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5 things I didn't know about urban wildfires

May 6, 2013, at 11:25 PM
Wildfires, including this one in Glendora, Calif., burned 9.2 million acres in 2012.

Wildfires, including this one in Glendora, Calif., burned 9.2 million acres in 2012. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Fighting fires is simple but not easy. Yes, you put the wet stuff on the red stuff, and then the rest will take care of itself. The fires that matter out here in Los Angeles aren't confined to houses or empty lots. They're sparked, seemingly at random, grow almost exponentially, and are fiendishly hot little devils to contain and extinguish. In some ways, given the availability of oxygen and brush, it's almost miraculous that urban wildfires don't do nearly the amount of damage that they could. 

Here are some things I didn't know about how complex the fires out here are.

1. Their frequency and potency are man-made. Not arson, but as a consequence of both over-development (which is predictable) in dry-as-sin mountainous foothills and because of early "mastication" and clearing efforts themselves: To contain and prevent fires, we've essentially replaced the fuel of brush with the fuel of other plants that are even more incendiary. In Southern California, so-called "prescription burning" or pre-emptive burning has made actual fires worse.

2. The biggest fire threat to homes during forest fires aren't from fires themselves. They're from wind and embers. They don't burn trees; they burn leaves that have dropped from trees. So — fireproofing your yard by raking regularly (even in the gutters) is probably the most efficient way to protect against brush fires. Clearing leaves isn't the be all and end all; neither is clearing everything, because that invites flammable weeds. Clearing a house or building a defensive firebreak has to be done very smartly. It's a science, but it's a science that can be useful and property-saving if applied correctly.

3. Small forest fires are common but huge ones are black swans. So counties in California play a risky game by under-funding urban wildfire resources. The newer equipment, the more well-trained a firefighter is, the better radio communications they have — all that matters. San Diego County, quite libertarianly, spends much less per capita on wildfire preparation and resources than Los Angeles County does. What tends to happen in forest fires is that the state's mutual aid requirements kick in, and L.A. winds up subsidizing its government-averse neighbors (Orange County, Riverside County, etc) with its own resources.

4. Tiny spy gadgets can help prevent fires. The earlier the fire is detected, the easier it is to contain. So the best way for government to get a bang for its buck would be to invest in thermal imagers with radio transmitters than can detect fires in out-of-the-way areas before human do. Combined with meteorology and satellite imagery, it's possible to predict how and where a fire will grow, and even how to best fight it.

5. There is no agreed-on set of "best practices" for fighting urban wildfires, even though there are mutual aid guidelines, a ton of fire science and scientists working on the problem, and a lot of fires to fight. For example, some counties will immediately fight any fire they come across, while others will wait, depending upon the conditions. Sometimes it makes sense to let fires grow, even dangerously so, naturally, because efforts to contain them will create conditions that allow them to spread chaotically if the containment fails. 

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