All fire on the western front
How 2016 could be the worst year ever for parched California
A plume of smoke rose from the woods early in the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. Gary Rose was on his way home to his rural house in Mountain Ranch, in Calaveras County, and his wife, Monika, called to ask if he could see the fire.
“He told me it was over the ridge, on the Amador side, and that it wasn’t coming our way,” she recalled.
By the next day, however, the plume had grown larger and closer, smearing the sky a rusty, smoky brown. That afternoon, the Roses, along with two of their three adult children, packed their belongings. Their state of uneasy nervousness grew into a frantic rush as the fire moved closer and closer.
In the morning hours before sunrise, they piled into the truck as, behind them, the flames soared 150 to 200 feet above the ground. Rose says propane tanks could be heard exploding as the inferno claimed each additional home in its path.
“I could hear the fire breathing,” she said. “It was like a dragon coming down the mountain, and if it wanted something, it took it.”
The Butte Fire eventually burned 70,000 acres, destroyed hundreds of homes and took two human lives. The Roses were allowed to return after nine days. They were lucky. Their home and their small herd of cows survived the fire, but within a half-mile of the Rose property, 11 neighbors’ homes were destroyed—about a 50 percent loss rate.
“They were totally gone,” she said. “It was eerie, like a war zone. The trees were all blackened and standing like a charred cathedral, and where the houses had been, there was nothing left at all—nothing, not even pieces of metal.”
In California, wildfires have been getting worse for years—larger, more frequent and more expensive to put out. In fact, 2015 ended up being one of the most destructive fire years ever. A record-setting 10 million acres of the United States—mostly in Alaska and other western regions—went up in flames. This year could be even worse for the West, experts worry.
Chico resident Mike Lopez, a veteran firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, currently serves as president of Cal Fire’s Sacramento-based firefighters’ labor union. He says large fires used to occur most often in the summer and fall, but thanks to a warming climate and drier winters, they are increasingly burning year-round.
“We no longer have fire seasons—it’s more of a fire year now,” said Lopez, who worked for 23 years in Butte County firehouses.
He and many others believe climate change is driving longer droughts and warmer conditions that have pushed California into a new era of bigger, hotter fires—and today, after nearly five dry years, the West’s forests are perhaps as likely to burst into flames as they ever have been. Tens of millions of trees, killed by the drought, are ready to burn. Decades of fire suppression practices have also contributed to the woodland fuel load, allowing understory shrubbery to build like kindling in a campfire ring.
Forest managers hope to avert disastrous fires by thinning out that fuel load—but there may not be time. Already, furnace-like conditions statewide have sparked such blazes as the deadly Erskine Fire near Bakersfield and the Trailhead Fire in Placer County. It’s likely the summer will see record heat in the months to come, and wildfire officials are facing what could very well blow into the worst fire season in state history.
“California has always been a flammable place,” said Jens Stevens, a plant ecologist at UC Davis’ John Muir Institute of the Environment. “What’s different today is there’s evidence the forests are denser than ever before. This is going to create bigger, hotter fires.”
Lopez doubts things will get better anytime soon, if ever. Already, in fact, 2016 is shaping into a record heat year—just like 2014 and 2015.
“Conditions are getting warmer as well as drier,” Lopez said. “The forecast is that this is the new normal.”
For millennia, fire has burned through the hills and mountains of the American West. Some plants, such as manzanitas, depend directly on the intense heat of fires to activate seed germination. The lodgepole pine, too, needs fire to open its pine cones. The landscape as a whole benefited from regular fires, which cleared away dense underbrush and allowed animals to use the area. The heat of the flames generally had little negative effect on most adult trees, protected by thick bark and internal water content.
The entrance of European Americans into California’s landscape abruptly changed the way fire plays into California’s ecology. Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, people became extremely effective at putting fires out. Andrew Latimer, an associate professor of fire ecology and plant biology at UC Davis, says this change in fire patterns can be seen in tree ring data, viewable in the cross sections of old mountain conifers.
“You can see the scars of fires, every six years, 10 years, 20 years,” Latimer said. “Then, starting around the late 19th century, early 20th century, it just stops entirely.”
For almost 100 years, local and state fire officials and the U.S. Forest Service extinguished fires aggressively and efficiently across the American West. The introduction of airplanes, fire engines, chemical deterrents and heavy machinery advanced people’s power to subdue fires, and for a time, it seemed, Americans had conquered one of the most formidable forces of nature.
But fire suppression programs backfired. Trouble is, in the absence of fire, the woods grew thicker.
“You had all this fuel building up on the forest floor, with branches and needles dropping and just staying there and piling up,” Latimer said. “There were also many trees that would have been killed before but were able to grow up, so you had … a forest that was much, much denser.”
Eventually, so much wood had accumulated that even advanced firefighting strategies could not subdue the force of fire anymore. Latimer says an uptick in frequency of large blazes began in the 1980s and 1990s. The 1991 Oakland hills Tunnel Fire killed 25 people and destroyed 2,900 buildings. Twelve years later, in October 2003, the Cedar Fire consumed 273,000 acres of San Diego County, killing 16. In 2008, so much of Northern California went up in flames that many wines made with grapes grown that year tasted like smoke. Massive fires, including the Rush and the Rim fires, roared over the state in the years following.
Last October’s Valley Fire in the North Bay destroyed 1,955 structures and killed four people.
Paul Duncan lost his house in that fire. He was at home, in Hidden Valley Lake, with his family on Sept. 12 when the fire broke out. A firefighter with Cal Fire, Duncan was called immediately to duty. Over the course of the next few hours, the fire moved explosively over the land. The 1,300 residents of Middletown were ordered to pack up and leave. Then Hidden Valley Lake, population 5,000, was evacuated. While Duncan worked the fire, his wife and their three teenage children barely escaped after rescuing a neighbor’s dog and driving away on roads that were socked in with smoke and, in places, roaring flames.
Duncan, who now lives in a new home in the same town, says the Valley Fire burned much more rapidly than most fires do, thanks to the especially dry conditions.
“It showed behavior that none of us had seen before,” he said, describing how the fire quickly jumped from the waist-tall grasses into the high branches of the trees—what firefighters call “crowning out.” This jump usually takes a few hours to occur, but with the Valley Fire, the blaze escalated into an emergency almost immediately.
Crowning fires soar hundreds of feet into the sky and generate so much heat that they can create localized thunderheads and turn living, microbe-rich soil into barren, dead dirt that remains essentially lifeless for years. They sweep over the land as fast as a person can run, can melt metal and are almost impossible to control.
“When a fire crowns out and starts moving, you just have to stand back and let it go, because there is nothing on this earth that can stop it,” Lopez said.
Such fires—including the Butte, Erskine, Rim and Rush fires—are especially hard to stop when the wood they are burning is dead and dry, as much of the state’s forests now are. Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service have estimated that the drought has killed more than 60 million trees in California alone.
Firefighter Kyle Jacobson, with the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, says there are places in the Sierras where virtually every tree is dead across hundreds of acres.
“In places like these where we have tons of dead and downed trees, it will be almost impossible to put fires out,” he said.
Across the West, fire crews are laboring to thin this fuel load. The simplest approach is mechanical—basically cutting down small trees and removing them from the woods. However, mechanical thinning, which involves men and women on foot in the woods with chainsaws, can be brutally laborious and can’t be done across more than a fraction of the state’s woodlands.
“We just don’t have the manpower,” Jacobson said.
The other option for reducing fire danger is prescribed burning—basically, intentionally starting a fire during a period of cool or damp weather to reduce the risk of larger fires later. This approach involves less labor than mechanical thinning, as fire itself does the brunt of the work. It eats up the woody fuel of the forest floor, leaving the large trees unharmed.
Trouble is, prescribed burns themselves can get out of control. The Cerro Grande Fire of New Mexico began as an intentional burn set in May 2000 by the National Park Service. The blaze was meant to clear the underbrush from a small patch of woodland—about 900 acres—but the burn got way out of hand. It wound up burning for two weeks, consuming 48,000 acres and destroying hundreds of homes.
One way or another, forest managers must thin out the fuel load of the state’s woodlands.
“But we’re a long way from that,” said Steve Burns, a South Lake Tahoe fire chief with the U.S. Forest Service. He says that with strict limits on logging and the safety issues associated with controlled burns, drought-induced tree mortality is outpacing our ability to thin the forests—and it isn’t likely that forest managers will get a handle on the problem anytime soon.
“With the fuel load out there,” he said, “we’re going to be seeing these mega-fires for years.”
Burns himself almost lost his South Lake Tahoe home in the 2007 Angora Fire, which destroyed 254 other homes in the area. Burns is just one of millions of Californians who now live in fire-prone areas. In the past 25 years, more than half of new homes in the United States have been built in areas of woodland or other vegetation likely to catch fire, according to the research firm Headwaters Economics in Montana. Nationwide, 15 million homes are now at risk of burning in wildfires, U.S. Forest Service officials have estimated.
The number of homes built in the danger zone continues to grow as urban areas sprawl into woodland and wilderness. Even in the remote Sierra Nevada, communities or enclaves of cabins make any wildfire a top priority for firefighters to extinguish.
“We used to see fires of 100,000 acres that would destroy one or two homes,” Lopez said. “Now, we might have fires that are 10,000 acres burning 100 homes.”
The Tunnel Fire in Oakland consumed a mere 1,600 acres but destroyed more homes than any other fire in California’s history—almost 3,000.
Katherine Evatt says rural homeowners must take responsibility by clearing the brush from around their properties. Evatt has lived in Amador County for 37 years and is the president of the Foothill Conservancy, a conservation group focused on Amador and Calaveras counties. Evatt and her husband, Pete Bell, built their home in a wooded, fire-prone area when Evatt was just 22 years old.
“I was too young to know any better,” she said.
Today, rampant building in wilderness areas at high risk of burning—a land zone officials refer to as “the wildland-urban interface,” or WUI, pronounced “whoo-ee”—continues.
“A lot of people come from the city and move into the WUI like I did without knowing the risks,” she said. “They think that there will be an immediate response if there is a fire.”
Evatt, who helped form a still-operational community fire department in the 1980s, wants county governments to prevent new woodland developments when necessary. Rural sprawl, she says—especially with isolated homes set deep in forests—is a dangerous way to continue with development. Homes should instead be clustered in already developed areas to improve the efficiency with which firefighters may guard homes from blazes. Local agencies, she adds, should also take a more active role in educating residents on how to better protect their homes from fire. Evatt says there must also be more laws requiring real estate companies to tell potential buyers about local fire risks.
A major problem caused by building homes in fire prone forests, Evatt explains, is that firefighters, who have a responsibility to protect property and lives over uninhabited woodland, become unable to focus entirely on controlling the fire itself when homes are deemed to be threatened.
“They have to send their fire engines to go and guard the homes, so they become less effective at firefighting,” Evatt said.
As for her own home, Evatt has taken steps to protect it from fire. She and her husband built it with metal roofing. They’ve cleared the brush from around the house in a 100-foot radius. They are also thinning the dead wood from the adjacent forest, and Evatt and Bell have have plans to layer the ground surrounding her home with three feet of gravel and to build—and fill—a large water tank with spigot fittings compatible with firefighters’ hoses.
Controlling vegetation growth is what helped save the Rose household in Mountain Ranch. Monika Rose says she and her husband had always kept the acreage surrounding their home trim and tidy. The constant grazing of the cows and their goats helped, too.
But Rose says she knew the mountains around their home would eventually catch fire.
“We’d seen the heavy undergrowth and the thick trees, the amount of fuel and all the dead trees—we knew the danger was real,” she said. Some of her neighbors, she says, were not so careful. “They were right under the trees, and the very thing that they loved, the beauty of the forest, actually caused their undoing.”
The misguided philosophy of firefighters and forest managers was once to put out fires, period. Today, firefighters want to see the natural fire cycle returned to the West’s landscape.
“What we want is fires of high frequency and low intensity,” said Burns, with the Forest Service. “That’s how fire cycles work naturally, but where we are now, we’re having fires of low frequency and high intensity.”
Through the dry season of 2008, smoke covered much of the state as fires burned about a million acres. It was the most expensive year for putting out fires in the state’s history, with a bill that rang up at just over half a billion dollars. However, the fires were mostly of low intensity. They burned the understory and killed relatively few adult trees. It was, Latimer says, an ecologically healthy fire year, with lots of mellow fires smoldering across the foothills.
“There were a lot of health impacts associated with the smoke, but that’s what a natural fire year in California might have looked like,” Latimer said.
Last winter brought heavy precipitation in parts of the state. Deluges of rain fell in January before more downpours arrived in March. Meanwhile, snow blanketed the higher elevations, but Lopez says this winter’s moisture didn’t do much good.
“All that rain did was delay the fire season a month or two,” he said.
Duncan, in Lake County, says the winter’s rainfall was, in fact, just enough to make fire conditions especially bad.
“It started all that grass growing, which is now 4-feet high and dry,” he said, adding that the rain wasn’t enough to significantly dampen the standing trees. In effect, the precipitation only fueled the burning of the woods. “So far we’ve seen some explosive fire behavior. It’s shaping up to be a bad season.”
By June, fires were burning all over the state. The large Erskine Fire, for example, consumed about 48,000 acres of forest in the mountains near Bakersfield and killed two people. Duncan was among the many firefighters who helped control that blaze.
The heavy blanket of snow laid over the state in the winter is nearly gone, melted at a rapid pace by unseasonable spring heat. It’s among many strong indicators that the climate is warming. One result of this change is that the mountain tree line seems to be moving upward, according to researchers at UC Davis. In a study published last summer, scientists with the John Muir Institute of the Environment reported that trees are growing higher than they did in the recent past. They also found that, before 1980, fires rarely burned above 8,000 feet. Now, they reported, several fires each year burn in this subalpine zone, thanks to increasing fuel load and decreasing moisture levels.
Scientists, officials and firefighters all agree that the era of indiscriminate fire suppression must end. The practice simply doesn’t work. Fires can be kept out for only so long before they erupt again.
“The answer to California’s fire problem is going to have to involve fire in some way,” Stevens said.
For now, fire suppression remains standard. Virtually every fire that can be put out is put out, even though experts know this practice may cause more problems than it solves.
The question they’re grappling with is how to return fire to a landscape that is so densely packed with fuel. Stevens says that in a healthy forest, mellow fires burn through every 15 years or so. Some scientists and forest managers are hopeful that, eventually, fires could again burn on such a cycle.
Meanwhile, rural homes and communities could be protected by buffer perimeters of intensively thinned woodland. Building with fire resistant materials is another defensive tactic—but none of these measures will guarantee safety. Evatt, with the Foothill Conservancy, says she knows a local man who went to great lengths to protect his home from burning. However, last year’s Butte Fire destroyed his house. It did not actually catch fire from the outside, thanks to the fire resistant materials the structure was built with. Rather, the home heated up like a furnace and eventually exploded into flames from the inside out.
In Mountain Ranch, the house of the Rose family was spared once, but the danger, Monika Rose knows, remains.
“There’s still tons of fuel left out there to burn,” she said. “There are dead trees all over, still just waiting for the next fire.”