California’s age of megafires

California’s age of megafires

 24 October 2007

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Los Angeles, USA — There’s a reason fire squads nowbattling more than a dozen blazes in southern California are having suchdifficulty containing the flames, despite better preparedness than ever anddecades of experience fighting fires fanned by the notorious Santa Ana winds.The wildfires themselves, experts say, generally are hotter, move faster, andspread more erratically than in the past.

The short-term explanation is that the region, which usually has dry summers,has had nine inches less rain than normal this year.

Longer term, climate change across the West is leading to hotter days onaverage and longer fire seasons. Experts say this is likely to yield moremegafires like the conflagrations that this week forced evacuations of at least300,000 resident in California’s southland and led President Bush to declare adisaster emergency in seven counties on Tuesday.

On alert: In Orange County’s FoothillRanch, residents watched and waited for evacuation orders Monday, as did manyCalifornians.
Photo: Daniel A. Anderson/Orange County Register

Megafires, also called “siege fires,” are the increasingly frequentblazes that burn 500,000 acres or more – 10 times the size of the averageforest fire of 20 years ago. One of the current wildfires is the sixth biggestin California ever, in terms of acreage burned, according to state figures andnews reports.

The trend to more superhot fires, experts say, has been driven by acentury-long policy of the US Forest Service to stop wildfires as quickly aspossible. The unintentional consequence was to halt the natural eradication ofunderbrush, now the primary fuel for megafires.

Three other factors contribute to the trend, they add. First is climatechange marked by a 1-degree F. rise in average yearly temperature across theWest. Second is a fire season that on average is 78 days longer than in the late1980s. Third is increased building of homes and other structures in wooded areas.

“We are increasingly building our homes … in fire-prone ecosystems,”says Dominik Kulakowski, adjunct professor of biology at Clark UniversityGraduate School of Geography in Worcester, Mass. Doing that “in many of theforests of the Western US … is like building homes on the side of an activevolcano.”

In California, where population growth has averaged more than 600,000 a yearfor at least a decade, housing has pushed into such areas.

“What once was open space is now residential homes providing fuel tomake fires burn with greater intensity,” says Terry McHale of theCalifornia Department of Forestry firefighters union. “With so much dryness,so many communities to catch fire, so many fronts to fight, it becomes an almostincredible job.”

That said, many experts give California high marks for making progress onpreparedness since 2003, when the largest fires in state history scorched750,000 acres, burned 3,640 homes, and killed 22 people. Stung then by criticismof bungling that allowed fires to spread when they might have been contained,personnel are meeting the peculiar challenges of neighborhood- andcanyon-hopping fires better than in recent years, observers say.

State promises to provide newer engines, planes, and helicopters have beenfulfilled. Firefighters unions that then complained of dilapidated equipment,old fire engines, and insufficient blueprints for fire safety are now praisingthe state’s commitment, noting that funding for firefighting has increaseddespite huge cuts in many other programs.

“We are pleased that the Schwarzenegger administration has been veryproactive in its support of us and come through with budgetary support of theinfrastructure needs we have long sought,” says Mr. McHale with thefirefighters union.

Besides providing money to upgrade the fire engines that must traverse themammoth state and wind along serpentine canyon roads, the state has invested inbetter command-and-control facilities as well as the strategies to run them.

“In the fire sieges of earlier years, we found out that we had thewillingness of mutual-aid help from other jurisdictions and states, but we werenot able to communicate adequately with them,” says Kim Zagaris, chief ofthe state’s Office of Emergency Services, fire and rescue branch. After a 2004blue-ribbon commission examined and revamped those procedures, the statewideresponse “has become far more professional and responsive,” he says.

Besides ordering the California National Guard on Monday to make 1,500guardsmen available for firefighting efforts, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger askedthe Pentagon to send all available Modular Airborne Fighting Systems to the area.The military Lockheed C-130 cargo/utility aircraft carry a pressurized3,000-gallon tank that can eject fire retardant or water in fewer than fiveseconds through two tubes at the rear of the plane. This load can cover an area1/4-mile long and 60 feet wide to create a fire barrier.

Governor Schwarzenegger also directed 2,300 inmate firefighters and 170custody staff from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitationto work hand in hand with state and local firefighters.

Residents and government officials alike are noting the improvements withgratitude, even amid the loss of homes, churches, businesses, and farms. ByTuesday morning, the fires had burned 1,200 homes and businesses and set 245,957acres – 384 square miles – ablaze,

Despite such losses, there is a sense that the speed, dedication, andcoordination of firefighters from several states and jurisdictions are resultingin greater efficiency than in past “siege fire” situations.

“I am extraordinarily impressed by the improvements we have witnessedbetween the last big fire and this,”says Ross Simmons, a San Diego-based lawyer who had to evacuate both his homeand business on Monday, taking up residence at a Hampton Inn 30 miles south ofhis home in Rancho Bernardo. After fires consumed 172,000 acres there in 2003,the San Diego region turned communitywide soul-searching into improved buildingcodes, evacuation procedures, and procurement of new technology. Mr. Simmons andneighbors began receiving automated phone calls at 3:30 a.m. Monday morningtelling them to evacuate.

“Nothwithstanding all the damage that will be caused by this, we willnot come close to the loss of life because of what we have … put in placesince then,” he says.

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