#13: What Should You Do When The Fire Starts to Burn? (Pt.3)

Communities hit by fire don't recover. People are exhausted by the constant threat, and housing markets in fire regions are already beginning to find many more sellers than buyers.

PRESSED FOR TIME?

This is the third of three issues talking about fire. It’s time to confront the grim reality: communities hit by large fire don’t really recover. It’s hard to recruit teachers, police and nurses back into these communities, it’s hard to keep school class sizes at optimal levels, and it’s hard to attract investment. This matters — if large areas become too dangerous to live, those people need to live somewhere. And that migration is unlikely to be planned or seamless.

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Welcome to the third in a three-part series on fire.

  • In the first issue we examined the science and technology involved in understanding what happens after the fire has burned. How do forests regenerate, and why does this matter so much in how we respond and innovate?

  • The second issue explored the $260 billion global carbon offsets market, why companies like Amazon and Microsoft are buying up carbon credits from forestry entities, and how well those markets are currently functioning.

  • In the third and final issue, we’ll look at the uncomfortable future ahead for people who live in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI). How will they get insurance, how do they flee fires and rebuild, and what will their homes be worth if no one wants to live in these locations afterwards?

THE TRUTH IS WE’VE NEVER CONTROLLED FIRE.

This extraordinary photo taken during the current unprecedented fire season in the western United States is a nice analogy to start this week’s issue. The truth is we’re seduced and bewildered by the forces within a fire. Humans always have been.

For the most part, our towns and suburbs have a serene, idyllic feel to them. It’s hard for us to conceptualise anything different.

For several generations, fires were seen as a dangerous phenomenon to be kept away, and society at large probably didn’t appreciate the numerous ecological benefits of fire (see the first issue). In the last century, we’ve had three new elements complicate our capacity to live with fire:

  • Some aspects of forestry management allowed a large buildup of fuel

  • Logging led to homogenous tree species clustered in density

  • People moved further into nature (or the wildland-urban interface), assuming amenities, quality of life and emergency response times would be no different to the city. In these locations there is vegetation and human development

Fire can’t be excluded from the landscape. It’s that simple.

Hanging over the spectre of these factors is of course, climate change: in this context a changing climate means shorter winters, longer fire seasons, higher temperatures and weather that generally leaves less moisture in the ground for longer, meaning dryer fuel to burn. Each fire you hear about in the news is part of a 30-40 year story. As ever, the numbers paint a sobering picture:

  • In that time the area burned by large wildfires in the western United States has increased by over 1200%

  • The number of large wildfires have increased by roughly 500%

  • Between 1990-2010, there’s been a 40% increase in homes built in the wildland-urban interface. Despite that growth, only 14% of the overall wildland-urban interface has been built in. Another way to think of this: if you’re a developer or planner who has an incentive to build, and doesn’t view fire as a risk, there’s plenty of space left to build new homes in the secluded wilderness

BRINGING IT BACK TO THE HUMAN SCALE…

But to see the true scale of how a fire can unfold, and change the lives of thousands of people in a single morning, it’s worth retelling the key moments of the Camp Fire that hit the town of Paradise, CA on the morning of 8th November, 2018.

PARADISE BURNS

Paradise is 150 miles northeast of San Francisco, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada: a world away from beaches and bikinis, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, it is still Californian to the core. On the morning of the Camp Fire, 27,000 people lived in Paradise, with another 15,000 or so in unincorporated communities up and down the hills and valleys around it.

Many things went wrong on the day of the Camp Fire, but it’s still important to understand at the outset: this is not the story of a town that neglected the reality of its place in a dry forested wilderness.

It had a formal emergency plan, updated every few years. The latest evacuation plan, completed only a year prior to the Camp Fire, split the city into fourteen distinct zones, and sent out ‘know your zone’ mailers to residents. It also established a reverse-911 alert system, which would call residents with an automated message in the event of a disaster (sadly local politics meant it was an ‘opt-in’ system). Drills were conducted, and high-risk brush areas cleared near the hospital. But on the morning of the Camp Fire, fire chief Matt McKenzie woke at 5:00am, confused to hear what sounded like rain hitting his metal roof when none had been forecast. After a moment, he realised it was pine needles being flung from a strange, unseasonably strong wind.

Sometime an hour later, a high hook up on the arm of a transmission tower broke, releasing an electric wire that threw sparks into the brush below near a dirt track called Camp Creek Road — forever giving such a playful name to a deadly day.

Captain McKenzie, the first unit on scene, observed rapid fire growth and extreme fire behaviour. Possibly saving many more lives than the 85 fatalities lost later in the day, he radioed in a request for resources and evacuations with a note, "this has got potential for a major incident," and that he was "still working on [finding a way to] access [the fire]." Access to the fire was by a narrow mountain road, which the fire engines were too large to navigate. Air resources had to wait until 30 minutes after sunrise, but due to winds, aircraft were not on the fire until the afternoon.

Calls from the small nearby town of Concow and Paradise continued for an hour at nearly one call per minute to report a fire — all were told there was no danger, that the fire was north of Concow off Highway 70, that there was no evacuation, and that authorities would contact residents if there were danger. The problem was the dispatch team was advising from information received nearly an hour earlier from Cal Fire, typically not a calamitous information delay for a normal fire.

In the eastern neighbourhoods first hit, more than half of the 4,272 alert calls failed, because phones had been disconnected, numbers had changed, or cell towers didn’t work (later investigations concluded this could’ve been burned infrastructure or the system being overloaded by a flood of alerts).

The best laid plans for the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the centre of Paradise fell apart when officials went out to reconnoiter the streets, and did not return because they were pulled into assisting with evacuations and saving lives as the fire hit the eastern edge of the town with ferocious speed. Some gusts from satellite imagery had fire speeds of 40 metres per second.

Did any of the planning matter? Yes and no. The fire was too big and too fast to get a whole town evacuated and out of the way.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A FIRE HITS WHERE YOU LIVE?

To be honest: everything. Life is going on. Children had been dropped at school. Elderly men were in ICU for gallbladder surgery. One women was on the operating table for a Caesarean section when the code black came through the hospital — get everyone out. Those departing hospital — IV bags carried in their own arms — soon ran into trouble, the same trouble affecting the rest of the town.

A reason the town had been divided into fourteen evacuation zones is it wasn’t feasible to evacuate the whole of Paradise in one exercise. Some two lane roads had been widened on recommendations from a smaller 2008 fire, but if you think about it: how well would your neighbourhood do if every car went onto the streets in the space of half an hour?

By mid-morning, the town had been completely engulfed. The major problem became visibility, as the sky turned black in every direction, and the town became surrounded. Dozens abandoned their cars on the evacuation roads in terror of the approaching flames, meaning thousands grew desperate in backed-up traffic inside the town, confused why things weren’t moving. Tragically entire families were found perished in their cars after, simply trying to use back roads and getting stuck as the fire advanced.

The fire had become different to the blaze that roared through the valley four hours earlier; now it was an urban fire, spreading from building to building, with the heat of burning structures igniting vegetation rather than the other way around. Ashes and embers found their way into ventilation ducts, clogged gutters and cracks. By the time the fire had been controlled, 18,800 structures had burned, or 85% of all the town’s buildings. Around 30,000 people in the area had their homes destroyed.

HOW BAD WAS PARADISE?

It was the deadliest U.S. fire in a century, and the most destructive in American history. By January 2019, the total damage was estimated at $16.5 billion; one-quarter of the damage, $4 billion, was not insured (NB: in a future issue on climate liability, we will delve into PG&E’s blame and the bankruptcy that followed).

How much of a job is the cleanup in a small town? Crews had to remove twice as much debris from Paradise as what was left from the Twin Towers after Sept. 11.

A full twelve months on, just 11 homes had been rebuilt. Students who tried to finish the school year weren’t in an ordinary school but a building at the nearby Chico Municipal Airport that had been transformed into an ad-hoc substitute, with cubicle walls and tapestries serving as classroom dividers.

And this is where the reality of the post-disaster meets the choices many of our communities will need to face in the years ahead. Just removing the toxic debris cost almost $2 billion. In search of cheaper housing, survivors moved to states like Oregon, Idaho and Texas. The population of the town on the morning of the Camp Fire was 27,000, today it’s just 3,000. There’s been no inbound migration, especially in core posts like nurses, teachers, police and fire.

The other reality of fire-ravaged towns is a lot of people get trapped financially. The elderly and low-income citizenry lack the means to up sticks and move; moreover they find themselves in completely altered communities, often without a tax base or economic foundation to support the citizens left. The data shows two large groups are squeezed fairly quickly in a post-disaster setting:

  • the poor, who move into homeless or temporary housing settings; and

  • the middle class, who owned their homes and now rent, or fight to rebuild with high costs and ever-larger insurance burdens

Then there’s insurance. Even though a 2019 California law requires insurers to renew homeowner's coverage on properties that survived wildfires for at least one year, it’s easy to see what happens the moment this expires: coverage is withdrawn. All the while, insurers see higher costs and more frequent events, and ask: at what point does it make sense to withdraw from a market altogether? All this begs the obvious question..

Should towns like Paradise, built into dense overgrown dry forests where the homes themselves become ignition sources, be rebuilt in an era of climate change?

THE EFFECT LINGERS

Lastly, there’s the smoke. What exactly is in a wildfire’s smoke depends on a few key things: what’s burning — grass, brush or trees; the temperature — is it flaming or just smouldering; and the distance between the person breathing the smoke and the fire producing it.

This map shows the concentration of black carbon particulates (soot) on July 21st, 2021 with data from satellite, aircraft, and ground-based observing systems (via @NASAEarth)

The distance affects the ability of smoke to “age,” meaning to be acted upon by the Sun and other chemicals in the air as it travels. Ageing can make it more toxic. Importantly, large particles like what most people think of as ash do not typically travel that far from the fire, but small particles, or aerosols, can travel across continents. The new study on smoke from the 2018 Camp Fire found dangerous levels of lead in smoke blowing downwind as the fire burned through Paradise, California. The metals, which have been linked to health harms including high blood pressure and developmental effects in children with long-term exposure, travelled more than 150 miles on the wind, with concentrations 50 times above average in some areas.

As you can see, and as people in New York City, D.C. and Boston experienced this last week, the fires you see on the news can affect everyone, nearly everywhere.

CONCLUSION

Paradise was an extreme fire; but one more people will experience with climate change. Paradise was a town ready for manageable risks, but the conditions on the morning of the Camp Fire threw plans out the window. Paradise had amenities and technology befitting a 21st Century community, and little of it mattered or worked as planned.

Ultimately, anyone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time is just like those firemen in the first photo — a little bewildered, a little in awe, and a little powerless waiting to see how nature takes its course.

Optimistically,

Owen C. Woolcock


3 Questions I Am Asking Myself This Week

1.  Cal Fire is responsible for 30,000,000 acres of California wilderness, excluding cities and areas with their own fire departments. The century-old organisation acquired its first fire truck in 1929, and today boasts more than 800 fire stations and more than 5,000 full-time workers, responding to more than 5,000 fires per year.

Costs for firefighting in California rose from $90m in 2010, to $947m in fiscal year 2018. That summer, Cal Fire needed additional funding after it spent $432m in just two months while fighting the Mendocino Complex Fire. A question worth asking, which I don’t have the answer to, is: what price should society be paying for fire protection?

2. The Camp Fire had a total burn area of 154,000 acres (62,000 ha). That’s equivalent to 14,000 Vatican Cities.

3. If Cal Fire manages public lands, and local towns are managed by their own fire department, what coordination gaps exist in disasters? If both parties could wave a magic wand, how would they work differently? Would both sides agree on the points of change?

If You Read Or Listen To One Thing This Week

(Youtube): A powerful PBS Frontline documentary tells the story of Nov. 8, 2018 in a balanced and thought-provoking way. For those interested to understand the day in more detail.