Shifting Winds in Fire Management

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Shifting Winds in Fire Management
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By Harrison Tasoff, UC Santa Barbara

Right now, firefighters are battling massive and as yet out-of-control blazes in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Sonoma counties.

The American West is getting hotter and dryer, and that has driven a quick succession of ever more devastating wildfires. Clearly, we need to examine our approach to fire risk management.

It’s a complicated matter made more so, researchers say, because politicians and the public tend to conflate two rather different problems. “We are mixing up the problem of forest and fuel management with the problem of wildland-urban interface fires,” explained Max Moritz, an adjunct professor at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Management and a statewide Cooperative Extension wildfire specialist.

Fire management often focuses on controlling the extent and distribution of fuels, explained Geography Professor Dar Roberts, who serves as UC Santa Barbara’s principal investigator of the Southern California Wildfire Hazard Center. For instance, he said, fire agencies create fire breaks, or bare strips between flammable areas, to provide a stopgap to a fire’s progress. These breaks also often serve as roads for firefighters to mobilize resources.

In another tried and true strategy for forests, firefighters will conduct prescribed burns to reduce the fuel load in an area. This prevents debris from accumulating to a point where it could fuel a conflagration.

Unfortunately, the techniques used out in the forests don’t apply when it comes to fires burning through neighborhoods and homes. The problems are not even closely related, but academics have had a difficult time communicating this to the public. “It’s a huge part of why we’re actually not making much progress toward solving that wildland-urban interface problem,” said Moritz, “because that’s a problem of where and how we’ve built our communities.”

Changing our communities

California sets building codes in an attempt to ensure that structures are safe, sturdy and resilient against human and natural accidents. However, the state does not have similar codes at the community scale. And according to Moritz, most of the solutions to wildland-urban interface fires lie in city planning. “You can lay out a community in a way that’s much safer: buffered, easier to evacuate, easier to defend. And that’s urban planning and design,” he said.

For instance, developers often build houses along a perimeter road with backyards adjacent to the surrounding flammable landscape. Planners could designate this land for irrigated parks or community gardens, which would provide a buffer zone between the community and the wildlands. The road would then serve as a firebreak, further insulating the neighborhood from a wildfire roaring through the area.

“All those ideas are in people’s heads but they’re not codified into a consistent set of best practices or land use and urban planning guidelines that apply from county to county and city to city,” said Moritz.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as CalFire, does provide some higher-level suggestions, but they are mostly limited to road considerations, water supplies and fuel recommendations. “So there is some ‘community-scale’ fire guidance out there,” said Moritz, “but it's not very comprehensive and still only a recommendation.” The state also issues fire hazard severity zone maps that provide consistent methodology for the whole state, but how those are utilized at the local level varies, Moritz said.

City planners and firefighters also have to contend with buildings and communities already in place when addressing the wildland-urban interface challenge. In these places, solutions must involve optimizing what is already there.

This neighborhood in northern Santa Rosa caught fire in October of 2017. The layout of the community is a good illustration of the wildland-urban interface problem. (Photo Credit: GOOGLE EARTH AND CALIFORNIA HIGHWAY PATROL)

There are many ways to retrofit an existing structure to harden it against wildfire. Some are intuitive. Maintaining a brush and debris-free perimeter around a house, for example, drastically lowers the chance of the structure igniting, while also providing an area that fire fighters can defend. Tile roofs also increase a structure’s fire resistance, especially if the gaps between them are covered to prevent embers from blowing in underneath.

Other improvements are less apparent. “Another really easy way to better defend a house is double-paned glass,” said Roberts. Glass is fairly opaque to thermal radiation, so a double-pane window provides twice as much shielding. What’s more, the air between the two panes provides additional insulation. “Given sufficient time, that window will melt,” said Roberts, “but fires often go through pretty fast, and so it doesn’t take that much to prevent the house from blowing up from the inside.”

Sometimes, the best course of action is to leave things the way they are. For instance, orchards are different from natural vegetation because they’re irrigated and green. “In Santa Barbara, the best thing we could do is preserve our orchards,” said Roberts, “because in any place we have an orchard it actually acts as a defensible barrier against fire spread.”

Staying safe

When it comes to evacuation plans, the primary strategy in the U.S. is to get out. Unfortunately, with these large, fast-moving fires, some people aren’t leaving in time — or don’t have enough time to escape.

“That’s a big part of what we saw up north this year,” said Moritz. “Lots of people leaving too late and either dying in their cars or having to get out of their cars and run.”

Both Roberts and Moritz hope that California will continue to provide earlier evacuation warnings to people in the fire’s path. The researchers also agree that we should consider additional strategies for protecting ourselves, such as the use of local fire shelters (much like tornado shelters), which could protect individuals who find themselves outpaced by the flames.

The practice of sheltering in place is so common in Australia that the country has an associated saying: “Prepare, Stay and Defend, or Leave Early.” In essence, property owners decide whether to flee the flames or hunker down and protect their land, and many of them are prepared for just such a situation, said Moritz. This strategy has now begun to emerge in the U.S. For instance, Pepperdine University, in Malibu, told students to shelter in place during the November 2018 Woolsey fire, since the school’s concrete buildings and well-watered lawns were unlikely to burn.

“The question is do we want to advocate shelter-in-place?” said Moritz. “Most firefighters do not because it’s a lot of liability for them. They want to get this message really clear, ‘when we tell you to go, you go.’ And there’s no gray area here.”

“But there is a gray area,” he said, “because what if people don’t get the message in time?” We don’t have an education campaign or a plan for this unfortunate and quite deadly possibility, he added.

Australia has also taken a more nuanced approach to fire warnings since the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, which claimed 173 lives, according to official findings. The country has since revamped its evacuation protocols. “Now there doesn’t even have to be a fire for them to trigger an evacuation,” said Moritz — the potential danger of a particularly hot, dry, windy day can prompt an evacuation order. California may do well adopting a similarly cautious approach, Roberts and Moritz suggested.

You can manage only so much

Out in the wild, management works only up to a point: until shifting conditions change the game. “Fires are behaving in ways that many of these agencies have not experienced before,” said Roberts. “Under extreme weather conditions the best management in the forests is probably not going to be good enough.”

Different ecosystems have different fire regimes. Yellowstone’s lodgepole pine forests have adapted to immense conflagrations that strip the landscape once every few centuries. Much of the California chaparral, on the other hand, has evolved to cope with fires sweeping through every 30 to 60 years. “The natural fire regime of all these systems actually varies quite a bit,” Moritz explained, “but the key is that we want fire in those systems doing the right kind of work that they’re adapted to.”

Bigpod ceanothus requires fire to complete its lifecycle. (Photo Credit: LAS PILITAS NURSERY)

California’s forests and chaparral are adapted to periodic fires. Many plants even require fire at some point in their lifecycles. Take the bigpod ceanothus, a shrub endemic to California’s central coast and Channel Islands. It needs fire for its seeds to germinate, otherwise they lie dormant in the soil. However, smaller, more frequent fires can kill new shoots and sprouts before they can prepare themselves for the next fire.

What’s more, large fires can occur in surprisingly rapid succession under severe weather or drought conditions. “Under extreme conditions it only takes maybe two or three years of recovery before a fire can easily spread through an older scar,” said Roberts. This leaves the landscape vulnerable to invasive grasses, which can go up in flame on a yearly cycle.

“It’s a positive feedback loop,” added Moritz. “You have more and more fire in the landscape, which is knocking out more and more native chaparral, which bringing more grasses and fire to the landscape.”

Some fires are driven by accumulated fuel. For these, a thick layer of dry underbrush from decades of fire suppression can lead to an inferno. “However there’s a tradeoff between the weather conditions and the fuel,” said Moritz. “When the weather conditions are bad, the fuel doesn’t matter as much, and when the conditions are mild, the fuel characteristics matter a lot more.”

“Under extreme conditions, fires just burn everything in their paths,” added Roberts. And as the climate shifts, the Western U.S. has experienced more frequent, more severe weather conditions. Higher average temperatures, prolonged droughts and lower humidity all contribute to the region’s growing fire problem. In California, these conditions are often exacerbated by intense, dry winds that bear down upon the coasts from the state’s interior.

“Given that there’s going to be big fires, and there’s likely going to be no way to prevent them from happening, what we need to do is figure out ways to minimize damage,” said Roberts. “We have to adapt.”

“For us it’s fires, but for other places it’s floods, and other places it’s hurricanes, and then other places it’s sea level rise,” he added. “There’s all these things that we’re going to have to be pretty adept on our feet and adapt to.”

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a-1590390220 Oct 30, 2019 08:14 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

Too many cars trying to evacuate on too few roads, Paradise Fire video. Should we in S.B. change our ways, and carpool out of fire danger? Maybe we should stop thinking about saving our stuff, and only focus on saving lives. The costs have changed. The risks have changed. That would be fewer total cars evacuating, thus, not clogging roads to the same degree. Stuff each car with people, and then take off for evacuation. Climate adaptation, a problem that will grow worse in the future. Be embarrassed if you are evacuating in your car, and not taking anyone else with you?

a-1590390220 Oct 30, 2019 07:50 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

Paradise Fire program on PBS last night. Note mistakes made in notifications, and remember you have responsibility to stay informed YOURSELF. Find a way. Build networks of self-protection, and when in doubt, evacuate early.

Shasta Guy Oct 30, 2019 07:11 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

Sea Dog: can you give a Shasta County update. The temperatures are in the 40s this morning in Redding and PG&E has a substantial blackout up there. That means people can’t run their furnaces to stay warm. I presume you’re prepared. Stay safe.

a-1590390220 Oct 29, 2019 01:48 PM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

Senior Citizens, please alert them: [email protected] confirms that current "Extreme Red Flag Warning" is first such warning ever issued in Southern California. @NWSLosAngeles forecasters are using strong language to convey that this will not be "run of the mill" Santa Ana wind event. Here's the text of the extraordinary warning issued today by the @NWSLosAngeles for the next Santa Ana wind event. It is ominous. It is dire. And yes, if you are in the area it applies to, you should prep to evacuate on short notice. …

a-1590390220 Oct 29, 2019 11:29 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

URGENT - FIRE WEATHER MESSAGE. National Weather Service Los Angeles/Oxnard CA.1113 AM PDT Tue Oct 29 2019...EXTREME RED FLAG WARNING IN EFFECT FROM 11 PM TUESDAY THROUGH 6 PM THURSDAY PDT FOR MUCH OF LOS ANGELES AND VENTURA COUNTIES DUE TO STRONG NORTHEAST WINDS AND VERY LOW HUMIDITIES... .A strong Santa Ana wind event is expected tonight through Thursday, and could be one of the strongest of recent memory. Damaging wind gusts between 50 and 70 mph are expected over most of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, with isolated gusts to around 80 mph likely. Although the air is cold, humidities will lower to the single digits nearly everywhere by Wednesday or Thursday, and down to 1 or 2 percent in the driest windiest locations. Overnight recoveries Wednesday night will be near zero. This all adds up to an extreme fire weather threat. Use extreme caution with any potential ignition sources, and residents in high fire risk areas should be ready and set to EVACUATE if emergency officials say so.

a-1590390220 Oct 29, 2019 09:46 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

South 101 will be problematic tonight, tomorrow until Thursday. Will lots of people be on 101 north to/through Carpinteria Santa Barbara Goleta? Plan ahead in case we become part of the story.

a-1590390220 Oct 29, 2019 08:47 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

If you own a food truck, be prepared to go where evacuees and first responders are gathering, parking lots, Earl Warren, etc. This was a request in Northern California, and could be here, too. This is your big chance to make a difference. Combine with charities and Direct Relief to give out needed items, along with the taco.

a-1590390220 Oct 29, 2019 08:10 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

Hilton Garden Inn, 5878 Hollister at Storke, 805-562-5996. New hotel, very nice. Across the street from the new Goleta Target…just in case evacuees want some retail therapy. Also, close to Jane Restaurant, in case eating is therapy.

SantaBarbaraObserver Oct 29, 2019 08:04 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

Avoid submitting claims for hotels at all costs. If you submit any wildfire claims, for anything at all related to wildfire, your homeowners insurance will be dropped and / or your premiums raised significantly. Do not submit these types of claims unless you have no choice. The cost of the hotel will pale in comparison to the increased premiums you will suffer.

a-1590390220 Oct 29, 2019 07:14 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

Airbnb now offering relief to some evacuees through its Open Homes program, an online tool where displaced people and relief workers affected by the Kincade and Tick wildfires may find FREE accommodation until November 7. _If_ there’s another big fire and evacuation this week in Ventura County, check with Airbnb. CNN story:

Shasta Guy Oct 29, 2019 07:13 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

Maybe SCE will make Halloween In Ventura extra spooky for the trick or treaters by shutting off the power in the entire county. That wind forecast doesn’t look good at all. Currently it stops at Carpinteria.

a-1590390220 Oct 29, 2019 07:02 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

S.B.Hotel List from Feb.'18, please send to your friends in Ventura, Ojai, etc. this morning before they're evacuated, or power is turned off : . Goleta isn’t on list, but here are a few in Goleta: Pacifica Suites, 5490 Hollister, 805-683-6722; Best Western Plus South Coast Inn, 5620 Calle Real, 805-957-3200; Courtyard by Marriott, 401 Storke Rd, 805-968-0500; Residence Inn by Marriott, 6350 Hollister, 805-770-5031. Another hotel list here:

a-1590390220 Oct 29, 2019 06:17 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

URGENT - WEATHER MESSAGE. National Weather Service Los Angeles/Oxnard CA. 126 AM PDT Tue Oct 29 2019. .Ventura County Coast-Los Angeles County San Fernando Valley- Including the cities of Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, Woodland Hills, Northridge, Burbank, and Universal City. ...HIGH WIND WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM THIS EVENING THROUGH THURSDAY MORNING... * WHAT...Northeast winds 25 to 40 mph with gusts to 60 mph possible. * WHERE...Ventura County Coast and West San Fernando Valley. * WHEN...From late this evening through Thursday morning. Strongest on Wednesday.

a-1590390220 Oct 28, 2019 09:27 PM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

"Similar to NorCal wind event on Sun, upcoming extreme #Santa Ana event will have potential to be historic. Per @NWSLosAngeles, "this event has all the ingredients for a rare & strong event, with one of the strongest offshore surface pressure gradients on record." Daniel Swain @Weather_West.

Shasta Guy Oct 28, 2019 09:54 PM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

I was in San Francisco on Sunday, and the winds were incredible all day. Hopefully it won’t be Armageddon for us this week.

a-1590390220 Oct 28, 2019 09:26 PM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

"Similar to NorCal wind event on Sun, upcoming extreme #Santa Ana event will have potential to be historic. Per @NWSLosAngeles, "this event has all the ingredients for a rare & strong event, with one of the strongest offshore surface pressure gradients on record." Daniel Swain @Weather_West.

a-1590390220 Oct 28, 2019 09:04 PM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

Extreme Red Flag Warning in Ventura. Something new "extreme". Sounds like what happened in Sonoma County several days ago, high winds, low humidities. This could impact Santa Barbara (remember the Thomas Fire?). Have a plan.

a-1590390220 Oct 29, 2019 08:16 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

The Thomas Fire was driven by wind up here - the winds forecasted stop at Carp so hopefully that won't happen but in reality, it really can't b/c there isn't much to burn, is there?

a-1590390220 Oct 28, 2019 07:55 PM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

"EXTREME RED FLAG WARNING IN EFFECT FROM 11 PM TUESDAY THROUGH 6 PM THURSDAY PDT FOR MUCH OF LOS ANGELES AND VENTURA COUNTIES DUE TO STRONG NORTHEAST WINDS AND VERY LOW HUMIDITIES... .Gusty Santa Ana winds peaked this morning and will diminish considerably this afternoon, with a gradual transition to onshore flow across many coastal and valley areas. Minimum humidities will generally range between 5 and 10 percent. There is increasing confidence of a strong and damaging Santa Ana wind event late Tuesday evening into Thursday. The peak of the wind event is expected to be Wednesday when damaging wind gusts between 50 and 70 mph will be likely for the wind prone areas of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, with isolated gusts to 80 mph in the mountains. This Santa Ana wind event will likely be the strongest we have seen so far this season. These strong winds combined with a long duration of single digit humidities (including very poor to no recoveries Wednesday night), and dry fuels will likely bring very critical fire weather conditions, making this an extreme Red Flag Warning event." NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE

rwelsh Oct 28, 2019 03:57 PM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

This is a great article. However, no mention of the contribution to these rapidly burning fires of the desiccant substances (barium oxide & other metallic particulates) daily being sprayed in our skies with aircraft aerosol operations?

a-1590390220 Oct 29, 2019 08:02 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

@Shasta Thank you for that. I went to the gem show at Earl Warren a few months back and the chemtrail truthers had a large booth. Absolutely crazy.

Shasta Guy Oct 28, 2019 09:21 PM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

There’s no mention of those materials....because they don’t exist in the air. I’ve actually conducted part per billion Impurity characterization of particles in Goleta air, and I’ve never seen barium. There’s no reason to inject chem trails into this article, or any other article for that matter.

macpuzl Oct 28, 2019 09:13 PM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

Yeah, what's a great article without some completely idiotic crazy conspiracy angle thrown in!

a-1590390220 Oct 28, 2019 12:31 PM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

“In Santa Barbara, the best thing we could do is preserve our orchards,” said Roberts, “because in any place we have an orchard it actually acts as a defensible barrier against fire spread.”

Factotum Oct 28, 2019 08:49 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

Anyone tracked the connection between "cleaner air" which means loss of particulate matter in the atmosphere and higher recorded historic land temperatures as a result? Are we simply returning to normal temperatures that were obscured by our layers of southern California smog?

a-1590390220 Oct 28, 2019 08:11 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management


a-1590390220 Oct 28, 2019 06:20 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

Heads up, #405/Getty Fire, if you are going to L.A. today.

EastBeach Oct 27, 2019 06:22 PM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

This Tuesday's episode of PBS Frontline will focus on last year's Camp Fire. It's been almost a year now . Should be interesting .....

a-1590390220 Oct 27, 2019 03:59 PM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

"Winds top a stunning 93 mph in Kincade fire zone, causing havoc across Sonoma County. "

CoastWatch Oct 27, 2019 12:00 PM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

You could have a fire engine parked on everyone's driveway in the Riviera area of Santa Barbara and you would still lose structures when the wind is blowing 50mph +. Santa Barbara is situated to the back country / coastal mountians and the cool draw of the ocean... mix in a Sundowner weather pattern and a spark or open flame and you get the Tea, Jesusita and 600+ homes lost.

EastBeach Oct 27, 2019 11:20 AM
Shifting Winds in Fire Management

Great article. I appreciate the systems-level emphasis. Sonoma county is experiencing *historic* fire weather conditions with gusts up to 93 MPH last night!

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