August 31st, 2009

Wild fires

Many years ago I lived in southern California in the hills bordering the San Fernando Valley. Every day I drove towards the city on the San Diego Freeway and then back again. Back then the traffic wasn’t as bad as it is now; there actually was a finite rush hour rather than a perpetual one.

One late afternoon I was on my way home. As I reached my exit I noticed a small patch of fire in the dry brush off the freeway to the right. It was small: maybe two feet square, maybe even less. It was summertime, very hot and very arid in the usual way of summer in southern California, so the fire had obviously just begun, perhaps started by a carelessly tossed match or cigarette.

I lived about two minutes from the freeway exit. By the time I got home I could hear the buzz of the helicopters and see them circling above. Although I couldn’t see the fire from the yard, I could smell the acrid smoke and feel the sting in my eyes.

I turned on the television to learn what I could. I was stunned by what I saw. In the two minutes since I had first spied that tiny fire on my drive home, it had become a major conflagration. Several large hills were fully ablaze, pouring thick smoke as the helicopters circled. I recall seeing water (or flame retardant) pouring from the planes, but perhaps I’m confusing that with later visions from other televised fires. There are many such visions when you live in southern California.

That particular fire turned out to be relatively easy to contain; it was over in few hours, with only a few blackened foothills to show for the trouble. Not so the fire a few years later that consumed the home of a good friend of mine. She lived on a high hill in a ritzy suburb of Los Angeles, with a panoramic view of the Pacific. When the fires came, she and her husband had a mere hour (but a precious one) to stuff their cars with whatever they deemed most important to save, say goodbye to their lovely home forever, and drive down the mountain road to safety.

Those who haven’t lived in southern California—or other areas equally dry—cannot imagine how fast a fire can spread there. I had read about it, but I would not have believed it had I not seen it for myself. I still find it hard to believe, even though I have seen it for myself.

So the news of the fire now blazing to the north of Los Angeles has a grim reality for me beyond the abstract. Here’s a description of its scope so far:

Even for a region used to enduring huge wildfires, the rate at which the Station Fire spread is staggering. Much of the city of Los Angeles is covered with a thick layer of soot, and authorities are telling residents of the city to stay indoors if possible. More than 2,500 firefighters are battling the blaze, using everything from hand tools to airplanes, but have only contained five percent of the fire, and don’t expect full containment for at least another week.

“We are making progress, but it is very slow and very dangerous,” U.S. Forest Service incident commander Mike Dietrick said at a press conference this morning. “We have to wait for the fire to come to us.”

I don’t have to tell you how brave firefighters are, and how dangerous their job always is. Two have already died in connection with this fire, when their car went off a steep mountain road. Let’s hope there will be no more casualties.

But the winds are due to pick up tonight.

29 Responses to “Wild fires”

  1. stumbley Says:

    Over 100,000 acres burned so far. Smoke clouds rising to 25-30,000 feet. 7,000 evacuated with another 500 or so due to be evacuated shortly. 4 people who ignored a mandatory evacuation order requiring helicopter rescue, taking firefighters and valuable aircraft out of the fight.

    On Thursday night, my wife and I celebrated our 26th anniversary at a restaurant in Palos Verdes. On our way home, we noticed a small fire in a deserted canyon just north of the road we were on. Just like your experience, by the time we got home, the fire engines and helicopters were rushing to the scene, and when we turned on the TV, the fire had already consumed 3-5 acres, ultimately singeing 700 or so. Fortunately, firefighters were able to save all of the threatened homes; it doesn’t look so good for those in the path of the Station fire.

    We don’t often thank firefighters enough for the incredible job they do in horrendous circumstances. Two have already died fighting the station fire; I hope there are no more fatalities.

  2. betsybounds Says:

    This post gives me an opportunity to plug one of my favorite books, The Control of Nature by John McPhee. It contains three sections which deal, respectively, with the US Army Corps of Engineers’ lower Mississippi River Old River/Atchafalaya Control project, lava flow containment in Iceland, and the perennial Los Angeles flood-debris flow/fire cycle. Anyone interested in the causes, consequences, and effectiveness of human attempts to control natural forces should check it out. McPhee has long been one of the best actual reporters going, and his prose style is engaging and informative.

  3. physicsguy Says:

    If SoCal is lucky, they may get some of the remants of the hurricane now slamming into Baja. Hopefully that will bring some rain, and not just more wind.

    As one who grew up in Colorado, I know what big forest fires look like. The Rockies are primed for a major fire if they end up with a dry winter. The pine beetle has left a tremendous amount of timber there ready to go ablaze. It all makes sense in a way: the best way to get rid of the pine beetle is to burn it out.

  4. huxley Says:

    Last year an indie rock band, Death Cab for Cutie, did a remarkable song titled “Grapevine Fires” about the California wildfires of 2007 and it came with an award-winning video.

    I don’t find much new music I respond to, but this is well worth checking out: Grapevine Fires.

  5. Roy Lofquist Says:

    Years ago, 1957, when we moved to California we looked at a house in Anawood – an upscale development at Ball Rd. and Euclid in Anaheim. Really nice – shake roofs. A few years later there was a fire and a Santa Ana wind. The whole development was wiped out in a couple of hours.

    About 6 years ago was the Rodeo Fire in Arizona – 500,000 acres. I was in Show Low, at the northwest extremity, at the time. Smoke to 40,000 feet and the night sky ablaze.

  6. Jim G. Says:

    As a young college student I had a summer job with the National Park Service. Learned about fire and fighting fires on a big one in Yellowstone in 1953. Two weeks of eating smoke and back breaking labor to get that one under control. It’s a young man’s job!

    In the 70s when I flew out of LAX, I flew with an older Captain who lived in a canyon above Malibu. One of his home maintenance tools was a D-4 CAT that he used to buldoze fire line around his house every summer. During the years I lived in Los Angeles both fire and flood were as perennial as the seasons. I opted to live away from mountains, brushy areas and rivers thus avoiding the fires and floods but not the earthquakes.

    In 1988, while enrote from Denver to destinations in the Pacific Northwest, I guided a B-727 over the huge fires that decimated Yellowstone. Even with fire fighting experience I could not believe the level of destruction. The Park Service had no choice but to try to protect life and what property they could. The fires were unstoppable. Just visited there a few weeks ago. The understanding now is that huge forests like those burn down periodically. It is a natural thing that has many benefits for the ecology. The area is healing well and in another 20 years it will be hard to see the evidence of the fires.

    The fires and floods in LA are also beneficial to the ecology, but not so much to humans and the homes in which they dwell. It’s just part of the price of living in Southern California. (That and the sky high taxes!)

  7. Don Says:

    The problem is the approach of not allowing any burning, at all, all year long. The result is massive brush growth, and out of control fires when they do occur.

    In Mexico, they don’t worry about the fires, and they never have the huge fires we have because of the firebrakes from many smaller fires.

    What I’d do, if I was in charge, is go forward with controlled burns in the winter. Then attempt to stop fires ASAP in the summer.

    BTW, I’m 46, grew up on a ranch just a few miles north of Mexico. I’ve been around these fires al my life.

  8. s1c Says:

    I remember in the early or mid 80′s going to a game at Jack Murphy stadium in San Diego. We ended up spending as much time watching the fire fighting (plane after plane dumping the water / chemical) as much as we did the game.

  9. Artfldgr Says:

    the greenies recent world wide policy penchant of not removing scrub and not allowing firebreaks, not allowing controlled burnoffs, and not allowing interventions to mitigate its travel, has been coming to roost in many places.

  10. MikeLL Says:

    Those who haven’t lived in southern California—or other areas equally dry—cannot imagine how fast a fire can spread there.

    Even some who live here don’t understand this. I was listening to a firefighter on the radio trying to explain to callers why some of these blazes can be so difficult to put out. He basically said, “Go stand in front of a tornado and try to stop it.”

    And these tornados are walls of flame. Some people try to create a fire break in their yards, but the fire just jumps right over it. Very dangerous. If you are told to evacuate, get out.

  11. nyomythus Says:

    Is California just gonna stay on fire?

  12. Gray Says:

    you have a family you worthless sack of dogshit. pay attention to your children instead of wasting your time spewing out derivative, uniteresting, and uninformed takes on current events.

    Ooops, wrong thread: Shoulda been on Penelope Trunk blog….

  13. Gray Says:

    Is California just gonna stay on fire?

    Only if we’re lucky, girlfriend! *snap* *snap*

  14. MikeLL Says:

    A few years ago I was attending a seminar at a nice hotel on the beach in Santa Monica. After the first day’s activities, everyone was invited up to the bar at the top of the hotel to socialize. The bar had windows all the way around. From where we were sitting we had a beautiful view of the coastline all the way up into Malibu.

    As the sun was coming down we noticed a fire had started at the top of the mountain down the coast. There was nothing we could do but watch this fire blaze right down the side of the mountain. It was amazing how fast it happened. I don’t think anyone got hurt in that fire, but some very expensive property was destroyed.

  15. MikeLL Says:


    I was wondering what that comment was all about too. Very strange.

  16. Gray Says:

    On a serious note:

    for the past 9 years I’ve been ou to EAFB a couple times a month: LAX, 405 to the 5 to the 14 to EAFB. Through Acton and all the places on fire just now….

    Burn it all down.

  17. Sgt. Mom Says:

    I grew up in So-Cal, in a little town/suburb called Sunland-Tujinga. I looked at Mount Gleason every day, and Dad drove us up to Mount Wilson whenever there was a snow-fall, to look at it, and to look at the observatory towers. So, I know all the names of the places, and the neighborhoods mentioned in the news stories. I can see them, in my minds’ eye, and in memory – where I went to school, learned to drive, went for a church picnic. My brothers and I hiked in Big Tujunga Canyon, went riding out in the Wash,
    When I was about sixteen, I was riding out in the hills on horseback near my parents’ house, and spotted a small fire, on the hillside, about the size of a campfire – like Neo’s fire, probably started by a cigarette tossed aside. I went riding hell-for-leather home (no cellphones in those days, no closer neighbors!) and when I got to the house, I was screaming for Mom to call the fire department, before I even got off the horse. I could hear the sirens from the nearest fire department, down along Wentworth, at the bottom of our hills, not five minutes away, as soon as Mom had gotten off the telephone. By the time the fire department arrived, that little fire had burned a couple of acres.
    Ten years later, the Hills burned again, just after Thanksgiving of 1975, and we stood at an overlook by our new house, watching a line of fire coming down over the Angeles National Forest lands, a line of fire that went in either direction along the ridgeline, as far as you could see. Dad had a pair of binoculars, and we took turns, watching the flames coming up so fierce and fast that they sucked loose bits of timber and brush into them. It looked like a tornado of fire, coming down the hillside towards the suburb where we lived.
    The brush on our hill burned once – in the dry chaparral, fire moves faster than someone can run, and dun-colored smoke pours off what is burning like water cascading over Niagara Falls . You don’t quite believe that, until you see it, and I have seen it.
    Mom and Dad moved to San Diego County another fifteen years or so after that, and built their retirement house. In 2003, that house burned to the ground, in the Paradise Mountain fire, and Mom and Dad had about twenty minutes to grab the valuables, their pets and go. Mom said afterward that the fire made this deep blow-torch roaring sound, coming up-hill towards the house, a sound you couldn’t mistake, a sound that meant there was nothing much that anyone could do, except to run. They had lived all their lives in fire country, loving the hills and the beauty of it, and always being prepared, and being careful about firebreaks … but they weren’t prepared to lose everything but what they could grab in twenty minutes.
    The firemen were grand – they stayed until the fire was exploding all the windows inwards, and grabbed another lot of stuff – pictures off the walls, mostly. All the other houses in the neighborhood were saved.
    To live in Southern California is to live with fire, and to know that the hills will burn. If not this week, then next. If not this year, than next.

  18. douglas Says:

    This fire is particularly dramatic. I can see it from my window- well at least part of it. It’s far too large to see all of it from anywhere. The big Malibu fire in 1993 was something to see from down the coast. Of course, as mentioned earlier, Malibu burns- 2007 was pretty bad too. We helped evacuate my parents and brother from last years North Valley fires. They got close, but they were spared, so I’ve seen a few big fires in my lifelong residence in Los Angeles. The scale of the Station fire boggles the mind. From the city side, it now reaches from Sunland to Altadena. That’s about 15 miles. Then it reaches back into the mountains about fifteen miles. There are some pretty impressive time lapse videos that start to give you some idea of the scope. This one was taken from Mulholland drive on the south side of the San Fernando Valley looking back across, so it’s seeing the SE to NW sweep of around ten or twelve miles of active fire at that time. The smoke billows up well over 15000 feet, then forms a Pyrocumulus cloud. It’s an impressive, and awesome (in the old sense of the word) sight.

    The only good things are that it’s mostly in National Forest, so it doesn’t have much in the way of structures to burn, and that the smoke has been blowing inland, away from the city, for the most part, though a haze hangs all around.

    God Bless those firefighters working so hard out there, and prayers for the families of the two killed- one with two children, and the other whose wife is expecting in a few weeks. They are our protectors, we owe them so much.

  19. Scottie Says:

    As I was driving into work this morning, the reporter on NPR noted that the area where this fire is located hasn’t had a major fire since about the 1950′s.

    That kind of boggles my mind to be honest.

    I lived on the East coast in a rural area for many decades, in an area that was extremely hot and dry during the summer, with thick beds of pine needles that pile up when the pine trees shed them, so it’s also like a tinderbox.

    You walk through the forest, and you are literally walking along on a bed of dry pine needles.

    The last time I drove down to the coast, I noted the scorched tree bark and the new growth on some forest next to the highway – which was from a controlled burn which the forest service does regularly.

    We occasionally DO have large out of control fires down there now, of course, but I don’t recall anything on the order that is being reported out of California – and we literally have pine tree farms for lumber companies that cover thousands of acres.

    Do they not do controlled burns in California? 60 years is a long time to pile up dead wood.

    Also, I’m curious about something else and have a serious question.

    Regarding the other areas that have been mentioned that had massive fires in years past, what kind of fire hazard danger is there in THOSE areas now?

    I mean, I would think of those past fires as having the same effect as a controlled burn, clearing out the underbrush and dry kindling, allowing new growth to start.

    Not saying there won’t be small fires that will still pop up, but I wouldn’t think they would be as dangerous or as difficult to control if the area had been burned off within the previous 5-10 years in some major conflagration.

    Anybody know the answer to that question?

  20. JimO Says:

    Like betsybounds, I highly recommend John MacPhees Control of Nature. The section on the LA fires is particularly interesting. If I recall correctly, the leaves of a lot of the brush contains a substance similar to turpentine. It’s one of the reasons the fires burn as fierce and fast. Sort of a built-in fire accellerant.

  21. Lame-R Says:

    My office is about 15 miles west of the Oak Glen fire, and all the cars in the parking lot are speckled with ash. Occasionally you can see the larger pieces swirling in the breeze.

    If the Santa Ana’s are blowing and the temp is over 100, there WILL be fire.

  22. Simon Kenton Says:

    Scottie questioned:

    “Do they not do controlled burns in California? 60 years is a long time to pile up dead wood.”

    Wildland firefighter here. The mature ponderosa woodland is what I know best. Those forests under pre-Columbian conditions burnt on average every 17 years. This meant a low, creeping pine-needle fire that killed seedlings, opened cones to start more seedlings, converted deadfall to fertilizer, lightly scorched the bark of the mature trees and removed their lower branches, encouraged grasses and forbs (elk browse). You can see what happened if you didn’t encourage those little fires by googling the Los Alamos fire down in New Mexico. They lost about 400 houses. It was supposed to be a controlled burn.

    Controlled burns in California. Not likely. There’s too much accumulated fuel in most places (60 years is WAY too much). And you’re liable if one gets away from you. Even if the government defends you legally it’s career-limiting. And how would you feel about losing all those houses, and perhaps some lives? People resigned after the Los Alamos fire. Now there have been some genuinely stupid moves, like the Forest Service and County people collaborating to avoid mitigating (removing brush and excess trees, limbing the trees that remain) up near Lake Tahoe, to avoid discoloring the lake with runoff; this is just guaranteeing the eventual and inevitable fire will do the most possible damage to structures, forests, and the Lake. Look at what happened after decades of successful fire suppression in Mesa Verde – the eventual fires were uncontrollable, and affected even archaeological resources almost 1000 years old. But in most of CA, nobody’s going to do controlled burns because you can’t do the ‘control’ part. A real wildfire can just go off the human scale so quickly: you’re walking along with a drip torch setting a line of fire about a foot high that’s cleaning out the brush when the humidity drops, the wind comes up, the fire starts sucking air in from every direction, it ladders up into the trees, and suddenly you are releasing gigawatts of energy. Like the guy said, stand in front of a tornado and tell it to behave. It’ll be your fault.

    There won’t be controlled burns in CA, but there’ll be human ignitions once the fires are actually going. Then it’s accepted procedure, if you have the right conditions, to backfire and burn-out unburned pockets. In fact, it can be the only thing that can save you when it starts coming your way, they haven’t pulled you out in time, and you can’t run. It can also be the only thing that will keep the fire from working back through areas it has already passed through, or getting close enough to leap a break.

  23. Scottie Says:

    Simon Kenton,

    Thanks for the input. Glad to see it from someone who actually knows what they are talking about here.

    It sounds like they end up with the mother of all (un)controlled burns after suppressing the natural cycle for so many decades.

    After that occurs however, in places like we are discussing now, where you have such a huge fire eating up massive amounts of real estate with dry tinder, would it be reasonable to thereafter maintain a regular schedule of controlled burns as the area recovers?

    I have no idea what kind of intervals of controlled burns the forestry service would like to perform, but it would seem an ideal time to implement such a strategy after such a disaster.

    I would think a fire of this magnitude would definitely clear out decades worth of dead wood, allowing future decades of fire control to be handled more rationally.

  24. Simon Kenton Says:

    Scottie wrote:

    “After that occurs however, in places like we are discussing now, where you have such a huge fire eating up massive amounts of real estate with dry tinder, would it be reasonable to thereafter maintain a regular schedule of controlled burns as the area recovers?”

    I sure think so. What I think matters very little. To explain a bit, after a fire there is a regular succession of vegetation that replaces what was burned, depending on fire intensity, soils, slope, climate, seed-source proximity, and time. Burn off a tall-grass prairie, it will come back relatively quickly (under a life-time) in the same species that were there (if you have a seed-source, you don’t damage the soil or get a spate of high intensity summer rainfall that starts a cycle of gully-cutting, and you have a supply of the fauna that fosters that vegetative association). Now take a mature ponderosa forest. Burn it regularly and lightly, you will note very little visible change even a few years after a burn. Let it accumulate huge volumes of down fuel and burn it intensely, killing off the great trees, and it will be 500 – 1000 years before you have a visibly-identical forest on the site. You may have to go through grasses, forbs, bushes, junipers, douglas-fir, small stands of repeatedly-replaced ponderosas, before some really big ones can start to mature. (When you see ponderosa whose bark has turned from blackish to orange, that tree is over 100.)

    Now suppose that at certain points in the succession, animal and avian species that we affect are favored by the vegetation. Say, turkeys if you are a Basketmaker indian. Elk if you are a modern hunter. Spotted owls if you are charged with enforcing the endangered species act. Hereford and Angus cows if you’re a rancher. If you reburn the vegetation at some point to safeguard houses, you are also selecting a particular suite of fauna for the area, the fauna that go with that stage of vegetation. The sugarbush-chaparral association east of San Diego, which reminds me of gasoline in its response to fire, has a particularly rich avian assemblage (and, to an easterner, a fairly depauperate mammalian grouping). If you burn that association as often as it needs to hold down fire in the wildland/urban interface, you aren’t going to see as much birdlife or as rich a species grouping. And you’re going to see increased, spasmodic, turbid runoff. (Which will end up in someone’s yard, and for which you will be sued.)

    Now you may think, “BS. These are people’s houses we’re talking about. Human life. Burn it as often as it needs to be burned.” That’s what I think. But a land manager cannot overlook the counter-concerns.

  25. Artfldgr Says:

    Simon Kenton,

    tell them how dangerous the scrub can be for the fighters. by letting things go that long, you get situations where your fighting a fire, and suddenly a fire is behind you. why? because the fire burned under the brush under you…

  26. betsybounds Says:

    I’m pretty sure the California wildfires don’t result from zealous fire suppression efforts, and they would not be ameliorated by regular controlled burns. They are a result of the native local vegetation, called chaparral, combined with low plant moisture, low humidity, high seasonal winds, and the Mediterranean climate regime. They are not at all the same as the Ponderosa pine fires in the montane west, in the Rockies for example. Again, I recommend John McPhee’s The Control of Nature. You’ll learn a lot from reading it.

  27. douglas Says:

    I concur, these areas burning now are not what you’d call dense pine forest for the most part- it’s largely chaparral- particularly nearer the city limits, but that too can get pretty dense. I’ve heard that you could consider burns for that type of vegetation around every ten years, but there are definitely problems regarding the interlacing of human habitats into the national forest areas, and the proximity of actual sub/urban areas. We’re actually really lucky that this fire occurred without the presence of the Santa Ana winds, or this would have become a serious urban fire. In a way, it’s not just lucky, it’s a blessing, as it has cleared out the fuel so that we won’t be in a position to have that kind of fire in those areas for at least a while.

  28. Beverly Says:

    Late to the thread, but see this spectacular time-lapse photography of the Station Fire in LA:

    Wow. It’s beyond huge. Looks like it will engulf the entire LA valley.

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