California faces up to year-round forest fires

California faces up to year-round forest fires

2 December 2009

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USA — The past year has seen some of the most devastating wildfires in California since records began.

Lives have been lost, great swathes of land have been blackened and hundreds of homes have been destroyed. In August, a blaze which became known as the Station Fire burned more than 650 sq km (250 square miles) of the Angeles National Forest.

Two fire fighters were killed and 89 homes were destroyed.

The fire, the biggest in Los Angeles County history, took over a month to fully contain.

“A fire is a force of nature that most people can’t comprehend,” says retired firefighter Cpt Jim Wilkins.

“The sheer energy that’s coming at you, the heat, and the sound – the sound alone is terrifying.”

Traditionally, the California fire season has occurred in the final few months of the year.

Vegetation is dry after the long hot summer and fast-moving, hot winds, known as Santa Ana winds, blow through the canyons from the Great Basin to the Pacific.

But in recent years the season has become a year-round phenomenon.

The wildfires are fuelled by a build up of highly flammable vegetation which is critically low in moisture after a decade of drought. The prevailing conditions generate a perfect storm.

Long drought

Scientists say the warming climate will result in more frequent and potentially devastating wildfires in the future.

“Things burn in January just as well as they do in June and July,” explains Cpt Wilkins.

Homes that have been built on the outskirts of the major cities, such as Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego are often in the line of fire.

America’s most populous state has seen a rapid pace of development on its urban fringes – the forests and wild lands that would once have been allowed to burn without putting homes and lives at risk.

“I certainly see the wild land conditions deteriorating,” says Chief Kevin Crawford, City of Carlsbad Fire Department.

“We’re moving more homes out in the wild land area, we’ve had a drought for going on 10 years now, we’ve got a lot of vegetation that’s been affected by insects, so the vegetation out there is raw and ready to burn.”

It is a dilemma that many homeowners recognise. Living in what many people consider to be idyllic surroundings comes with many dangers.

“It very quiet, it’s very serene and peaceful,” says Larry Koch, a retired airline pilot who lives in the mountains above Malibu.

His home narrowly escaped a deadly blaze that swept through the area in 1993.

“We get fire once in a while, but most of the time it’s really quiet and we get the occasional Santa Ana winds come rushing down those canyons at about 60, 70 miles an hour, but it’s so peaceful around here, it’s very nice and it’s worth it, definitely worth it,” says Mr Koch.

Wildfires cost California in excess of a $1bn (£600m) every year. The escalating cost of the firefighting effort comes at a time when the state is tackling a huge fiscal crisis, with many public sector workers being laid off.

When fire breaks out, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is often quick to declare a state of emergency.

It is a way of cutting through red tape to release funds for the fire fighting effort and to assist the rebuilding process through low interest loans.

“We will not stop fighting fires,” says Mike Mohler, a public information officer in San Diego County.

“Yes, the state is going through hard economic times along with the nation, but we make sure that we plan ahead for those things.

“It’s a very expensive business, but it’s something we can’t just walk away from and the fire department will always be there,” says Mr Mohler.

But Chief Crawford adds: “With the type of fire problems that we have in Southern California, there isn’t a fire chief out there that wouldn’t say that they need more resources.”

Some California homeowners are taking on more responsibility to fight the flames themselves.

Cory Buckner and Nick Roberts, who lost their home to the 1993 Malibu fire, have rebuilt a house that they believe is almost fire proof.

The exterior is completely metal and the only other exposed material on the outside is concrete.

Some householders are investing in their own fire fighting pumps so that they can utilize the water in their swimming pool.

The authorities are cautious about encouraging people to tackle the flames themselves, although the devices are being sold with a warning from the manufacturer.

“We recommend that people follow all evacuation orders and also that you don’t become a hero or a fire fighter simply by having a pump,” says Kian Saneii, of Best Fire Defence.

The company sells pumps for homeowners to use to spray their property and the surrounding vegetation with a foam mixture that repels the flames.

Fireproof houses and homes equipped with fire fighting technology are a rarity.

The vast majority of Californians are encouraged to take basic fire prevention steps such as keeping their gardens free of flammable material and always being prepared to evacuate at a moments’ notice.

But longer term, with scientists predicting that the wildfires will only get worse, the focus is on urban planning.

Should people continue to build homes in areas where they can easily burn down?

“We no longer have the fiscal resources to do continue that,” says Dr Stephanie Pincetl, a researcher at the Institute of the Environment, at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“We need to stop expanding at the urban fringe. We are putting ourselves in positions of enormous vulnerability and danger.”

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