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.


  1. It’s true: total suppression makes wildfires worse. In their natural state, southern California canyons burn on average about every ten years. Keep the vegetation building up longer, the burn is worse– and so is the environmental impact. Controlled burns would reduce the severity and destruction of the inevitable wildfires.

    Of course, as we saw here in the Greenville Bench (UT) fire, sometimes controlled burns don’t stay controlled. So it’s a matter of choosing your risk.

    Or, don’t build in the canyons and let Mother Nature do her thing. (Kind of seems like a duh, since the odds of an eventual burn are 100%, but go figure.)

  2. Winds over 100 mph were recorded in L.A. yesterday and the worst winds are yet to come, say forecasters.

    Everyone seems stunned by the ferocity of the winds and fires. Even Fire Dept. spokespersons say they’ve never seen anything like this.

    Controlled fires can indeed be dangerous, and could they even be done safely in places like Malibu or the Hollywood Hills?

  3. Define “safely.” A controlled burn in non-Santa Ana conditions could hardly be as destructive as what they’ve got now!

  4. But what if such a controlled burn got out of control? Among other things, the lawsuits would be staggering.

  5. There it lies: inaction is less costly than any action, because action provides culpability.

    PROPERTY DAMAGE in San Diego County reached $1 billion, authorities said this morning –

  7. Folks, fire suppression has NOTHING to do with the wildfires in Southern California. These are wind driven fires and anything will burn in them. Mike Davis is correct in many of his thoughts regarding land planning, but we have come a long way regarding the science of chaparral fires and ecology.

    If you would like to learn more about this, please visit our Science and Fire page on our California Chaparral Institute website.

  8. Interestingly, the site seems to make a case for not burning chapparal based on the idea that it doesn’t “need” to burn– and that burns at the wrong time can be destructive to the chapparal environment. At the same time, it advocates “vegetation control” around structures.

    This, I think, is exactly what we’ve been saying: the Malibu fires in particular have been exacerbated because (1) there are so many homes built in fire-prone areas, and (2) the vegetation has not been controlled. As to what happens out in uninhabited areas, letting the natural cycle take its course may be the best approach.

    I also found it interesting that (according to the site) the burn rate has increased so much over the past century. I wonder whether that’s due to climate, human activity, or something else?

    Personally, I’d like to see the chapparal remain uninhabited, so fire threat to homes becomes a non-issue. But that train has already left the station.

  9. I can’t imagine a fire moving faster than I can run, much less faster than I can drive. Those must be some pretty ridiculously crazy winds.

  10. 50-60 mph winds are not uncommon and the canyons can be filled with 6 feet tall tinder dry underbrush and bushes.

  11. I just spoke with a friend last night who works on a fire crew in UT. He loves his work, and has fought fires all over the West. He’s been posted to Humbolt County in northern CA for the past few weeks, but he requested a transfer home this week because “people are dying there.” According to him, high winds have caused a helicopter crash that killed seven firefighters, and another firefighter got enveloped in the blaze during a gust of wind. The people who fight fires are courageous, and I can’t blame him for wanting to stay alive.

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