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Your California Fire Questions Answered

Courtesy CalFire.

Our friends and family members all over the world are checking in with us frequently to see that we’re safe from the horrendous fire season still upon us. We are safe and healthy. We know a lot of people who have been evacuated this fire season and some who have lost everything.

Some wonder, why do we even live in California? To be honest, it’s not pleasant right now, being an Owens River girl. There’s nowhere to escape the toxic air, the heat, the winds. We’re all having existential crises; should we move, will every summer be like this one? Can we stand it if it is? The answer: we cannot. I hope these answers provide some insights. Please post your questions and thoughts below. We thank you for your love and concern.

It must be expensive to fight so many fires. Who pays?

Bottom line – the taxpayer. So, all of us.

Wait, that’s not fair, I don’t even live where the fires are happening!

Taxpayers fund disaster relief everywhere, from hurricanes that hit states like Florida, Louisiana, and New York, to wildfires in Montana, Colorado, Oregon, Washington State, and California, among many others.

If the Governor of California declares the fire as a natural disaster, the federal government pays for 75 percent of the response. Otherwise, the state and local officials split costs.

First responders and fire fighters are so heroic. How do you become a firefighter?

Many firefighters get their start in the military or programs like the Youth Conservation Corps. Firefighting is a great job for those that like to be in the outdoors and enjoy traveling. Plus, you’re part of a fellowship of brothers and sisters that band together to save lives, homes, and livelihoods.

Many firefighters in California are actually prison laborers, which saves the State some $100 million per year. An expert in land use change for people and nature noted that the number of prisoners used to fight fires was drastically reduced this year due to covid-19 hitting the prison population. There’s now dialogue about making it easier for the prisoners to become professional firefighters when they are released, and increased focus on civil liberty issues with regard to using prisoners to fight fires. It’s not uplifting, my source noted, but it is important to understand.

This just in! The United States Forest Service is hiring, you can become an apprentice, the application deadline is the end of this month. The Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program is a 3,000 hour on-the-job learning program, which includes a two month-long residential firefighting academy at the Wildland Fire Training Center in McClellan, California. Apprentices will be paid and all costs of training will be covered by the Forest Service. For other fire-related jobs, click here.

Those aviators that drop retardant seem like incredible pilots. Do they actually put the fires out?

I love watching the pilots and following their accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Their maneuvers are incredibly difficult to accomplish given the lack of visibility, wind shear, and potential to be distracted. I really admire their capabilities. These talented teams of pilots and ground crews are valuable for slowing down a fire. For an incredible article on aviation and fire, click here.  For awesome videos, check out Facebook and YouTube, here’s one of the Boeing 747 Very Large Airtanker (VLAT) to get you started!  

How are fires ultimately contained?

It’s the people on the ground cutting line in the dirt and the bulldozers that stop the fire. You have to remove “fuel,” which consists of trees, brush, etc. to stop the fire—it’s the only part of the fire we can control. We can’t control weather, heat, or topography. We can only remove the fuel. Firefighters on the ground and in dozers dig a line down to bare mineral soil, removing all fuel or vegetation. If there is an existing road or natural feature like a river or lake or rocky area, firefighters will try and take advantage of these barriers so they don’t have to build as much line. In the end, it’s this line that ultimately stops the fire.

Fires are also stopped by natural features like the ocean or by the fact that an area has burned already. But the firefighting you see on the news is often all about setting fires and burning back toward the blaze. It’s highly technical, physical work. CalFire’s Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox recently told reporters that firefighters are indeed fatigued by this prolonged season. Many have worked double shifts. “We are tired,” he said, “but driven.”

Doe and fawn near the northwest flank of the August Complex North Zone. Forest Service photo by Mike McMillan.

How can you live in California given the fires, earthquakes, high cost of living, and traffic? What’s the attraction?

The Golden State’s land, waters, mountains, deserts, forests, and beaches are unparalleled. People come from all over the world to see Death Valley, Yosemite, the Golden Gate Bridge, surfers, the coastline, the granite-studded Sierra Nevada Mountains and the sacred Joshua Trees of the Mojave Desert. Given the size of the state, the fact our population comes from all over the world, the innovations in technology, and the food we grow, it’s a thrilling place to live. California produces two-thirds of all your fruits and nuts and half of your vegetables.

When you grow up here, especially if you were lucky enough to play outdoors, see the wide-open vistas and tremendous height of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and experience the stunning beauty of a giant sequoia or spy a humpback whale off the coast, you feel that heaven is truly within reach.

Earthquakes are not big deals for the most part. The earth is always shifting and moving, but you hardly feel it most days. Yes, there have been significant earthquake events in my lifetime, and when they start, you’re always caught off-guard. You’ll think, is that a big-rig truck running into something outside? Or, was that a bomb going off? We have often been awoken in the middle of the night, the bed moving like a boat sometimes.  You’ll want to huddle with your loved ones and gather your pets, you’ll worry about damage. It’s adrenaline-inducing to be sure. When I was in grade school, we stopped, dropped, and covered our vulnerable necks with our hands, crouched under our desks. I never felt too scared, I trusted my teachers and felt so safe in a group.

It seems like the wildfires are getting worse. Why are there more and more fires?

This year we had an unusual summer lightning event that sparked hundreds of fires.

Before European settlement, and in the prehistoric era, more land burned than has been burning in our era. Between naturally occurring lightning strikes and Native American controlled burns, about four million acres burned every year. Between 20th century fire suppression, logging that removed the largest, healthiest trees, people living near the wildland-urban interface, severe drought, a beetle invasion that killed trees, rising temperatures and increasing amount of “fuel” in the forest, for example, lots of smaller, like-sized trees that aren’t thinned out by fire, we see mega-fires now. While these mega-fires are certainly more common than when I was a kid, they pale in comparison to the amount of fire that used to co-exist with the people and lands of pre-European California.

Why do people insist on living in the forest or near the so-called “wildland-urban interface?”

While it’s tempting to blame people, I think we need to think progressively and positively about solutions that produce a healthy forest, a healthy and stable economy, and healthy people. But to be honest, many places that are burning, and have been destroyed, aren’t really way out there in the wilderness. I would hardly call the wine country towns of Santa Rosa or Napa the “wilderness.” Yes, homes have been built up in the hills, close to oak trees and conifers.

Because it’s so expensive to live in the Bay Area, for example, pressure has been placed on cities and towns all throughout California to build more homes. Many of these homes are in areas that border forests. Why do people want to live there? For the same reason people want to live on the coastlines of the Gulf of Mexico and Cape Cod or on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Because it’s beautiful, tranquil, humanity loves being close to nature. We all crave it.

But couldn’t there be more thoughtful planning about where people live?

The good news is these fires are not unusual. Before European settlement, natural fires ignited by lightning, along with prescribed burns set by indigenous peoples, would burn some three or four million acres per year. Smoke would have filled the skies. Yet this feels so much more dangerous, looming, evil, scary, disastrous. Is it simply because so many more people live within the range of fire and smoke, ash and particulate matter? Is it because we no longer have the traditional ways of managing it, so it’s out of control? Is it the massive temperature rise of our planet along with wind that feels infernal, a hell, a sort of punishment? Is it the lack of choices?

We need to be creative about where we build our homes and how we design communities to reduce risks. Building codes in California increasingly require fire-resistant materials and defensible space around homes. But some of these fires burn so hot and intensely, no material can withstand the flames. Unfortunately, current policies make it easy to build in places that are prone to fire, too. We know some of these places will burn again and again, but we do not have supportive policies in place to keep people out of harm’s way.

Yet we do have choices. What are they? To leave the state. But many parts of the United States have fires, even the Southeastern U.S. has had an occasional large destructive fire, like in Gatlinburg, Tennessee a few years ago.

The smoke from the West Coast’s fires recently traveled all the way to Cape Cod and D.C. Our friends texted us saying, “It gave me headaches, I can’t imagine what it did to you.” We are all in this together, air circulates worldwide on the jet streams.

What about President Trump blaming Californians for not doing better forest management? Is there something positive about “raking” the forest?

Forest Service photo by Carol Underhill

Most of the land in California, well over half, is managed by the federal government, including national parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management, national seashores, and other wonderful protected areas. For years federal, state, and local officials and organizations have asked for more funding to conduct forest thinning, prescribed fire, and other mitigation measures to reduce the volume and density of trees. And some forests actually need fire to reproduce, to stay strong.

To the naked eye a bunch of pine trees may look pretty, but there is supposed to be more distance between trees, less huddling of those trees together. A healthy forest needs space to let the light in to help plants in the forest grow, give it more diversity, as well as reduce the “fuel load” so that when a fire ignites, there is less to burn. Unfortunately managing forests costs a lot of money and conducting prescribed burning is very unpopular. Many communities will not stand for it. Though given this year’s fire season, tolerance for preparation may go up as our weariness and fatigue from constant catastrophic wildfires negatively impacts our health and well-being.

Did fires destroy the redwoods and giant sequoias this year?

Fires definitely threatened giant sequoia groves in the Southern Sierra as well as the redwood trees in Big Basin near Santa Cruz. These types of trees are made for fire, and generally survive it.  Reporters and biologists have taken a stroll in Big Basin to check up on them and it appears they have survived, which is fantastic news and yet, to be expected. The groves in the Southern Sierra such as those near the Trail of 100 Giants appear to have survived.

Drawing by Todd Underhill

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