CA conflagrations cause and prevention?? (off topic taken out of BTU-Camp)


I agree about Firescope. The effort began with 1972 legislation from the U.S. Congress. Firescope originally stood for Firefighting REsources in Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies. It now stands for Firefighting RESources in California Organized for Potential Emergencies. Given that the ICS is a modular system where the modules that build an incident organization are added in response to the specific needs of the incident. These modules have evolved over time, at least since I first worked a fire in southern California using the early versions of ICS in 1979.

Those of us who have studied fire ecology have known that fire exclusion in fire dependent ecosystems was going to cause a radically different situation for fire managers and land management personnel by the end of the 20th century. It was predicted in scientific literature of the late 40’s, the 50’s and 60’s. In my case I started reading this literature in 1968 and have closely followed it since. We know that this prediction came true, but what this research did not predict is a warming climate, which has added an overwhelming crisis from what was just a serious crisis. Just as the ICS evolved to meet the challenges that we began to experience circa 1987 to 2000, it will evolve to fit the overwhelming crisis we have obviously entered. The evolution of the system must include agreement by all parties to it, in other words, the hallmark of the system, an interagency standardized approach. That is what concerns me about the differences in very large fire organizations by Cal Fire and the feds.

I’m an ICS nerd as well. I even had the opportunity to work in the same office as Bob Irwin, the acknowledged “father of the ICS,” who was the first coordinator of Firescope. A little less known is his transfer to become the FMO of the Gifford Pinchot NF in 1979 in order to escape the stress of getting 6 agencies to agree on one system and leave their own long held methods in favor of something new. He wanted as we all say, “go out to pasture” for the rest of our career. Then St. Helens started to make noise following his move to Washington. The State of Washington’s large incident response to Mt. Saint Helens was not well enough developed at the time to handle it. Irwin became the de facto head of the federal, state and local response to this event. I chided Irwin that he was the most qualified person in the country to be the Mt. Saint Helens IC. He grumbled about his “misfortune” and stated that anyone else could have handled it as well. I felt lucky that I was able to spend some time with him and help him with the project he was working on, which was an interagency plan for handling volcanic activity in the Long Valley Caldera in Mono County.

The Camp Fire is beyond what I envisioned when the prediction of 100,000 acre stand replacement fires becoming commonplace by the end of the 20th century that science began to predict in the 1950’s. I don’t think any of use would have believed that the destruction of over 500-1000 homes in one fire would become so common. Having over 8,000 structures destroyed in one fire is a shock this baby boomer, who started reading forestry research while in high school, can conceive of. This in light of the fires in the Mendocino Complex of 2017 and the Thomas fire/flood of later that year as well as the Carr Fire of this year. It is more of a shock than I can describe to anyone.


Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. Yes, I was shocked to hear the initial count in Paradise and am just speechless that the whole town hasn’t been assessed yet and the number is at 8k. Lots of times we hear about disasters that could have been so much worse had it been a different day, time, location or circumstance. This WAS the worst and it is almost unbearable to think of the amount of human suffering taking place.


Our fire and land management agencies have been playing catchup for years, now. The fire intensity we see today is largely a result of the exclusion of fire from our natural landscapes. We are just beginning to recognize that, now.
The concept and policies of extinguishing all fires began after the conflagrations of 1910 in the Northern Rockies. Since then, Mother Nature has continued to sprout trees and brush with little regard for mankind’s artificial influence, as well as general lack of wisdom; that example being the removal of fire from wildlands.
Now, most of our forests have become a mess. The fuel load has increased to an almost unbelievable level. And now, when fires rapidly get out of hand, we wring our collective hands pointing fingers labeling it man’s influence on the climate That climate, only taken with a large dose of arrogance, we (mankind) think we understand.
The history of fire in the western forests far exceeds our mere 150 years of observation. Has mankind played a role? Of course especially in the last century, and Mother Nature will remind us of that as she has over the last few weeks.
The giant sequoias contain quite a different story. Holding a living history extending over thousands of years, they tell us of droughts lasting 250 years, extended periods of abundant rain and, the lesson we should have noticed, the regular frequency of fire. Yes, these silent sentinels of the forest have seen their range reduced, but by age-old geologic and environmental factors that have brought about nature’s own global warming and cooling cycles for the planet.
Humans have a crazy notion that we can set the thermostat for the earth and it will (or should) remain the same. It never has. We agonize and blame refusing to recognize our own role in what we are seeing now. Eight thousand structures and dozens of lives lost. Yet we continue to build homes in harm’s way, constructed and filled with flammable materials, powered by an ever-aging infrastructure that is, in many cases over 100 years old. The same ones that have every potential of throwing sparks when the winds blow into the tinderbox located adjacent or underneath.
Scores of new firetrucks and battalions of brave young heroes cannot, in the final analysis, protect us from ourselves. When will we ever learn?


Something that a lot of people fail to realize is that these large destructive fires are a direct correlation to one issue, county planning/zoning regulations. County planning departments have allowed people to build homes in fire prone areas with little to no regard for fire mitigation. In 1960, the population in CA was around 15,000,000 and today is around 40,000,000. Housing units have increased accordingly, in 1960 there were about 5,500,000 housing unit and today there are around 15,000,000 housing units.

Most of these communities were build spontaneously and were not master planned. Items such as setbacks, roadway widths, evacuation routes, water supply and multiple other issues were an after though. Additionally more houses equals more infrastructure and more power lines running through fire prone areas. CA has always had large fires, though large fires do not make the headlines unless they effect homes and homes, with a few exceptions, are only effected by fires in areas that they should have never been built in the first place.

One of the largest fires in CA history was the Rush fire in 2012, which burned 271,911 acres in Northeast CA. Almost no one has ever even heard about this massive fire, why? Because it did not burn a single home, it was not an attention grabbing story. No one cares about large fires that do not effect homes. This LA Times article about planning issues examines the problems faced by Paradise and numerous other communities throughout CA.

Destructive fires in CA are not a climate change issue, they are not a fuel loading issue, they are not a lack of resources issue, they are a planning issue.


@IAfire,@firedzr…You are both right. This is a very multi-faceted problem, which the politicians, the media and the general public are trying to put into a single problem, single solution box.

IAfire, I do disagree slightly with your final statement that this is not a fuel loading issue but a planning issue. Yes, it is a planning issue, but we also need to factor into our world now, structures as a fuel loading component. These Wildland Urban Conflagrations are no longer simply, the amount of fuel loading per acre of native vegetation which we have traditionally viewed fuel loadings. We are now faced with higher population densities in the WUI, which as we have tragically seen with the Camp Fire, directly translates to higher casualty counts with more and different types of fuels with the vehicles burning, structures burning and the native vegetation burning.


I don’t know Paradise very well but you can see in some photos juniper bushes and other types of drought resistant landscape plants. Any plant that is still green at this late date is surely fire prone and the live fuel moistures have to be as low or lower than out in the woods. Drought resistant landscape plants scare me.


Yes you are correct that structures are now part of the fuel loading component, but my point was with proper planning regulations that would have and should have never occurred in the first place. If homes were never built where they shouldn’t have been, these big fires would be the same as the Rush fire, no one would know or care about them because they wouldn’t be impacting home and people.

Proper planning would have solved a number of issues. People are always saying that we need to let fires burn and use them as a land management tool. Well the biggest reason we can not do that in CA, is because a majority of fires here quickly impact structures and people. The number one reason we aren’t able to do as much VMP burning as we would like, is many areas with a fire prescription get halted because of air quality concerns impacting people. People who live in areas where homes shouldn’t have been built, which goes back to planning.


I am not an ICS expert, but took ICS 400 earlier his year. It covers complex incidents. Part of the class covered splitting operations into two operations sections, keeping one IC and one Planning, Logistics, and Finance sections.


Many of the areas that look like homes should not have been built there, made sense at the time. Cattle grazing and cleared areas have been encouraged to fill back in with brush and trees.

One letter to the editor I saw years ago. Wish I had clipped it out. Had a lady complaining that the required brush clearance was detrimental to fire protection. She wrote that the fire would race through the grass and burn her house. She wrote that the brush would slow the fire down.


Fuel reduction is an interesting and important topic, and one that applies to almost all of our fires now… But this thread is for pertinent information happening on what is still a very active fire, let’s maybe start this conversation on a different thread…


I agree with a lot of what is being said within this post, I know that there is no quick fix to help reduce to potential for large deviating fire, but one thing I would like communities to start thinking of is a better notification system to get people out. If you look toward the area of the country that have hurricanes there are sirens to notify the people of danger, Hawaii has sirens to notify people of possible tsunami, I think if we go back to the day a lot of these small communities start using the old town siren to warn people it’s time to evacuate the death toll may not be as high. I grew up in a small town and every day at noon or when the volunteers were called out for a fire it would sound, so I know that some of these towns still have them, and for the ones that don’t the cost is minnema. Yes I know that reverse 911 is used but if not at home or you don’t have a home phone you don’t get the notifications and reverse 911 takes time. With a siren a simple push of a bitten at city hall or even some ECC could activate it. Just my thought to help save lives until a better solution or options come out and is implemented to stop or reduce these fast moving destructive fires


I do think that this type of fire has the potential to teach us a lot of lessons, as any major disaster does… I think it’s high time we start looking at how we think about how we are going to treat these emergencies when they happen. A lot of the major fires we’ve had these past few years have had serious access issues to towns, and serious evacuation issues for residents… we’re taught to use man-made fire breaks when possible, I believe we have the potential to use a lot of existing infrastructure (roads, etc) and better maintain them as fire breaks/ evacuation routes. Widen and improve. Many roads are already built in areas that are advantageous to stop the spread of fire, and many times that’s where our fires start in the first place, we need to stop treating so many roads as “scenic highways” and cut back and maintain the roads appropriately to stop fires, or be able to hold a fire. Work with coordinating partners to achieve goals, ( cal trans, PG&E, Parks, etc)


The Aussies brought tornado style bunkers into the equation after their catastrophic fires in 2009. Sounds a bit outlandish at first but I do think it’s a reasonable thing to consider in areas. Immediate/reactionary evacuation isn’t always a realistic plan, especially for seniors or less mobile folks. It’s difficult enough for career fire folks to pick safe areas when these fires are at full throttle, should we expect the general public to make life saving decisions in these conditions?


Nicely put. I can not agree more with you. Zoning would have avoided the primary WUI issue. Is anyone listening? Will they listen? We can hope, but planning decisions are not made with the user in mind and the user does not want the government telling them what they can do on their private property. I can relate to that. In most states, California in particular, there is a lot of money to be made building whatever, wherever. You want it you got it as long as the political kitty is sweet enough. (ex. bullet train)

Any wildland firefighter I know, that had driven through Paradise, looked around and said, “This is a disaster waiting to happen.” One does not have to look around very far to see other examples. Malibu. Ever heard of a fire burning down houses in Malibu? The problem is not unique to the west coast. Prescott, AZ is a disaster waiting to happen.

With all that said, with 40mph+ winds and 12% RH if they would have had a fully involved structure fire in Paradise on November the 8th, I would venture to say there would have been multiple structures lost to the W/SW of that original structure.


I don’t think the linear/fuelbreak strategies are where it is at for stopping fire in most of our worst WUI areas, though heavy roadside thinning can make it less likely people will die in their cars.

Check out this image of the peak burning of the Camp Fire - long range spotting, with many of the spots already big enough to block egress routes.
NOTE- an earlier copy of this image had the wrong time on it - this was captured at 10:45am on 11/8/2018.


I have stood and watch fire jump the 210 in Pasadena and that “road” is 10 concrete lanes wide. When the weather, topography and fuels are against you we need to recognize that no man, woman or organization is going to stop a fire from burning whatever is available to burn. Teach the public that. Admit that 600 fire engines will not save their property from fire. They may set back and see that it is up to them to take care of themselves. No government agency is going to come to their rescue (Katrina syndrome). I am not advocating staying behind to save your property, for no man can do that, unless conditions are in their favor and they have the skills, abilities and knowledge to know how (being tough and stubborn is not enough), I am saying, taking care of yourself is your responsibility.

Fuels, weather and topography is the usual order these elements affecting fire behavior are listed but while teaching a fire behavior class I listed the elements as weather, topography and fuels and realized the acronym worked. (WTF)


The issue of fuels build-up has received considerable attention in the fire community, in the media, from public officials and from politicians (even this White House!). Fuels are a very real and contributing problem over much of the west. However, with regard to the Camp Fire, I would like to point out that the area between the origin and the eastern outskirts Paradise burned in the Butte Complex of 2008. In that that particular piece of the Butte complex was called “Camp.” One night with the onset of the frequent and infamous Feather River down canyon wind that “Camp” burned through Concow destroying many homes killing at least one (can’t remember the actual number) . Parts of that run were stand replacement fire and parts of it were “a manager’s dream” clearing out the understory. That run stopped “on it’s own” in the early morning hours at the West Branch of the North Fork of the Feather because…the wind died. It you look at Pyrogeography’s map two posts above you will see a canyon/cliff just to the east (left) of Paradise (that view is basically from the North). That canyon is the West Branch. The team managing that fire had ordered evacuation for the Eastern portion of Paradise including the hospital which is the cliff down into the West Branch. An order for 13 Strike Teams of Type I engines had been placed. Most unfortunately, the wind didn’t quit this time.
One of my points is that this year’s Camp was not made worse by an unnatural build up of fuels in the wildland.
Further, I am not sure that I would put the blame for the burning of the town of Paradise completely at the feet of the vegetation within the town of Paradise. As I understand it, the fire front was long passed the town when most of the structures burned. This is typical. When large numbers of structures burn in WUI fires the spread is largely a matter of structure to structure spotting in semi-random patterns and often at great distances. This is the result of flammable roofs and embers being sucked into attic vents. Sometimes it IS embers landing in the dead and down under the junipers planted in front of the living room window.

I have two more examples of major structure losses not resulting from unnatural fuels build up. Last year’s Tubbs Fire. That fire spread from Tubbs Lane to Santa Rosa largely through Oak Woodland…it was a grass fire.

The area where structures were lost in Malibu last week in the Woolsey, burned in the Corral Fire of 2007.

All three of these fires were in what we now understand to be wind corridors. One of the concepts in S-190 is that wind is the most potent of the fire behavior variables. Wind is also a potent variable with regard to ignitions from power lines.

So, we in the fire community do understand that the increase in fire severity and destruction is the result of multiple interacting factors: Fuels build-up, whole towns in wind/fire corridors, lenient building codes, above ground power lines, climate change (fires used to go out at night in Lake and Mendo when the humidity used to recover). There is also the old saw about fire fighting, “One hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress”…I plead guilty.
My hope is that we can see and communicate the fact that the growing problem must be handled holistically. I don’t like to be pessimistic, but I believe that the entire western US is way way way behind the curve and so we are in for a long period of worsening fires.


The 2008 fires reduced a lot of fuels in Concow, but 10 foot tall stands of Scotch broom had already grown back in some areas that were completely ‘slicked off’ then. Just about anywhere in the foothills that will grow Ponderosa pine will grow copious amounts of brush, too.
I think we need to make a distinction between fuels reduction in higher-elevation timber vs. places where we have wind-driven fires in fast-growing, light fuels. I don’t think we can cut our way out of the fuels problems in the shrublands, and rx fire isn’t going to solve the problem either.
Building fireproof homes seems like the only real solution.


I agree, my friend. You are among the people who put eyes on the problem in many many places and who realize the scope of the time bomb that is lit.
Some thinking about the way in which houses ignite is worthwhile. It is often not from the fire front but spotting from other structures. From what I saw and heard this is what happened in Paradise.
I wonder when the economics of these disasters will dictate burial of powerlines. Someone should do the numbers.


Making buildings more firesafe is all about the small details. Just like builders on the coast need to be expert in making tight flashings on roof edges and windows to keep buildings ‘watertight’, we need to make inland buildings ‘ember-tight’. Tighter screens on attic vents are important, but so is keeping embers from lodging in the small gaps between the roof-edge and gutter, or from blowing into small cracks between siding boards.
The Nevada Firesafe Council has some great resources on this topic online.