Southern California fires

“I live in Santiago Canyon. One minute last night the stars were out and the winds calm. The next minute there was fire literally jumping over the ridge. We had five minutes to evacuate.” – featured comment, front page LA Times homepage.

These fires are way worse than usual. There’s a good reason the hot, dry, fierce Santa Ana winds are called the “devil’s wind.” These fires can move much faster than you can run, and quite possibly faster than you can drive in a car. Seriously. Think precipitously steep mountain sides with masses of tinder-dry chaparral six feet high. Then think what happens when they catch fire when 60 mph winds are blowing.

And the fires are everywhere now.

Should there be regulations against building homes in high-risk areas, as protecting the homes during fires draws resources that could be better used to put the fire out? Southern California has been having that debate for decades. Mike Davis famously (or notoriously, depending on your viewpoint) said in “Let Malibu Burn.”

Botanists and fire geographers have calculated that half-century-old chaparral, heavily laden with dead mass, burns with 50 times more intensity than 20-year-old chaparral. Put another way, an acre of old chaparral is the fuel equivalent of 75 barrels of crude oil. A great Malibu firestorm, therefore, may generate the heat of three million barrels of burning oil at a temperature of 2,000 degrees.

“Total fire suppression” — the official policy in the Southern California mountains since 1919 — is a futile, indeed disastrous, strategy that makes doomsdaylike firestorms and subsequent floods virtually inevitable by preventing the recycling of dead chaparral by more frequent small fires.

This is not to bash Malibu (hey, I have friends who live there) but as Davis points out, Malibu frequently has had nasty fires, starting from when the Spanish came and prohibited the Indians from doing their annual burnings. Plus, the natural geography there lends itself to fire because the canyons line up uncannily with the direction of the Santa Anas and is made worse by the San Fernando Valley acting as a giant bellows.

Let’s hope no more lives or homes are lost during the current inferno season in southern California.

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