threaten the built environment. There is nothing new about this insight–I did a short, retrospective piece in the Journal of Forestry in December 2008 about an article it had published in the 1940s about fires in Los Angeles; many of the same human-wildfire issues that we confront today, they identified then. I confess that as a historian I worry how little we listen to past warnings about contemporary challenges!

  7. Maybe certain extremely-high fire hazard zones SHOULD have no taxpayers fire protections, and hence, can hire their own fire protection, either as a group, or as an individual. Any house built within the last 20 years might also be levied a “fire tax”, if they exist in those special fire hazard zones. Builders and homeowners cannot claim that they didn’t know about the fire hazards down there.

  8. They cannot plead ignorance, to be sure. And yet there is a kind of amnesia that sets in when it is your house, your subdivision; when the development’s very presence on the land seems to signal the human control of nature. Confirmation this is reflected in this riveting photo that the LA Times took of the Crown fire: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-crown-valley-fire-pictures,0,3717673.photogallery (photo number 16) I am using such photographic evidence in one of my classes this fall, in conjunction with Steve Pyne’s America’s Fires (revised: Forest History Society), and the students’ assignment is to use his insights to help them analyze any image like this from any recent Southland fire. If nothing else it may allow them to bring these ideas down to earth.

  9. Chris- Thanks for the paper. It seems to be a fairly comprehensive list of possibilities. Just to share a bit of Char’s frustration, I remember talking about the insurance issue in meetings when I worked on Capitol Hill in 95. And I also remember sending air tankers to a fire on Long Island at the behest of a Congressperson. Seems like we talk and talk, but don’t move forward.

    These decisions, though, are fundamentally political, not scientific, decisions. They are about how Californians (and others) choose to spend their tax dollars (federal, state and local). One of my policy teachers told me that policy is like a merry-go-round .. you have a good idea and opportunities come by- most of the time you miss the brass ring, but one day if you keep riding, conditions will be right and you can grab the ring and move your policy forward.

    Perhaps now is the time, due to tough economic times meaning fewer bucks for firefighting and less pressure for new developments, potential cost of gasoline to get out farther into the country, and the specter of conditions getting worse due to climate change. Maybe we need a coalition of folks to lobby for change.

  10. Clearly this is not just a western US kind of problem. I just ran across this article by Roger Pielke and others on Australian bushfires. while it’s mostly about climate change signal, I noticed this quote in the abstract:

    Land use planning policies in bushfire-prone parts of this country that allow such development increase the risk that bushfires pose to the public and the built environment.

    I suppose that, in the fire literature somewhere, is some benchmarking of successful policies around the world dealing with the “development in fire country” issue.


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