A Veteran Firefighter Explains Why California Wildfires Are Getting Worse
"You’ve got fuel, you’ve got weather, and you have what’s readily available to burn. You add those together. It’s like the perfect storm."
The Carr Fire in Redding, California. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty
Since last week, the Carr Fire has blazed through Northern California—it had burned nearly 100,000 acres by Monday afternoon, according to CNN, and has been menacing the town of Redding for days. Six lives have been lost, entire neighborhoods have been devastated, and the fire is only 20 percent contained.
Wildfires have always been a part of living in the hotter, dryer parts of California, but the fires have been worse in the past year, with major conflagrations breaking out in the Napa Valley and Anaheim. The Carr Fire has already been declared one of the ten most destructive fires in California history, six of which have struck in the past ten months.
On Monday, I spoke with a dispatcher working near Redding who has been dealing with fires for more than 20 years. (She did not want me to use her name.) She has been a wildland firefighter in the US Forest Service and has been everything from "helicopter rappeller to hotshot crew to engine." I spoke to her about her years of service, why we're seeing things like "firenadoes," and mushroom clouds, and how we can protect ourselves.
VICE: First, thank you so much for your work. Obviously, we’re in great need of your service and it’s an incredibly hard job.
Dispatcher: Yes, it is a very hard job. You don’t go home every night, or even for 14 days at a time. 16, 24, 36 hours on at a time is not unusual. It takes a special kind of person to do the job. But God bless the ones who do. The ones out there on the front lines, putting their lives at risk.
Have you noticed fires becoming more aggressive, in even the last five years?
Absolutely. Fires are bigger. Fires are more explosive. And it’s probably due to many factors. A lot of it is the urban sprawl—people tend to move up to the hills because who doesn’t want to live in the mountains? They want to move into the hills and yet they don’t want to do any kind of clearance around their property. When a fire comes through it causes a lot of hazards to firefighters. Not just firefighters but any kind of first responders that come in the area.
But then again, there’s also drought. We’ve had drought conditions, and you just don’t fix drought conditions with one good water year. It takes many years—it takes five years of no drought to fix several years of drought influence.
What do you mean by explosive?
When you have [spot fires] that come over the fire lines, and when you have wind—wind will carry embers. Sometimes the fire will spot out over a mile or two miles ahead of itself, and spots in vegetation become explosive. Anything that’s really oily with waxy leaves can be explosive. It will just ignite, almost immediately. It looks like a bomb blew off. Literally. And that’s very destructive.
And then you’ve got weather that goes along with that. Fire creates its own weather. That’s what we saw appear here in the Carr Fire. We had RHs (relative humidity) in the single digits. So that causes explosive fire behavior, where things will just blow up. I think that’s the biggest thing we’ve experienced. People couldn’t get out fast enough, and the fire just tore through an area at a rapid rate of spread.
Last year in the Bay Area, we had all those fires in the Napa Valley. And it kind of mimicked the same kind of fire behavior that we’re seeing up here. I hate to say it because it makes me sound like a doomsday kind of a person—but due to all of the pollution, and all of the emissions, and a lot of different factors there, as far as the environment, I think a lot of our trees and brush have taken on these qualities that we haven’t seen before.
We’ve had drought before, it’s nothing new to California. We’ve been in drought years before, and in '88 and '89 we had horrific fire. But it didn’t do what the fire does these days. You’ve got fuel, you’ve got weather, and you have what’s readily available to burn. You add those together. It’s like the perfect storm.
I grew up in Los Angeles, so seeing huge fires is part of living in the city. But I’ve never seen fires that practically eat entire subdivisions before.
Exactly! Exactly. You’ve got houses here that are stucco. A lot of Redding houses—I live in a stucco home. They burn. It’s amazing how, all of a sudden, you’ve got a couple embers under the roofline and it just takes off. California doesn’t feel a whole lot of inclement weather as far as cold, but we do need to build stuff that is more fire-resistant.
Do you think fires of this scale will continue to be the norm?
I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The scale is hard for people to comprehend. I was talking with my boyfriend, who's also a veteran firefighter, and who just retired last year. Fire doesn’t scare us the way it used to. People tend to get freaked out by fire. It’s something that is alive; it lives, it breathes, it’s an entity that has its own life once it gets established, and you just have to direct it. And you have to realize that it’s going to do what it’s going to do. But eventually it’s going to die. And if you’re in the path of it you have to make sure you get out with plenty of time. Have good insurance, and hopefully your home with be spared.
Cal Fire goes around and visits every place in their units, and they give feedback as far as what the homeowner needs to do to get good clearance, and whether their homes are more protectable.
What kind of safety precautions would you advise?
Check that vegetation is cleared to 100 feet from your house. It doesn’t have to be total clearance, but it should be anything that would be able to touch your roof. Any kind of shrubbery needs to be low and not real flammable. Trees need to be far away enough from your house so that it doesn’t catch your roof on fire. And you shouldn't have any kind of wood piled up next to your house.
Sometimes you can do all of that and still get run over by fire. That’s just the nature of fire. It does what it wants. And sometimes you just have to let it go and take its last breath.
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