A better way to help Californians survive wildfires: Focus on homes, not trees

Thanks to the LA Times Editorial Board for saying what many environmental groups have been saying for over two decades now. Let’s stop wasting time and money (and blaming wildfires on “environmental terrorists” or “environmental extremists”) and get to work in the Home Ignition Zone with a laser-like focus! 

A better way to help Californians survive wildfires: Focus on homes, not trees
SEPTEMBER 22, 2020

Firestorms in the West have grown bigger and more destructive in recent years — and harder to escape. Massive and frenzied, they have overtaken people trying to outrun or outdrive them.

Gridlocked mountain roads prevented many Paradise residents from fleeing the Camp fire, which killed 85 people in 2018. This year, more than 30 people have died in the fires in California and Oregon, and again, in many cases, people were trying to escape fast-moving blazes.

There’s much work to be done on how we protect people amid a wildfire, including how and when we advise them to evacuate. But fire experts also are considering different ways to protect communities, and some of these ideas haven’t been given their full due as options for states that increasingly find themselves under siege.

One approach, seen in a bill proposed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), is to log more dead trees and dig more firebreaks, among other things. But it’s outmoded and environmentally problematic; environmental groups have attacked the bill for allowing the fast-tracking of logging permits, bypassing the normal review process, in areas far from any towns that could be threatened.

Beyond that, trying to prevent fires can lead to overgrown forests that set the stage for more catastrophic blazes. Rather than going down that road, or cutting trees and brush in order to make fires smaller and slower, the better, more scientifically based approach is to focus more on houses and less on trees.

Some of this is becoming common knowledge. Many Californians have heard the advice to install mesh screens on rooftop vents to prevent embers from getting into attic spaces, and to close off open eaves and the curves under clay tile, where embers can be trapped and smolder. The seminal work of Jack Cohen, a recently retired wildfire expert with the U.S. Forest Service, is finally being recognized: The conditions on and immediately around houses are more important to preserving lives than the conditions of the open brush or forest where the fire is centered.

“Uncontrolled, extreme wildfires are inevitable,” Cohen said.

What’s not inevitable is for houses to have wood decks and siding that give embers a chance to smolder, instead of patios and stucco exteriors. Exterior sprinklers help, too. Feinstein’s bill addresses this, with some help for fire-safe home renovations, but more as an afterthought. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill that targets community protection far more robustly.

Unlike what many people think, ground without plants can be a problem too: dead plant matter under gravel can catch fire, and wood-chip ground cover is even more dangerous. Well-planted green gardens are the best landscape for retarding fires, Cohen said, but that doesn’t have to mean heavy doses of water. Many drought-tolerant native plants are fire resistant and provide habitat for native wildlife — birds, bees and butterflies — as well.

The Escondido-based Chaparral Institute also is trying to get communities to look at smarter ways to save lives during catastrophic fires. Many communities located near vast open spaces such as national forests are rural in nature, with few routes out of town. During evacuations, cars choke the road, with the fire closing in from behind.

That’s why people shouldn’t have to leave town to be protected, the institute says. Other organizations are starting to take a similar view, especially after firefighters and law enforcement in Paradise saved the lives of 150 people by having them shelter in the parking lot of a strip mall. The fire raged around them, but they were safe. The Fire Safety Council of Mendocino County gives similar advice to residents there when evacuating might be risky.

Open, flat spaces within the community, preferably grassy, well-watered ones, could become effective areas for sheltering that might be a mile or two from people’s homes, providing a more realistic solution than expecting entire communities to drive 25 to 50 miles away, or even more. These spaces might include large playgrounds or sports fields at schools. Or cities could embrace the traditional idea of a large village green in the town center that serves as a communal gathering space for much of the year, and an emergency evacuation point during firestorms. Golf courses can perform the same function, and when placed between houses and backcountry, act as a buffer.

Forest management still has a role to play. And the state still needs to prevent residential areas from expanding any further into high-risk fire areas. But communities amid the brush exist throughout the state and must be made safer by following science. Protection from catastrophic wildfire is best done from the inside out rather than the other way around.

5 thoughts on “A better way to help Californians survive wildfires: Focus on homes, not trees”

  1. YES !!
    Reducing potential for home ignition is NEEDED regardless of what’s done on public forests!
    I encourage you to look @ Jack Cohen’s videos if you haven’t already.

    • I’m not sure I like the idea of not evacuating or designing openings big enough for large communities to shelter in place. But this looks like a chance for the LA Times editorial board to claim policies they don’t prefer are “unscientific” and take a swipe at Feinstein’s bill.

  2. https://wildfiretoday.com/2020/09/21/community-destruction-during-extreme-wildfires-is-a-home-ignition-problem/

    Community destruction during extreme wildfires is a home ignition problem
    Posted on September 21, 2020
    By Jack Cohen and Dave Strohmaier

    We must abandon our expectation that we can suppress 100% of wildfires and reject the false narrative that community protection requires wildfire control. Community wildfire disasters have only occurred during extreme conditions when high wind speed, low relative humidity, and flammable vegetation result in high fire intensities, rapid fire growth rates, and showers of burning embers (firebrands) starting new fires. Fire agencies primarily use wildfire suppression tactics for protecting communities from wildfires. But as we see from current extreme wildfire conditions in California, Oregon, and Washington, fire suppression can quickly become overwhelmed and ineffective.
    Wildfires, and thus extreme wildfires, are inevitable. Does that mean wildland-urban (WU) fire disasters are inevitable as well? Absolutely not! WU fire research has shown that homeowners can create ignition resistant homes to prevent community wildfire disasters. How can that be possible?
    Recall the destruction in Paradise, CA, during the extreme 2018 Camp Fire. Most of the totally destroyed homes in Paradise were surrounded by unconsumed tree canopies. Although many journalists and public officials believe this outcome was unusual, the pattern of unconsumed vegetation adjacent to and surrounding total home destruction is typical of WU fire disasters. In 2020 we see the same patterns of home destruction and adjacent unconsumed vegetation in photos from Malden, WA, and Phoenix, Talent, Blue River, and Mill City OR. Home destruction with adjacent unconsumed shrub and tree vegetation indicates the following:
    • High intensity wildfire does not continuously spread through a residential area as a tsunami or flood of flame.
    • Unconsumed shrub and tree canopies adjacent to homes do not produce high intensity flames that ignite the homes; ignitions can only be from burning embers and low intensity surface fires.
    • The “big flames” of high intensity wildfires are not causing total home destruction.
    Surprisingly, research has shown that home ignitions during extreme wildfires result from conditions local to a home. A home’s ignition vulnerabilities in relation to nearby burning materials within 100 feet principally determine home ignitions. This area of a home and its immediate surroundings is called the home ignition zone (HIZ). Typically, lofted burning embers initiate ignitions within the HIZ – to homes directly and nearby flammables leading to homes. Although an intense wildfire can loft firebrands more than one-half mile to start fires, the minuscule local conditions where the burning embers land and accumulate determine ignitions. Importantly, most home destruction during extreme wildfires occurs hours after the wildfire has ceased intense burning near the community; the residential fuels – homes, other structures, and vegetation – continue fire spread within the community.
    Uncontrollable extreme wildfires are inevitable; however, by reducing home ignition potential within the HIZ we can create ignition resistant homes and communities. Thus, community wildfire risk should be defined as a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem. Unfortunately, protecting communities from wildfire by reducing home ignition potential runs counter to established orthodoxy.
    There are good reasons to do “fuel treatments” for ecological and commercial objectives. But the greatest fuel treatment effect on wildfire behavior is within the fuel treatment area; fuel treatments do not stop extreme wildfires. So let’s call a spade a spade and not pretend that many, or even most fuel treatment projects actually reduce home ignition potential during extreme wildfires. Because local conditions determine home ignitions, the most effective “fuel treatment” addressing community wildfire risk reduces home ignition potential within HIZs and the community. Wildfires, exacerbated by climate change, will occur. Community destruction during extreme wildfires will continue as long as wildfire suppression remains the primary approach for community protection. Conducting the same ineffective strategy and tactics expecting different results will continue to be a recipe for disaster when it comes to protecting homes from extreme wildfire.
    To make this shift, land managers, elected officials, and members of the public must question some of our most deeply ingrained assumptions regarding fire. For the sake of fiscal responsibility, scientific integrity, and effective outcomes, it’s high time we abandon the tired and disingenuous policies of our century-old all-out war on wildfire and fuel treatments conducted under the guise of protecting communities. Instead, let’s focus on mitigating WU fire risk where ignitions are determined – within the home ignition zone.

    Jack Cohen, PhD, retired US Forest Service Research fire scientist determined how structures ignite during extreme wildfires, created the home ignition zone concept, and co-developed NFPA Firewise USA.

    Dave Strohmaier is Missoula County Commissioner. He previously worked for both the Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service in fire management, and has published two books on the subject of wildfire in the West.

  3. I disagree. I think it also very important that we try and protect our forests. I will not accept the idea that our forests have to burn up. It is especially important due to our warming climate the we do everything we can to try and keep our forests green, absorbing carbon and moderating the climate.


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading