Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Fires This Time

California burns. We  know this, right?

When I was a snot nosed kid in LA,  every year I'd sit on my back fence watching the San Gabriels burn about eight-ten miles north. One year the fire came up the hill down at the end of our street, and when it started burning on our side of the hill, neighbors  panicked and got their garden hoses out to wet down their roofs, and some packed their cars and made a hasty escape just before the fire trucks came and put the fire out. 

Sometimes ash and smoke was very heavy in the air, and I already had breathing problems from the smog which was crisis-terrible in LA in the 1950s. So Fire Season and the Santa Ana winds were not a good time for me healthwise, but it could be exciting.

Moving to Northern California in 1959, we at first lived in a rural community on the edge of the Sierra foothills. Our house was in an oak forest, which my mother called a firetrap. She worked up the hill in Auburn, and in those days, the I-80 freeway had not been built yet. Highway 40 got you up the hill and eventually over the mountains into Reno, but it was a haul. She didn't feel safe if there was a fire, because it would be too hard to escape, and she angled to get us out of there as soon as possible. 

Of course there were numerous fires in the foothills and mountains in those days, and every year, the rice growers would burn their stubble in the Valley.  It was  considered normal. It may not have been healthy, but what could you do? And in those days, too, it was understood that fire was part of the cycle of nature, and it was a bad thing only when people and houses and businesses were in the way and burnt got burnt up. That happened from time to time, but it was fairly limited. 

The tragedies were limited in part because there were fewer people in California, particularly in Gold Country --- the west side of the Sierras and the Sierra foothills. In those days, the Gold Rush communities were mostly ghost towns with a few  dozen to a few hundred people still living in them at most. They were not bedroom communities for people working in the Valley as many of them are today. They were not retirement communities as so many are now. They were not surrounded by extensive suburban style real estate developments as they are now. They were what was left after the gold was extracted and the miners and fancy women left for greener pastures.

Consequently, when forest and brush fires burned, as they were bound to do, it was fairly simple to protect towns that might be in their path. Volunteer fire departments were the pride of many small towns in the foothills, and they were generally sufficient to keep fires at bay and protect the towns from incineration. Many of these Gold Rush and mountain communities had buildings that dated back to the 1850s and 1860s, and there has been many fires since then. Residents coped.

Though there must have been some, I don't recall evacuations of whole towns in those days. If fire came close, some people in the way would get out of course, but many stayed to fight the fires and keep them from destroying the towns. And they were mostly successful.

The really bad fires seemed to be burning in Southern California in those days, and they were bad because houses burned and sometimes people burned with them. The population of Southern California was growing fast, and some were building and living on hillsides and ridges that were natural fire paths -- in other words, where they shouldn't have been building and living -- and so, year by year, there would be more houses burned to the ground when the annual Fire Season commenced. The Santa Anas blew the fires into firestorms and there was very little you could do about it except get out of the way.

And hope and pray. 

So there have been a few bad fires recently in both Northern and Southern California, with thousands of homes burned and many people killed and missing. The term "Apocalyptic" is hardly too strong for the scenes that have been playing out during the coverage of the fires. It's been terrible. Heartbreaking and gut wrenching.

Paradise above Chico was all but wiped out, but so were most of the towns and settlements up there: Pulga, Concow, Magalia, and so on. Most of the media attention has been focused on Paradise, partly for the name (even though Trump called it "Pleasure" several times; I wonder why... no, I don't), but also because it was the largest and easiest to reach fire location.

I've been to Paradise several times, and Ms. Ché and I briefly considered it for our own retirement. But no. No. The forest within which most of the town was built was beautiful and it smelled wonderful.... BUT it was an obvious and rather horrifying fire trap. There were too many houses built too close together and too close to the trees, there were too few ways out should an evacuation be necessary, and it was becoming too big a town (this was during the early '90s) for the area. If anything, Magalia was worse. Not so big, no, but even more of a firetrap. More and more real estate developers saw big money in putting up homes in both places, bugger the risks. Besides, the demographics were... how to put this gently? Inevitably terminal... Lots of old people, plenty of "rugged" types, not a few "sovereign citizens", druggies, and bikers. A mixed bag to be sure, but for the most part, not what one would think of as productive movers/shakers.

But it was the forest setting that put me off. Nice place to visit. Wouldn't want to live there.

Apparently there was a fire about ten years ago that took out a swath of homes west and south of the main part of Paradise, and it was discovered at that time that evacuation was darned nigh impossible. So they came up with a plan to order phased evacuations in the event of a future fire.

Problem was that the fire this time moved too fast and communications with residents were spotty or nonexistent. Too many people didn't know until too late that they needed to get out. And those who tried to get out were too often caught in hours-long traffic snarls... and some of them burned to death in their cars or trying to escape on foot.

Most people got out, but too many didn't/couldn't/wouldn't. The death toll so far (Tuesday morning 11/20//18) is about 80, but it is expected there will be more, perhaps many more, bodies found -- or what's left of them in the ashes. There are still 600 or so missing and unaccounted for. Some of those who perished in the fire will never be found.

More than 10,000 homes burned in the fire. This is unprecedented in  California -- with the exception of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire which destroyed 2/3rds of the city and left perhaps 3000 dead. For decades, the death toll was deliberately misreported as 360 or something like that. It wouldn't be surprising if the death toll in the Camp fire is underreported as well. The devastation is almost too horrible to imagine as it is.  Adding in hundreds and hundreds of dead -- if that's what happened -- is likely too much to bear.

Trump went and saw a bit of the devastation and said many stupid things and left to go "console" the survivors of the Borderline mass shooting in Thousand Oaks. Bless his heart.

Of course there was a fire a couple of miles from there, too.

What a nightmare.

To the Trump regime, the problem is entirely one of "forest management." If the forest floors were raked and cleaned the way they do in Finland, there wouldn't be these problems, right? It's all the environmentalists' fault, right?

Well, no. Not exactly.

The problems in Paradise specifically  include a multi-year drought followed by one season of heavy rains followed by return to drought -- both of which can be attributed to climate change. Building right in the very stressed forest is a disaster waiting to happen anyway. There were few ways out and evacuation notices didn't reach everybody. High winds blew the initially small fire west at break-neck speed -- witnesses said it traveled horizontally burning everything in its path. Most of Paradise and Magalia were in flames before people could evacuate, and it wasn't because of poor forest management.

In fact, from the videos I've seen of the aftermath (kudos to the reporters who've gone back to document the destruction) many of the homes that burned had requisite "defensible space" around them. It didn't matter. The fire was being driven by the wind, and no amount of space seemed to be enough in many cases. Some of the houses that survived did not appear to have sufficient "defensible space," and yet they stand, some of them completely undamaged. It seemed to depend, more than anything, on the wind and whether or not embers were blown directly onto a building or not.

From what I could tell, there wasn't a lot of brush and small-tree cover that would result from "poor forest management." Instead, there was a lot of dry grass which burned fiercely and helped spread the fire very quickly. A controlled burn might have mitigated the dry grass problem, but you can't do it in high wind conditions. And given the long drought, it's conceivable that a controlled burn would quickly get out of control no matter what.

It was a perfect storm.

So what do you do?

There's been a settlement in Paradise since the Gold Rush, and it survived until now. A key to its survival was that it was very small until fairly recently. More than 90% of the homes in Paradise were destroyed in the fire and nearly that high a percent burned in Magalia. I would say the number of surviving homes is probably the maximum residential carrying capacity of the area for the foreseeable future, and that means that rebuilding should be very limited. From what I've seen, most of the forest withstood the fire, the way forests tend to do if they are maintained properly (which means brush clearance and periodic burns.) But houses should not be built among the trees the way they were.

What will be done, as opposed to what should be done, is still up in the air. We'll see.

In the meantime, I've been feeling as devastated by the fire as some of the survivors. It hit me hard, and I'm still in a state over it. All good wishes to the survivors. Respect for the dead.

Thanksgiving tomorrow. We're headed to an Indian casino to celebrate Indigenous People's Sunrise...👍👍