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California Wildfires

California Wildfires

October 24th, 2007  · stk

Southern California wild fires have consumed 800 square miles and 1,600 homes. With ties to California, Vancouver Island, and fire fighting ... a unique perspective on the Southern California firestorms is offered (including video of the Martin Mars Bombers)

Santa Ana's | Martin Mars Bombers | Hollywood Sequel | A Proposal

Southern California continues efforts to battle massive wildfires. Weather forcasters have predicted that the strong winds fanning the flames, making firefighting impossible, will let up sometime this afternoon.

The final numbers won't be in for a while, but the current situation is: one dead, many injured, 1,600 homes lost and another 68,000 homes under threat. President Bush signed a document declaring the fires a "major disaster", releasing federal funds to help homeowners in seven affected counties. The president is expected to visit the region tomorrow.

Help is on the way from Canada, specifically Vancouver Island.

This fire season will be the most expensive in California's history. Each year the costs to fight these blazes has increased, the fires seem to become larger and the damage even greater. It's like a bad Hollywood movie sequel. What's Southern California to do?

Read on for a unique look at the Southern California situation, more detail and some recommendations that may surprise you.

Santa Ana Winds: Fueling the Inferno

Santa Ana winds continue to whip dozens of California wildfires, forcing the largest evacuation in the State's history - over half a million people. With gusts up to 110 kilometers per hour, the winds make it nearly impossible to fight the fires, which have already consumed 890 square miles. One person has died and over 1,600 homes have been destroyed.

The driving wind, called the "Santa Ana's", are seasonal winds that affect Southern California and Northern Baja. Appearing in autumn and early winter, these dry, warm winds often make the coastal areas warmer than the deserts, driving humidity to less that 15%. When they're channeled through mountain passes, they can approach hurricane force. This combination of wind, heat and dryness turns the chaparral into explosive fuel, which is now consuming areas surrounding the LA basin and regions of San Diego county.

The terrain is rugged in these regions and often difficult to access. Shifting winds, steep terrain, low humidity and dry brush and other fuels, makes fighting these fires nearly impossible. The usual tactic of surrounding the fire on two sides and choking it off, doesn't work. The gusting wind is carrying embers miles ahead of the fire's front line and crews can't get close to the flames, for fear that the wind will shift and they'll be engulfed.

A fire department Captain said, "We do what we can. A [firefighter's] life is a lot more important than a house."

"In these conditions, the strategy is to generally fall back," he said. "You pick and choose your priorities in terms of what you can protect. Instead of trying to stop the fire, you try to prevent it from burning resources."

A 26-year fire-fighting veteran, Larry Collins, explains how firefighters, for all their training, continue to die in these fires:

Here's the thing about being overrun by fire: It is like being caught in a flash flood of flame. Winds flow through winding canyons and mountain passes like rivers, pushing forward unpredictable waves of superheated air that can sear your lungs and roast you even before the flames arrive. Especially in Southern California's extreme conditions, fire moves faster than any person can run, especially when it's roaring uphill.

Firefighters try to learn from each death. Each disaster -- and each success -- leads to new training and rules about how to engage a fire. But despite what we've learned, and the constant attention to safety, 36 firefighters have been killed in California wildfires just since 1990.

Given the rough terrain, unpredictable winds and dangerous conditions, it's no surprise that one of the best ways to combat these wild-land fires is from the air. As a case-in-point, the Los Angeles County Fire Department leases two CL-415 "Super Scoopers" from the Service Aerien of Quebec, Canada. These two planes can deliver 1,600 gallons of water and/or foam per drop, attacking fires quickly and on steep slopes.

 

Vancouver Island Connection: Martin Mars Bombers

Just this morning, equipment from Vancouver Island was sent down to Southern California to help battle these intense blazes. Not just any equipment, but the largest firefighting bomber plane in the world - a Martin Mars Bomber.

coulson martin mars bomber

The Martin Mars bombers have a payload nearly five times greater than the "Super Scoopers" - 7,200 gallons. They can wet-blanket four acres per drop, covering it with 30 tons of water, foam or gel. They resupply with water on-the-fly (literally) - skimming over a salt/fresh water source, loading at a rate in excess of a ton per second. Average pick-up time is 25 seconds. Depending on proximity to the fire, they can make drops every 15-minutes (7 minutes if working in tandem) and keep this up for 6 hours at a time.

Originally built for the U.S. Navy in 1945, these JRM Martin Mars bombers have had a storied history. They were purchased from the U.S. Navy by Canadian, Dan McIvor, in 1959 and relocated to British Columbia. Put into fire service in 1963, the Martin Mars Water Bombers have been operating off of Sproat Lake, near Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island, ever since. (The Martin Mars operation was purchased by Coulson Aviation, early in 2007).

During the fire season, one can usually see these behomoths floating peacefully on Sproat Lake near Port Alberni, on the drive to Ucluelet or Tofino. They're 60-years old, but have always been extremely well maintained and cared for. They have many years of life left in them, especially with lots of spare parts at the ready, to keep them going.

 

Southern California Wildfires: Hollywood Movie Sequel? Or Worn-Out Franchise?

Growing up in Southern California, you get used to hearing about wildfires. It's an annual event. Every autumn in Southern California, the Santa Ana winds rage, the brush burns and people try to deal with the aftermath.

John N. Maclean, author of The Thirtymile Fire, has come to the following conclusions:

Western wildfires are becoming bigger, more frequent, and more damaging. Driven by drought, global warming, a surging population, Santa Ana winds, wild-land fuels built up over decades and other factors, Southern California's fire problem will grow larger, not smaller, in the coming years.

... the confrontation between people and fire is accelerating faster in Southern California than anywhere else in the nation. Of the 450,000 people estimated to have moved into previously wild areas so far this decade, about 240,000 -- more than half -- have chosen Southern California.

The costs associated with fighting fires is enormous:

  • The average annual budget for fighting wild-land fires has tripled since 2000 and federal spending now approaches $3 billion per year. (Source)
  • In 2007, the U.S. Forest Service will spend 45% of its budget on wild-land fire suppression, compared to 13% in 1991. (Source)
  • In 2006, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) spent $206.3 million dollars fighting 4,805 fires, losing 431 structures at an estimated cost of $60.2 in damages. (Source)

Some argue that fighting forest fires is not the best use of resources or funds. In 1996, a former Fire Department vegetation management official said:

There is, without exception, no reason for a structure to be consumed by wildfire.

When these fires break out, we spend millions of dollars per 24-hour period employing Super Scoopers, retardant-dropping fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and hundreds of fire engines and firefighters in a vain attempt to save structures that, with forethought, could have survived even the highest intensity blaze.

-Scott E. Franklin

It seems that money could be saved by not fighting these fires. Tighten and enforce regulations for clearing brush in fire zones.

In 2003, similar firestorms blew through Southern California, claiming more lives, acreage and homes than the current fire (to-date). Los Angeles Times newspaper editorials noted the inconsistent and insufficient brush clearance in specific fire zones:

... in San Bernardino County, where homeowners are required to clear only 30 feet of brush around woodland homes each spring, flames tore across 150,000 acres and through more than 900 dwellings. Ventura County, which requires a 100-foot clearance, lost just 38 homes even though more than 172,000 acres burned. Not one house was lost in Los Angeles County's Stevenson Ranch, which requires fire-retardant roofs and 200-foot buffers ...

Here's a thought - Why not let the people who choose to live in these areas take responsibility for their choices and bear the true costs? (Whether it be direct firefighting efforts, higher insurance rates or brush clearing).

Let's face it. The Santa Ana winds and lightning-started wildfires have been part of this southwestern landscape for millennia. Residents need to accept that such wildfires are part of life. Spend money on preparedness and planning, rather than putting out fires. Let them burn themselves out - naturally.

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1.flag Gary Comment
10/25/07
That's amazing the amount of money that is spent to put out these fires. I see what you mean about putting money into teaching people how to protect their property as a preventative. The training that everyone must have to go through must be intense as well.

Those 'Martin Mars bombers' are an amazing piece of kit - aren't they ? I knew they delivered a shed load of water at once and blanket watered the fire below but never knew they 'scooped' the water back up from a lake in order to re-fill. Your video on that was very informative and I enjoyed watching it.

Nice post,

Gz :)



2.flag stk Comment
10/25/07
Gary - Yes about teaching, but I think it needs to be more strict (e.g., 300ft clearance around all structures - or insurance won't cover them if they burn down in a wild-fire).

Glad you enjoyed the video! I was showing it to Rachel and (for some reason - on the laptop) the video would only load part-way. It would play up to that point, but no further. Weird.

Cheers,
-stk
3.flag Skooter Comment
09/02/09
#1 Given the annual expectation of wildfires in CA, why is it that idiotic people invest in high mountain homes without anticipating for the cost of maintaining an appropriate buffer zone to protect their LIVES- and their investment?

#2 Why do such idiots beguile volunteer firefighters, who fly in from all over the country and risk their lives, for not saving their investment from fire damage?

#3 Why are such idiots allowed to obtain driver's licenses and are permitted to drive on public roadways?

#4 Given the annual expectation of wildfires, why isn't the State of California better prepared to deal with this?

4.flag stk Comment
09/02/09
Skooter - I can only answer your questions, not necessarily agree with them:

#1) People buy homes in the hills because they often have a view, it's prestigious to do so and/or for a variety of other reasons. It's not the cost of clearing buffer zones, but rather most don't think about doing it, until it's too late (i.e., human nature) (Further hampering the problem: there's no standard mandate for buffer offset distances, nor proper enforcement of the existing rules, if they exist at all).

#2) Not all do, fortunately. I'm sure those who have suffered a home loss are under great emotional strain and often act in a regrettable manner.

#3) Because the threshold to obtain a driver's license is way too low.

#4) No idea here. Mind you, the State of California is in a difficult financial position, at the moment. However, I'd recommend the State mandate standard "brush-clearing offset distances" for buildings within affected wildfire interface communities and enforce the mandate. This will divert money from fighting fires - and losing homes - (reactive) to minimizing economic impact (planning).

Good questions. They need to be asked in Sacramento.

As an aside, I asked a B.C. Ministry of Forestry official what the annual budget was for fighting B.C. fires. His reply was, "There is no budget. The 'budget' is 'whatever is costs'."

I'd imagine California is much the same.