Sunday, July 08, 2007

California Burning, Pt. 1

7-7-7 wasn’t a lucky day for the East Side Sierran communities of Lone Pine and Independence yesterday. Both communities were evacuated as lightning fires threatened to vaporize more homes in the California wildland urban interface. Other fires are burning on the Plumas National Forest NE of Quincy, in SoCal near Santa Barabara, and near Winnemucca, Nevada I’m just going to be bold and go right out there on a limb with this one - we’re going to see more civilian and firefighter deaths in California this season.

Things are as dry as I have ever seen in my neck of Sierran paradise inside Yosemite, and there is no shortge of warnngs about the dry fuels throughout the region, including , California, Nevada, and Arizona. Our own fuel moisture sampling program has verified the crispy nature of things. All that is missing is lightning, and the monsoonal flow is expected to pick up in earnest next week, sending tropical moisture towards the High Sierras. Perhaps the serious lightning will stay on the less populated East Side, but beware of the Sierra-wide lightning bust that slides over the onto the western slopes in the ponderosa pine-mixed conifer zone and down into the brush covered foothills of Gold Rush fame. There one will find remarkably dry fuels and an increasingly oblivious population of aging baby boomers, recently relocated from the cities.

Like the folks around Lake Tahoe, these urban white flight newcomers are intolerant of prescribed fire smoke and they love their trees, even the little ones that make their homes death traps. If you want a good site to watch the drama unfold, try the MODIS site, where you can see the most recent heat signature of fires burning in your area. Probably based on old cold war technology to detect Russian missle launches, a click on your region of choice will produce a map showing all the heat detected since Jan. 1st in yellow, with the most recent heat signatures from the last two passes of the satellite shown in orange or red. For this year, wherever goeth the lightning (or arsonists), goeth fire.

Of course, after years of Republican malarkey about the horrors of big government, we see the effect on disaster response quite clearly with the Katrina fiasco. Privatize it all, we’re told. Either flee in your SUV, or drown waiting for a bus that will never come. The perfect storm brewing in California this summer has many root causes, but the angry storm over the Angora Fire shows one thing quite plainly. After years of conservative whacko conditioning, the public will always blame the government 1st. Government success is no news, while government failure is big news. Oddly enough, citizens still expect emergency response personnel to bail their asses out of a sling. In a recent article in the NYT about the encroachement of more and more homes into fire-prone wildlands , we hear the usual refrain.
Some residents in the high-risk areas worry that the federal government will be tempted to pass the problem along to local governments or homeowners. “The federal government is there to protect the community from disasters,” said Ron Ehli, 50, a volunteer fire chief in Hamilton, Mont.

Damn straight, we’re going to pass the cost on to municipalities and homeowners. These are the entities that have fueled the problem of suburban sprawl into the “flame zone”, as former National Park Service Director, Roger Kennedy, calls these disaster prone areas in his new book, Wildfire and Americans. In this book, Kennedy charts the intentional collusion of automakers, road builders, developers, and atomic scientists to depopulate city centers and reduce the impact of nuclear warfare with Russia. The incentives for sprawl, born from the fear of nuclear fire, continue to this day. We have opted for the slow burn, rather than the quick falshover. Sadly, it is the young wildland firefighters today that will face the latter protecting homes that should never have been built. Today’s Fresno Bee reports the following:
Four out of five homes built near Lake Tahoe since 1990 are in areas considered to have a high fire hazard, according to a new analysis less than a week after a blaze destroyed 254 homes and caused more than $141 million in property damage.

There is certainly blame to be spread to the federal agencies for mismanagement of public lands. Principly, the policy of fire exclusion in fire-adapted pine forests is most to blame. The build-up of fuels and the drying climate ensure large fires to continue in these wildlands. Here in Yosemite, one of the 1st land management units to buck conventional 1950’s wisdom about the need to extinguish all fires, our ability to put fire on the ground has been severly limited, because of increasing nearby populations of smoke-intolerant immigrants into the flame zone.

There are slow signs of recognition. After the Esperanza Fire, that killed five firefighters in October of last year, the Fresno Bee reported on Thursday the results of a panel covened to consider development into the wildlands.
Riverside County should limit development in areas prone to wildfires or face further devastation, according to a panel appointed after October’s deadly Esperanza blaze. “We’ve had developments where 20 or 30 homes are built down in the Banning Pass area, right next to 8- to 12-foot chaparral that hasn’t burned in 50 years and they think nothing of it. We can’t do that anymore,” said panel member Larry Kueneman of Pine Cove.

Of course, it may well be too little to late. One of my greatest personal fears is the loss of institutional knowledge that has been taking place in the wildland firefighting ranks, with the ongoing departure of baby boomers to retirement. The last great influx of professionals willing to work in the woods for low pay occurred in the 1970’s and those leaders are leaving the U.S. Forest Service and Dept. of Interor land management agencies in droves today, either to retirement or to much more lucrative positions with CDF (now CalFire) or municipal fire departments, which have many open positions, as well. Another excellent article from the Fresno Bee, written on Independence Day, finally sheds light on this potentially catastrophic brain drain. Here’s the dangerous part:
Of the 230 Forest Service engines that go out on daily patrol, as many as 40 are under the direction of captains working six-day weeks under a new overtime allowance from emergency funds, officials said. Existing staffers are getting early promotions or being pressed into acting management positions. “There’ll be more people with more overtime this year,” said Campbell. “But they’ve lost the wisdom that comes with fighting these fires year after year.”
The key positions that supervise young firefighters on engines and crews, instead of having ten or fifteen years of knowledge, may have three, four, or five, at best. Many of these young leaders have been promoted much more quickly than the last generation leaders. Here’s the bottom line - This summer in California, we’ll be seeing fire behavior unlike anything that 80-90% of the current wildland firefighting workforce has ever seen before. Suburban sprawl, record dry fuels, inexperienced crews - it’s a recipie for disaster. If you don’t believe me, ask the folks in Independence. Yesterday wasn’t a lucky day for them. They rolled craps.



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