Built to Burn

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

RM: Over the past few days, Californians have watched as the Carr wildfire has raged through the northern part of the state. The fire started a little more than a week ago. Fueled by dry brush, high temperatures, and strong, shifting winds, the fire has moved from a national recreation area into the nearby city of Redding. As of this recording, 6 people have died, 19 people are reported missing, and thousands have evacuated. The fire is only 20% contained.

Wildland fires aren’t new in California, but with climate change, our fire seasons are becoming longer, and fires are becoming bigger and harder to fight. So for the next two weeks, we’re going to look at the issue of wildfire, some design solutions, and just how complicated they can be to implement.

RM: The Santa Ana winds of Southern California are sometimes called the “Devil Winds.” They pick up in the late summer and early fall, sweeping down from the mountains and across the coast. They’re hot and dry, and known for creating dangerous fire conditions.

SJ: In late November of 1980, as the Santa Anas blew in at up to 90 miles an hour, an unknown arsonist lit a fire near Panorama Point in the San Bernardino Mountains.

RM: That’s reporter Stephanie Joyce.

SJ: Pushed by the wind, the fire grew and quickly spread down the mountain toward the city of San Bernardino. This is the city’s then-fire chief, talking to a reporter…

(Gerald Newcomb, Chief, San Bernardino FD): Again, we had extremely strong winds, humidity was somewhere about 10.

RM: Another local fire chief said they called in all available resources and still, it wasn’t enough. There was no stopping the fire.

(Duane Mellinger, Chief, Central Valley FD): “All the conditions were just right for what we commonly refer to as a firestorm.”

SJ: In just a few hours, the Panorama fire destroyed hundreds of homes and killed four people. It was one of the worst wildfire disasters in California history at the time.

RM: It was also the fire that would make a young researcher question our entire approach to wildfires, and conclude that we might be able to design our way out of the devastation they cause.

SJ: Jack Cohen was a few years out of graduate school, and a recent transplant to California at the time of the fire. He was working as a research scientist for the Forest Service, studying fire behavior, and he was interested in how the Panorama fire had destroyed so many homes. Especially when there was such an overwhelming firefighting response.

JACK COHEN: a strike team of engines is five engines and they had 20 strike teams coming in right away. There would be a whole block of houses on fire and they could not deliver enough water, so they were calling in more hoses and moving a block down, or two blocks down and losing that, and then moving further and losing that.

RM: So, Jack started listening to the emergency dispatch tapes from the day of the fire.

SJ: Jack is a matter-of-fact kind of guy, a scientist; rational, not emotional. But almost forty years later, he still chokes up when he talks about the desperation he heard in the firefighters voices. The tapes are pretty hard to understand but you can hear the emotion.

JC: It was pretty emotional particularly listening to the radio traffic. **pauses//deep inhale**

SJ: Because of how just couldn’t they couldn’t fight it.

JC: Just desperation. Yeah.

RM: For those of us who mostly see wildfires on TV, or in pictures in the paper, it’s easy to imagine that a wildfire is like a tsunami of flames, spreading across the landscape and destroying everything in its path. But Jack knew it wasn’t that simple when he set out to piece together how the disaster had unfolded.

JC: And so one of the things that I did was to look at when the first call came in to dispatch for a fire in this community, where was that call from and where was the wildfire at that time.

WOMAN 1: Okay, there’s a fire approaching our house at 5211 North Sierra.

Dispatcher 1: Okay, ma’am, I want you to just get out of there.

SJ: And as Jack was listening to the tapes, he started to notice a pattern.

FIREFIGHTER 3: 3637 We have at least two roof fires… it looks like three roof fires…

SJ: People were calling in about houses on fire long before the fire front ever reached their neighborhoods.

JACK: The wildfire was still actually on the other side of the ridge, about a half a mile away, burning up the hill.

SJ: These houses weren’t burning because a wall of fire was racing through the community.

RM: They were burning because of something else: the embers. As wildfires burn, they generate embers that are lofted downwind ahead of the main body of the fire. And Jack realized most of the houses that burned had one, extremely problematic feature in common.

JC: As it turns out every house had a flammable wood roof.

SJ: The embers were accumulating in the crevices around the dry wood shingles, and setting fire to the houses from above. Across the street, in a development without wood roofs, most of the houses had survived.

RM: And while that might not seem like a huge epiphany, that houses with wood roofs burned and houses without wood roofs didn’t, for Jack, it was that detail that made him rethink the entire wildfire problem.

SJ: Because when he listened to other people talk about the fire, they weren’t focusing on the wood roofs, they were talking about firefighting. And they were saying nothing could’ve been done. Like this captain at the San Bernardino fire department:

(Fire Captain Jim Knight, San Bernardino Fire Department): “if we woulda had as many as 500 units spread along the whole hillside there to protect those homes, I don’t believe we could have stopped that fire any better than we did under the conditions that we had. The only thing that I feel is that what could have saved those homes would have only been an act of God.

RM: Jack didn’t think that was right. The problem wasn’t the firefighting response. The problem was that the houses were built to burn.

RM: And when Jack shifted his focus, from the fire to the design of the homes, suddenly he found himself wondering if we were framing the whole problem of wildfire in the wrong way.

SJ: He wasn’t the first to have that thought, but he was the first to do extensive research into exactly how homes burn in wildfires.

RM: Some of that work would put him at odds with some of the main firefighting agencies in the U.S. and nearly a hundred years of fire policy and tradition. And even though his ideas are simple and compelling, they still haven’t caught on in the way he hoped they would. Maybe because fighting fires is as much a social and political problem as it is a technical one.

SJ: Do you feel frustrated most the time?

JC: Yeah, most of the time.

RM: For most of this country’s history, our approach to wildfire has been driven by the sentiment “fire is bad.”

SJ: Before colonization, many Native American tribes set fires intentionally, to regenerate wild plants, and to create grasslands, and habitat for game. But when Europeans arrived, they brought fear of fire with them.

RM: And over time, in much of the country, not only did we do away with the practice of setting fires, we actually started to extinguish naturally-occurring fires too. In 1911, that became an official responsibility of the newly-created Forest Service.

SJ: And in 1935, that policy even got a name: The 10 a.m. Rule. It said the Forest Service should put out every new fire on public land by 10 a.m. the following day. President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps was on the frontlines of implementing that policy.

(Recording) We fought those fires, night and day, sometimes. Lots of days, especially in the spring, you could see smoke clear to the end of the world.

RM: The belief was that with enough water and manpower, firefighters could put out any wildfire. And a huge industry rose up around that idea. It grew to employ tens of thousands of people, with hundreds of millions of dollars a year being spent on planes and helicopters and fire crews.

SJ: And for a while, that brute-force approach seemed to work; but those early firefighters had an advantage. For millennia, before the rise of modern fire suppression, wildfires had burned regularly through America’s forests. They would eat up all the fuel. So when there were fires, they were often low-intensity and stayed on the forest floor.

RM: As firefighters began aggressively fighting fires, that balance started to change. With fewer fires burning, forests started to get more and more dense.

SJ: That meant when the forest did catch on fire, there was more material to burn; and the fires burned hotter and bigger.

RM: Effectively, by suppressing natural fires we created something that turned out to be much, much worse. Here’s Mark Finney, he’s a fire scientist with the Forest Service.

MARK FINNEY: Fighting fire really has some unintended consequences that may be even worse than the fire itself, and often are.

RM: Since the very beginnings of our fire suppression policies, there have been people arguing that it wasn’t a good idea to put out every fire. But it took until the 1980s for that idea to really take hold. By then, it was also becoming increasingly clear that we couldn’t put out every fire. Especially as they got bigger and bigger.

MF: We’re not actually stopping them. We’re just delaying them. You know there’s a saying a fire put out is a fire put off.

SJ: But even as the public in the 80s started to accept the idea that fire was natural and necessary, and fighting it had unintended consequences, not fighting it didn’t seem like a viable option outside of remote wilderness areas. Because how could you stop fighting fires when they threatened people’s homes?

RM: Which brings us back to Jack Cohen and the Panorama fire. Once he started to focus on the home as the problem, not the wildfire, he wanted to know what made some houses more susceptible than others.

JC: This was a question that I had in my mind, a curiosity question. What I’m trying to do is to establish a relationship between wildfire and home destruction. I want to know what that linkage is. How does this happen?

RM: In the Panorama fire, it had clearly been the wood roofs. But in other fires, there were plenty of homes without wood roofs that burned too.

SJ: So Jack set about learning all of a houses’ potential weaknesses; all the ways it might plausibly catch on fire. The first thing he wanted to know was how close the flames of a wildfire had to be to a house for it to ignite simply from the radiant heat.

RM: To answer that question, he did a series of experiments, including one in the late 1990s in northern Canada where he set an actual forest on fire.

SJ: So, you actually, like, cut plots into a forest…
JC: The boreal forest
SJ: and then set them on fire?
JC: Yes.
SJ: And watched them burn?
JC: Yes.

SJ: What Jack found in the experiment was that an entire forest could be on fire, 30 feet away from the house, and nothing. It was fine.

RM: But of course Jack knew that the flames and the radiant heat weren’t the only threats to the house. There were also the embers. He frequently found himself standing next to houses reduced to ash, and next to them: green trees. It was a telltale sign that the fire front never even reached the home; but the embers did.

SJ: Jack has a slideshow he likes to share with photos of burned houses. And it’s like the optical illusion with the vase and the faces. At first, you look at the aftermath of a wildfire, and all you see is the destruction. But after a few slides, suddenly the green trees shift into focus, and it’s easy to see that the home is often the only thing that’s burned.

JC: So I mean one of the things that I always try to point out because everybody that looks at news footage and pictures can readily observe no trees on fire and the structure burning.

SJ: So, he did experiments to see exactly how the embers were setting houses on fire. He discovered embers like to collect in lots of places, like in the corners of wood decks, and in gutters full of pine needles, and in attics with open vents.

RM: Since a lot of people evacuate during a wildfire, there’s no one around to douse the embers. They smolder and set fire to the entire house.

SJ: the more Jack thought about it, the more he came to believe that most ember fires could be stopped with some simple design solutions.

JC: I mean, you don’t have to live in a bunker; you don’t have to cut all your trees down.

RM: Jack began to develop guidelines for designing and landscaping homes to withstand a wildfire. He started by drawing a buffer, based on a conservative interpretation of those Canadian fire experiments. He called it the “Home Ignition Zone.”

JC: The home ignition zone is limited to the house and its immediate surroundings out to about a hundred feet.

SJ: Between 100 feet and 30 feet from the house, the goal is to space trees so that the fire can’t jump between them and is forced to the ground. Between 30 and 5 feet, the goal is to landscape and design so the groundfire loses steam, by removing fuels like tall grasses and wood piles. And within 5 feet of the house, the goal is to stop the fire dead in its tracks, with things like rock beds and well-irrigated grass.

JC: What I’ve found is that you don’t have to be very exotic about your design and materials in order to make the houses very resistant to ignition.

RM: Jack also came up with a long list of suggestions for preventing ember fires on the house itself. From the big and obvious ones like replacing your flammable wood roof, to the smaller and less obvious, like making sure your garage door has a tight seal with the concrete, and removing decorative juniper trees, which are extremely flammable.

SJ: Some of these ideas were pretty intuitive and had been floating around for a long time. In many fire-prone communities, homeowners had long been encouraged to clear flammable vegetation from their properties and to maintain their homes in ways that would reduce their chances of catching fire. But Jack’s experiments allowed him to put hard numbers to people’s intuitions and to develop specific, evidence-backed recommendations for the changes homeowners should make.

RM: And Jack’s experiments also showed that when those changes were made, a house was much less likely to burn. In fact, he showed that was the main factor in whether a house was going to burn. It wasn’t about the intensity of the wildfire, or its size. It was really about what was happening within 100 feet of your home.

SJ: And that led him to a further, far more radical conclusion:

JC: You can have extreme wildfire behavior, not control that, and yet still have houses survive.

RM: In other words, we may not even need to fight fires, as long as buildings near fire prone areas are designed to withstand them.

SJ: It wasn’t that there weren’t other reasons to fight fires, but Jack said there was no need to fight a fire if the only goal was to save houses. And that ruled out fighting a lot of forest fires.

JC: So we have the opportunity to separate the wildfire issues from the home destruction issues. We can separate those.

RM: Which meant we could let more forest fires burn naturally and finally break out of the vicious cycle of fire suppression that leads to the largest infernos.

RM: Jack thought he had come up with a way to save houses and let fires burn naturally, he thought it was a win-win. And so in 1999, he presented a paper about his findings at a fire conference in San Diego.

JC: So I give this paper in front of a group of mostly agency people.

RM : People with the Forest Service, and state fire agencies; people in a position to change policy.

SJ: And Jack says they are totally uninterested. Like, no questions. Jack is up there, saying that it’s really only what happens within a hundred feet of a home that determines whether it burns, and no one seems to care. Except this one guy, from an environmental group.

JC: And as I’m walking out he says, “Do you have a copy of that paper?

SJ: And Jack’s like, sure… here’s a copy. A few days later, a newspaper reporter calls, asking about Jack’s talk. Jack gives him an interview and the article comes out in the local paper.

JC: I don’t exactly remember the headline, but it was something like “Forest Service has it’s head up its ass.”

RM: That wasn’t the actual title of the article. But the story did imply that basically everything about how the Forest Service dealt with wildfires was wrong.

SJ: Because remember, the 10AM rule had left us with this huge fire fighting infrastructure. The Forest Service was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on planes and fire crews… and was approving massive logging projects on the grounds that thinning out the forest would help reduce the intensity of wildfires and save homes. And Jack was saying,actually, it would be way more effective if you just encouraged homeowners to maintain and retrofit their properties.

JC: Nine o’clock in the morning I get a phone call from Region 6 Forest Service. The Fire Director of regions 6 “What do you think you’re doing?”

SJ: Jack knew immediately that he was in trouble. The way he remembers the conversation, the director told Jack he was putting those big logging projects in jeopardy; and that put the director in a sticky political situation.

RM: But in the middle of getting chewed out by the director, Jack just doubled down. He says he knew what the data said, he knew the science wasn’t wrong. And he told the director the logging projects weren’t going to do much to save homes.

JC: and I said well you might have a problem. Because the research I’ve done doesn’t indicate that that’s going to be very effective. That was the end of the phone call and pretty much the beginning of adversity for the next three or four years at least.

SHAWNA LEGARZA: I don’t know, I wasn’t at a level to know why there was resistance.
SJ: This is Shawna Legarza. She’s currently the National Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the Forest Service. Back when Jack was first promoting his ideas, she wasn’t in management; and so she wouldn’t comment on the pushback that Jack says he faced.
RM: She does say that, over her thirty year career in the Forest Service, she’s seen more and more emphasis placed on strategies like “defensible space” which means clearing your property of flammable materials. And she’s happy about that.
SL: I believe that, you know. people taking more ownership in their home and having defensible space is number one.

RM: But there’s only so much the Forest Service can do to encourage people to make changes. A lot of that work falls to local governments and individual homeowners. And even today, not everyone is convinced that it’s important to invest in the kinds of preparations that Jack recommends.

SHAWNA: Yeah. You know so it’s kind of scattered across the country. Some communities don’t believe a fire will ever happen where they’re at. It will never happen to me and I’ll never have to evacuate and so I want to keep my trees and shrubs right by my house. And unfortunately time is telling us or showing us that it does happen. Fire has no boundaries and no preference for for where it burns.

SJ: And in the meantime, the Forest Service has a congressionally-mandated duty to fight fires.
Last year, the federal government spent more than 2 billion dollars fighting fires and just a small fraction of that on prevention and mitigation efforts.

MF: We, our culture views fire as primarily an emergency response activity; but if you treat fire only as an emergency response under emergency circumstances, you’re missing out on all the preventative care you could do.

SJ: This is Mark Finney again. You’ll remember he also works for the Forest Service. And while he was on board with Jack’s ideas, he also understood that there were huge challenges to implementing them. There were reasons why they didn’t catch on at first.

MF: You can’t just throw a bunch of scientific papers on the table and have everybody read them and go, “Oh jeez thanks! That’s what I needed.” Now we have a different view of how things work. Whew.

RM: There’s too much history behind the idea that we’ve got to do something about fire… whether it’s effective or not. We, the public, expect to see the dramatic shots of airplanes flying over raging fires, dropping water on them. But when communities put the principles Jack articulated into practice, they work. There are several communities in Southern California built with wildfires in mind that have survived when nearby homes didn’t.

SJ: But those homes are mostly custom designs in gated communities. They have homeowners associations that enforce strict rules about vegetation clearing, and home design. Making changes elsewhere is more complicated. For starters, many homeowners may not even have 100 feet of space to clear and fireproof. It’s expensive to replace your roof. For renters, they may not have the authority to make changes to their homes. And in many cases, there aren’t incentives for people to invest.

RM: Plus, many homeowners just kind of instinctively get that the odds of being in a wildfire are extremely low. There are more than 40 million homes in wildfire-prone areas, and only a few thousand burn every year. Without someone compelling them to do it, homeowners might decide it’s just not worth spending time and money to change their properties.

SJ: So even though Jack’s ideas are pretty simple, they’re not simple to actually implement in the real world. Jack tells this story about a friend of his who said that modifying homes to make them fire-resistant isn’t “rocket science.”

JC: And I said to him, “No this is much harder. This is social science. And his comment is, “Oh geez we’re screwed!”

RM: Jack’s ideas have become more mainstream over time. Fire agencies like the Forest Service now talk a lot about defensible space. There’s more emphasis placed on homeowner responsibility. Jack also helped start the prominent organization FireWise, which promotes fire preparedness.

SJ: Shawna Legarza, the Forest Service fire director, says that the enormously destructive fires of the last few years have also forced people to think about how to make their homes and properties more fire-resistant.

SL: And I think every year there’s going to be more awareness about wildland firefighting and evacuations and do you have defensible space or not, just because of the trends every year. You know we thought last year was the largest and most devastating fire year. And now we have this year which is larger and more devastating than last year, human fatalities, firefighter fatalities.

SJ: And with climate change, the fire season is only getting longer. So when I asked Legarza if she could imagine a future like the one Jack proposes, where the Forest Service would get out of the fire fighting business?

SL: Boy, I think we’re a long ways from that. You know, I mean, we’re all aboard for fire adapted communities and resilient landscapes and for you know, folks to have a defensible space around around their structures, and more healthy resilient national forest systems land. We’re a long ways from that, we are a long ways from that.

RM: The Forest Service is currently fighting several dozen fires across the western United States. When you’re that busy running around putting out fires, literally; it’s hard to focus on how to prevent them from being so destructive in the first place.

SJ: Jack retired from the Forest Service a few years ago, feeling like all his research hasn’t made much of a difference in the end. When he’s watching the news, especially coverage of the past few destructive fire seasons in California, he’s noticed there isn’t a lot of talk about making homes more fire resistant, or clearing defensible space. Instead, there’s a lot about firefighting.

NEWSCASTERS:

The fire swept down the valley with apocalyptic fury…

Overwhelmed firefighters did what they could.

Overnight, the battle against the giant infernos intensifying

When that wind was blowing, there’s not much you can do

FIREFIGHTER: There’s no way you can stop a fire front like that.

JC: One of the very frustrating things that I had experienced this past summer particularly from the California fires, is the continued sense of fatalism. “Oh well there’s nothing that could be done.” Well no, the bottom line is that we can do something, it just doesn’t have anything to do with controlling the wildfire.

SJ: Watching news footage from those California fires, something stands out, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time with Jack. Once you get over the shock of seeing neighborhoods reduced to ashes, and the drama of firefighters talking about how there was nothing they could do to stop the flames, your eyes shift to something else: the green trees, untouched by fire, surrounding the burned out homes.

Credits

Production

Reporter Stephanie Joyce spoke with Jack Cohen, a retired Research Physical Scientist; Mark Finney, a Research Scientist with the U.S. Forest Service; and Shawna Legarza, the National Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the Forest Service

Comments (18)

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  1. Tony Drake

    As an Australian, which has a much much worse problem than the US with wildfires, it’s funny listening to another example of ‘US knows best’..

    We’ve known this stuff since the early 70s… (we had a major fire in 1967 in Tasmania that killed 67 people which triggered the work https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1967_Tasmanian_fires ), and have had building codes and summer warning to home owners to clear the gutters ever since etc.

    We also have people make plans to escape, and much much more public information on what to do.. We still don’t get it right, as the fires of 2009 in Victoria where the fire followed an unexpected route and killed over 200 people. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Saturday_bushfires

    We will get way more wild fires globally as the planet warms, but sharing information on how to battle our global problems are nessessary…

    So, like you’re ‘unfixable’ issues around guns and healthcare, this is a small example of american huberus.. again, a solved problem elsewhere, but in american, we have to invent it to make it valid… oh dear….

    1. Mims

      Thank you for tackling a complicated issue for which no easy answers. I live in Santa Rosa at know at least three families who lost their homes in the Tubbs/Nuns Canyon fires and both, all living in the WUFI: wildfire-urban interface, had defensible space and followed best practices for mitigation of fire. The fact is, in a firestorm with wind gusting into the 70-80 mphs all bets are off. Meanwhile, the city planning dept is giving homeowners who want to rebuild concrete homes a hard time. https://www.pressdemocrat.com/specialsections/8511667-181/rebuilding-sonoma-county-slow-rebuild

      We are looking at a hotter, drier future with more fire. A third of Lake county has burned in the last three years. Lake county will become a desert.

      And while your September event in DC sounds amazing, it also sounds crazy to suggest it is event “worth traveling for”. NO! people getting on planes for selfish, trivial reasons is one of the drivers of climate change that is pouring gas on our wildfires.

  2. Carl B Spencer

    Living in Southern California means that you are living in an area of Chaparral. It is the basic native structure of plants from the coast to the mountains in our Mediterranean climate (rainy winders-dry summers). As so, I also have come to wonder about why we have these large fires and what can I do to protect my family from its dangers. Your program addresses many of the early misconceptions and how protection can be accomplished.

    However, there is an additional source of information about these issues that I recommend you as producers of the programs and other readers review. It is the Chaparral Institute. It too addresses the fire/chaparral relationship and tries to alleviate the myths that have developed about our native habitat over the years. The website is: http://www.californiachaparral.org/. While I do not personally accept all political comments, I truly believe that they portray a sound basis for our living safely in California today.

  3. dhwang

    You have to go where the money is. Talk to Insurance companies. Why isn’t insurance companies rating their insurance base on the check list?

    1. Denise Pedroza

      I was just coming here to comment on this very thing. We lived, and owned a home, for about 7 years inside the San Bernardino National Forest. (from 2004 to 2011). I can tell you that houses with wood shake roof is ALMOST impossible to get a homeowners insurance policy on. The are only a few small companies that are willing to do it, and it’s EXPENSIVE. In the time that we lived there the rules on our allstate homeowners insurance changed and we had to remove the two tall pine trees to that were right next to our home, coming up through the porch patio. It would have been very expensive to remove the trees though. So, we changed homeowners insurance company. The market is SLOWLY dealing with this issue.

  4. Matthew Jones

    Dear design nerds and plant neophytes,
    In “Built to Burn”, you seem to have confused Chaparral, the complex and beautiful plant community of coastal Southern California, with the inexplicably chosen (un)common name in the herbology field for Larrea tridentata, a common desert plant native from the great basin just east from you all the way to Texas and Mexico.

    1. Andrew Sleeth

      That little slip-up caught my attention, too, Matthew. Thanks for clarifying the distinction.

  5. Andrew Marnie

    Great article albeit a story about frustration and the inertia of beaureucratic mindset.

    Down under (Australia) in recent years we have begun to look more closely at indigenous cultural burning practices. Bill Gamage in his book ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’ provides an extensively researched position that the Aborigines of Australia actively managed our landscape by the use of fire. Fire was used to manage trading routes, grasslands and vegetation mixes.

    Post 1788 he has used early drawings and paintings as well as quotes from the journals of the early European explorers to,show how our landscape has change. One result is fhat we too are seeing larger more destructive fires. Land describes as having the appearance of an english gentlemans estate and parklands is now heavily wooded. Remember the majority of Australian plants need fire as part of their life cycle.

    The impact of the loss of life and houses from the 2009 Victorian fires has seen the introduction stronger building regulations for bush fire prone areas. Our house costs around an additional 5 percent to meet these standards. As well as a minimum of 15,000 gallons of water in tanks we were required to uss tempered glass, metal insect screens, fire retardant paint and fire resistant timbers for our decks.

    Working as a bushfire safety and mitigation educator we still have the same challenge of homeowners fully understanding the impact of fire and in particular ember attack. There is also the challenge of supporting residents of bush fire prone communities to develop and practice bushfire survival plans.

    The emphasis is moving towards preparation rather than response, abeit there will always be a need for response.

    I am aware of a rural volunteer bush fire brigade that has seen their responses drop, as a percentage of their total fire activity, from 70 to 30 percent while their hazard mitigation activity has risen the other way. This has been achieved through a sustained proactive enagagement and education program with their community

    1. Johnny

      Loved the episode, but was sad to hear how far behind California is compared to the progress we’ve made here in Australia (as others have already commented)
      Check out what we do here in New South Wales, Australia, in terms of public policy along these lines: https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/plan-and-prepare/building-in-a-bush-fire-area/legal-obligations & https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/54883/DPP1007-Planning-for-Bushfire-Protection-2017-V3.7-NL-280417-PRINT-FINAL.pdf

  6. Glen Miller

    An observation from Redding, California, while the Carr fire is still advancing upon Lewiston and Weaverville, is that motivation for changing processes dies out too soon after a tragedy such as the destruction in Redding. Environmentalists love “their” vegetation so much that there were calls for new tree management rules in Redding two days before the French Gulch fire started. Already, the bureaucratic rules for tree removals prevent many owners from action because of the required costs. Californians have been told over the past 50 years to stop developing housing in fire-prone mountains. County planners are often ignored by supervisors who chase tax dollars from new residences. Population growth is almost universally ignored, as in Built to Burn stories, as a cause of increased destruction. Look at the drawings of homes with defensible space. Almost always they are single residences separated from any neighbors; it plays to the wealthy homeowner. City dwellers have few choices except to remove plants around houses and to buy lots of fine screens. In Redding, the greenbelts are overgrown with mature Grey (digger) pines, dense oaks, and undergrowths of manzanita and grasses. Few, if any property owners can afford, or get permission to reduce the fuel loading on their greenbelt lots. The city won’t.

  7. essbee

    “The bottom line is that we can do something. It just doesn’t have anything to do with controlling the wildfire.”

    This is the money quote for property owners. WE are not the BMFs out there facing the flames. Relying on their actions and whatever the current government policy is (suppress or let burn? risk lives or not?) is not only foolish, it is an abdication of the only direct area of control that is available. Further, neglecting to prepare property puts those men at greater risk of injury and loss of life. And, as another commenter pointed out: many times the local government actively prevents public spaces from being mitigated (government = the tragedy of the commons).

    Recently, my land in CO just escaped being burned by a wildfire by the direct actions of hotshot crews and air support to stop it at the road running along the SE edge of the acreage. The defensible space around our home was not tested because they established containment at the gravel road. They cut trees and slash from the neglected property along the road across from us, dumped huge quantities of materials on our side, and conducted burnout operations toward the advancing flames while tankers dropped retardant in open areas. All in all 168 square miles were burned and 145 structures were lost — much of that because defensible space could not be actively defended by the highly dangerous and unpredictable fire conditions (high burn index, red flag winds, shifting winds, poor road access). Other places were lost because the owners had not bothered to take simple, reasonable steps to contribute to make the odds better.

    Shout out to the Tatanka Hotshots: https://www.instagram.com/p/BlJ16VxnijP/

    1. John

      As a (now retired) firefighter, fire behavior analyst and operations chief with a 34 year career this comment hits one of the nails on the head. Defensible Space. Add to that preparation, home maintenance and personal responsibility of ones own property are the primary prevention measures, or causes, for structure loss within the wildland urban interface. Complicate that with overly restrictive environmental activism, poor public policies (planning, parcel spacing, lack of acceptance of responsibility to maintain hazard reduction along the interface) and a culture of risk adverse leadership, and we have the summer long news footage of neighborhoods being leveled by fire.
      I’ve interacted with Cohen, Finney and Legarza, all are very intelligent. So I look forward to the next episode, and hopefully it has a few suggested solutions to this (not new) problem.

  8. Andrew Sleeth

    I was enlightened and encouraged hearing of Jack Cohen’s commitment to follow scientific evidence wherever it might lead, and simultaneously disheartened by the all-too-predictable manner in which those facts are greeted by policymakers.

    However, the next time 99PI types out a statement into the script beginning like Roman’s “the public expects to see dramatic shots of airplanes flying over fires dropping water on them,” it needs to pause, recognize it’s behaving exactly like those stubborn, unreflective officials, and then ask, What social science data or scientifically controlled polling tells us the public demands this?

    If you asked me, you’d discover not only do I not consume television footage about California wildfires, I deliberately skip over articles about them in my daily paper. Truth is, I couldn’t care less about homes burning down in California by the thousands, and I’d venture to guess I’m not alone. Naturally, though, I AM a stakeholder in the multi-billion dollar Federal budget directed toward fighting that private property loss, and I do resent the way in which news media outlets fuel the unsubstantiated belief among pubic officials that millions of non-Californians are clamoring for a response as manmade tinderboxes go predictably up in smoke. To the contrary, I’m more concerned about hapless, voiceless victims that have no choice in the matter, namely the wildlife and habitat destroyed by refractory public policy and imbecilic housing design.

  9. Ackuil Eninc

    I met a retired and disillusioned forest service person named Justin Dean who explained a lot of the negative impact today’s tactics in firefighting have, from noise and other pollution of the equipment during prescription burns to crown fires today fire suppression in the 1910’s fuels. He’s a musician now and wrote a song called “Let It Burn” summing up the view. He’s nice.

    I was putting up the black netting the catalina island conservancy was installing to detur the bison from grazing on oak saplings. Catalina Island’s 2007 burn caused their unique local oak, a natural cross between an american oak and a japanese oak, to become endangered by the bison put there for a movie a hundred years ago. When they showed my group a bison with a broken foot they weren’t allowed to put down due to a species law, they were capturing it every few days in a cattle crush squeeze chute to pump it with painkilling medicine; its meat would be unusable.

    There’s a lot of public work out there with equal amounts of good impact and bad impact. Being unable to reestablish what we want to be doing, turning the direction of policies, is a lot slower than i’m comfortable seeing. Thanks for helping those policies turn a little easier.

  10. Lisa Gabrielson

    We live in California on 10 acres of rural land, we are close to a fire station and an airport where Cal Fire flies out of when fighting fires, we have a water tank on our property, a composite and metal roof, defensible space, a gravel road and have a crew come in once a year to clear meeting Cal Fire standards and haven’t had a claim in 40 years yet our homeowner’s insurance has been canceled 4+ times in two years given a myriad of excuses. Cohen HAS made a difference in the way insurance companies review policies, they have gone to the other extreme seeing potential hazard where none exists. We wonder how those homes in the Camp Fire in Paradise had homeowner’s coverage given the number of pine trees growing close to homes and some other things we saw that would be considered out of compliance with insurers. We have now been reduced to the Cal Fair Plan insurance which only covers fire at $1287 per year.

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