Raise the Red Flag on the Causes of Wildfire

Two Years After Thomas, Six of the 10 Largest Fires in California History Burned This Summer

When Thomas Fire reached Santa Barbara County in 2017, 8,700 firefighters were assigned to the fire. This year's August Complex fire, at 900,000 acres today, has 2,100 firefighters on the front lines. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

As a retired firefighter I have been asked frequently, “What do you think about what’s going on this year?” Well, this is what I know, what I think, and how I feel.

The U.S. wildfire world has changed dramatically in the last several years. The temptation is to point to one thing and say, “That’s it. That is the source of the problem.” That is simplistic and gets us no closer to a solution. This is an extraordinarily complex issue and needs to be looked at as such.

•  America is de-urbanizing. The 2010 U.S. Census showed that 100 million people are now living in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). There are 43 million houses in the WUI. Between 1990 and 2010, 12.7 million houses and 25 million people were added into that total. The 2020 Census will show this trend has continued. Humans spark 90 percent of all wildfires.

•  Land and forest management issues remain unresolved. Development interests and government planning processes need to study the risks and do appropriate planning before subdivisions are built farther out in the Wildland Urban Interface, not in response to an immediate crisis afterward. Forest managers need the funding to remove trees and brush and conduct controlled fires where appropriate. These issues are so infused with politics that each move in this direction turns into a death match. Proponents and opponents are locked in a zero sum game in which each point of view is not satisfied unless the other side loses. Policy paralysis is the result, and the problem continues to grow.

•  Addressing climate change sits atop all of these problems. While the debate may continue, the impact in ongoing and real. It doesn’t really care what the politics are; temperatures and sea levels are rising. In August the United States had four separate climate-related disasters whose response required FEMA expenditures of over a billion dollars each. That is before the West Coast caught on fire.

The Thomas fire became the largest fire in California history in 2018. Two and half years later it is the sixth. Six of the 10 largest fires in California history have occurred in the last six weeks. Unfathomable fire runs are occurring. On September 8, the Bear Fire, now part of the North Complex, went from 5,000 acres to about 250,000 in one day. Fire spread can now be measured in acres per second. Think about that for a moment. The fact is that this has become commonplace. The August Complex is approaching 900,000 acres.

It is worth noting that the Thomas Fire had Red Flag conditions, with humidity hovering around one percent, for 10 days in a row in December 2017. The Thomas Fire was still burning when it was extinguished by a storm of such strength that it caused a debris flow from the denuded watershed that resulted in the deaths of 23 people. The Cave Fire of November 2019 was extinguished in the hills above Santa Barbara Thanksgiving week by snow.

California has the best and the deepest Fire Mutual Aid system in the world. It has the most experienced wildland firefighters working anywhere. That experience is there because they have been dealing with this for decades, but the cascading flow of large fires has strained the system.

On December 16, 2017, the Thomas Fire, fueled by decadent brush, 10 years of drought, and strong sundowner winds, blew up in the hills above Santa Barbara. On that day more than 8,700 firefighters and support personnel were assigned to the fire. Over 2,000 were in the South Coast communities and had been for three days prepping houses, laying lines, scouting escape routes, and becoming familiar with the landscape. None of the fire professionals I talked with have ever heard of a fire with resources of that magnitude. Anywhere. It was December, the Thomas Fire was the only wildfire in the nation.

The August Complex, 900,000 acres today, has 2,100 firefighters. The Creek Fire, 300,000 acres, has 3,100. The North Complex, 300,000 acres, has 3,500. With the astonishing number of fires burning in the West, competition for resources is intense. The calculations of the Values at Risk (VAR) are constantly being calculated at Regional Command centers. Planes, engines, crews, and logistical support shift around unceasingly from fire to fire to where lives and property are at highest risk.

The system was simply not made for the catastrophes we are experiencing.

As a former firefighter how do I feel about it? I am frustrated and angry. While the debate rages in the political, academic, and cultural worlds in this country, we are still asking someone’s son or daughter, mother or father, husband or wife to be out there fighting these fires — under-resourced, exhausted for months at a time — they fight on with very little relief and no end in sight. During other natural disasters — hurricanes, floods, tornados — we evacuate, we move people out of the way. Wildfire is the only natural disaster where we engage human beings on its edges and expect them to control it and extinguish it.

In the almost 40 years I spent in the Fire Service, I experienced the normal wear and tear and emotional strains on my health that go with this career. The last 10 years, from 2008 to 2018, were my most intense wildfire experiences of those decades. Firefighters in Santa Barbara County, or anywhere in California, have experienced more fire and more strain on their bodies and emotional states in the last 12 years than I did in 40. How can they sustain this for 20, 30, 35 years? They cannot.

The political stakeholders, public agencies, environmental and private interests that continue this ceaseless debate, without any meaningful impact on the problem, need to understand the increasingly futile task they have handed the firefighters of this country. That is the very least we can do for them. They deserve so much more than that.

Pat McElroy was a firefighter for 37 years and served as chief of the Santa Barbara City Fire Department for the final five.

Correction: It is between 1990, not 1900, and 2010 that millions of people and homes were added to the wildland-urban interface.


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