Ventura County and wildfires: How close are we to the edge?
By Kit Stolz 09/14/2006
On my office desk sits a small blue and white cup. I use it to hold paper clips.
Once glossy and smooth, now it’s badly damaged — cracked, charred, chipped and smoked — but I will never give it up, because it’s the only thing left from the fire in the Oakland and Berkeley hills that fully consumed my father’s home in October of l991.
Everything else — family photos and paintings, silverware, glassware, a dishwasher, even a heavy cast iron stove — was incinerated.
My father was away, perhaps fortunately, perhaps not. In fact, he was visiting me and my family. We had moved to the Ojai area a few months before. When he heard the news about the fire, he was on the way to LAX, but he was not able to get home in time to help. Even after he returned to the East Bay, he was not able to get close enough to see the charred foundation that remained for two full days.
That fire, which burned about 1,600 acres, and killed 25 people, was so hot some houses exploded in flames even before the fire reached them, set off by temperatures that reached at least 2,800 degrees, when cast iron will catch fire and burn.
The Ranch Fire, was a similarly wind-driven fire that burned through a corner of my back yard here in Ventura County in l999. It went on to consume 4,400 acres in Upper Ojai and Ojai, costing over $4 million to fight. Though mild by comparison, it had flames as high as 20 feet. Folks around here still talk about it.
We all know these kind of wind-driven fires could happen again. In the infamous “fire siege” of 2003, the Santa Ana-fueled Piru and Simi fires burned through 170,000 acres of Ventura County in just a few days. Statewide that week in October, wildfire blazes seriously wounded 216 people, and killed 22. Since l970, 12 of the nation’s 15 most deadly and destructive wildfires in history have hit California, and every single one of those infernos was powered by the hot dry winds of late fall and early winter commonly called the Santa Anas.
This is “the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse,” wrote Joan Didion in a memorable essay on the Santa Anas. “The violence and unpredictability of the Santa Anas affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds show us how close to the edge we are.”
She was talking about Los Angeles, but the history of our region offers plenty of examples to prove Didion’s point. Although the Cedar Fire in San Diego three years ago is the single largest on state record, newspaper accounts from 1889 detailed a drought-fueled fire in what is today Orange County that was probably three times as large, and Native American legends from several tribes in the San Diego area recall a mass migration hundreds of years ago driven by what may have been an even bigger fire.
So when, in July, I saw several stories in the newspapers suggesting that climate change could lead to a greater risk of fire in the West, an alarm bell went off in my mind. The time had come to look at the dangers we face. It’s scary enough already. Could it get worse?
Climate change and fire
Recent studies by both fire agencies and climatologists point to serious new risks for fire in the Western states. The official report on the Piru and Simi 2003 fires published by the Ventura County Fire Department warned that “continued wildland fuel-loading occurs due to lack of recurring natural fires and drought conditions that stress fuels. Studies indicate that this problem is only just beginning as global warming issues develop.”
This July, a huge climatological study led by young Anthony Westerling (now at the University of California at Merced) of 1,166 major wildfires in the West over the past 20 years, was published in Science. It found a fourfold increase in large fires since l986, and a sixfold increase in the total area of lands burned.
But although Southern California has always been one of the most fire-prone areas in the West, and in 2003 suffered its worst year in modern history for fire, Westerling found most of the increase in wildfires in the West in the mountain states, at elevations above 5,000 feet.
The study linked the vast new burning to measurements of earlier snowmelt, higher summer temperatures, drier slopes and a longer fire season.
In an e-mail interview, Westerling said he expected temperatures in California to continue to rise, but stressed that “the effect of warmer temperatures on the timing of spring and on the severity of summer fire seasons is marginal in places like the chaparral-covered slopes of coastal Southern California, where temperatures are already relatively high in spring and summer, and the summer dry season is very long, compared to high elevation forests in the northern Rockies.”
Westerling also conducted a forward-looking study for the newly formed California Climate Change Center, published in February of this year, in which he used two general circulation models of the atmosphere — which some scientists call “math worlds” — to look at the potential for fire in California in the future.
Both models predicted warmer temperatures to come in our state, and both pointed to an increased risk of fire in foothill communities in the Sierra Nevada. But the Parallel Climate Model developed at the University of Washington forecast wetter conditions in Southern California, when compared to the climatology of our region from 1961 to l990, while the other model, developed at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association, forecast drier conditions throughout California.
For a second opinion on this fundamental disagreement, I called Richard Minnich at University of California, Riverside, a fire ecologist who compares the way fire is handled in Baja California, where wildfires in chaparral are allowed to burn, and treatment of similar fires in Southern California, where they have been systematically controlled for decades.
Minnich questions the usefulness of climate studies when it comes to fire damage in Southern California.
“There can be a lot of elegance in these studies,” he said in a telephone interview, “but no atmospheric model is complete because, although we know we’re storing more heat on the planet, most of it is in the oceans. There is more thermal energy in the first few meters of the ocean than there is in the entire atmosphere.”
As an example, he said that most climatologists expect that warmer ocean temperatures will lead to more wet El Nino winters, but that has yet to be confirmed.
Terry Schaeffer, who works for the Ventura County Farm Bureau and has been forecasting weather for farmers in Ventura County since the l970s, agreed.
“Logic will tell you that if the ocean warms — and we have had a trend towards gradual warming — then we will get more heat on the surface, which will increase atmospheric circulation, which could lead to more El Ninos,” he said. “But overall global trends don’t play out predictably on a local level.”
Minnich believes that more important is the American policy of suppressing all wildfires, which leads to far more devastating fires than otherwise would be the case. He points out that in Baja California today and in Southern California in the past, wildfires in chaparral in “normal weather” in July and August burned freely but slowly, often for weeks at a time. Today, because fire departments suppress wildland fires as quickly as possible, he argues, “We end up selecting for fires which cannot be controlled. This virtually guarantees that your major fires will come in the worst weather situations, during the Santa Anas, with extreme heat and 50-mph winds.”
This tendency could be worsened by a trend in Santa Ana winds predicted by Norm Miller and Nichole Schlegel of University of California, Berkeley, published in August. Using the same two atmospheric models employed by Westerling, they showed that both models forecast “more Santa Ana occurrence during critical dry periods, especially late in the season, leading to more wildfire.”
This has already been apparent in Ventura County since about l980, according to Schaeffer. Meteorologist Mallory Ham, who forecasts fire weather for the Ventura County Fire Department, concurred, saying that in our area, Santa Anas are now as likely to occur in December, January or February, as happened this year, when winds fueled a major blaze in Orange County, and a quickly controlled fire in the Ventura hills.
Since wind has always driven the most dangerous fires in Southern California, instead of looking to climate change to explain the dramatic leap in fire damage in Southern California in recent decades, Jon Keeley, an ecological researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey, looked at how these fires start. He found that over 95 percent of fire-starts in Southern California are human in origin, typically from arson, carelessness, or power line arcing, and the increase in large fires in our area tracks closely with the increase in population.
Ventura County and fire: Are we ahead of the curve?
A good example of such a fire-start is the Ranch Fire. That fire began when some young teens about a half-mile up my street blew up a mailbox with some fireworks on an evening in December when the Santa Ana winds were blowing at an estimated 60 mph. The sparks caught in the chaparral and instantly began to race west along the ridges toward Ojai, burning for about three days, threatening many of my neighbors and briefly scorching part of my back yard. Although it cost over $4 million to fight, and consumed several outbuildings, only a single home was destroyed.
It turns out that the Ventura County Fire Department, led by Chief Bob Roper, had insisted on a controlled burn just east of Sisar Road in Upper Ojai, the exact area the Ranch Fire burned through, just a few years before. The department believes that prescribed burn reduced the volume of brush and trees enough to allow firefighters — and homeowners — to save the neighborhood.
This points to an often misunderstood aspect of firefighting in Southern California. When wildfires are reported in the broadcast media, they’re often described in terms of the percentage “contained,” which can lead a casual observer — such as me, in years past — to assume that when firefighters battle wildfires they take a stand and try to stop them in their tracks.
For small fires, especially those driven by the availability of fuel, this method, which firefighters call “perimeter control,” can work. But when it comes to the big Santa Ana-driven fires that most threaten Southern California, the experts — both firefighters and scientists — agree that it’s simply not possible, which is why firefighters move instead to a “structure protection” mode.
“When a fire breaks out that’s driven by hot, dry Santa Ana winds at 50 mph or more, you can’t get in front of it,” Ham told me. “Those kind of fires cannot be stopped, no matter how many resources you throw at them.”
“The primary value of the 100-foot weed clearance regulation is that it creates defensible space that allows firefighters to stay around,” agreed Jon Keeley. “They won’t even try and defend a house unless it’s safe. Most housing losses are tied to fire brands that blow in from some distance away and ignite the house. They’re easily controlled if somebody’s on the site to put them out, even the homeowners.”
“We have to look at it objectively and say: Is there a chance that we can go in there and make difference?” said Barry Parker of the Ventura County Fire Department. “You can leave a lot of homes in Ventura County completely alone and they won’t burn because the weed abatement has been done. But on the other hand, if you have 30 homes and most of them haven’t been abated, and you have only five fire engines and you’re trying to put an engine at every home, your odds of success are much less.”
Parker added that the VCFD first required homeowners to abate dry, weedy “flash fuels” in a 100-foot radius around homes after the l991 Oakland hills fire. Ventura County is unusual in that, unlike many counties, such as San Diego, where thousands of homes and many lives were lost in the fires of 2003, we have, since l928, had not only a unified fire district, but also, more recently, the right to assess homeowners for the cost of controlling weeds, plus an administrative fee, if they fail to do it by the June 1 deadline.
Ventura’s hazard reduction requirements were held up as an example for the state as a whole by a commission that reported to the Governor after the fire siege of 2003, noting that “in Ventura County, where building codes and brush clearance have been in place for over a decade, no homes were lost.”
New homes in Ventura County today are required to be engineered for fire, typically with tile roofs, stucco walls and landscaping with weed-suppressing plants (such as succulents, including ice plant and vinca). But just as important, according to Ventura city councilman and urban planner Bill Fulton, is the county’s long-standing emphasis on developing within already-built cities that can be safely defended by firefighters.
“One of the hidden benefits of our long-standing land use policies is that, because we’ve concentrated development in the cities — in general, not without exception — we’ve reduced the risk of fires in the urban-wildland interface,” he said. “That’s a much more sustainable strategy.”
All this is good news for Ventura County, but it’s easy to get complacent. Candysse Miller, who heads the Insurance Information Network of California, pointed out that people who live in cities often assume that they’re not at risk from Santa Ana fires, but in fact, three of the worst fires in California history — the Oakland Hills fire of l991, the Painted Cave fire in Santa Barbara in l990 and the Bel Air fire in l961 — began in wildlands and roared down canyons into cities, each fire consuming hundreds of homes in less than a day, and each totaling hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
In 2004, Miller said, her agency “crunched the numbers” compiled by the California Department of Forestry and found that more than half of all California homes were rated as being at high or at extreme risk of fire, and that more than 6 million of those homes were in urban areas.
How to protect yourself and your property
I talked to over a dozen officials and experts about fire management in our county, and without exception they lauded the work of our firefighters, deputies and rangers.
“I think the VCFD does a fine job, in conjunction with all the other fire agencies around here,” said councilman Fulton. “In the fire we had here in the Ventura hills this year, the county and our city fire department worked really well together. There was a high possibility of something really bad happening and we lost no structures in that fire.”
But, although the VCFD has an annual budget of over $80 million, nearly 500 firefighters in uniform, the ability to call on numerous other agencies through “mutual aid” pacts, and even a recently-revamped Emergency Operations Center beneath the county jail — complete with its own cell phone center, as well as TV monitors, computers, and satellite phones — the enormity of a Santa Ana-driven blaze like the Simi fire of 2003, which had a perimeter 90 miles long, requires that Ventura County residents prepare to defend their own lives and property. It’s especially important to be prepared in the fall, when huge fires are most likely. And in the event of a big fire, don’t assume that firefighters, who may have just driven in from hours away, know your situation.
In the Ranch Fire, while a neighbor and I were wetting down the house with roof sprinklers and spraying the yard, my wife, Valerie Levett, noticed the edge of the fire creeping south down a slope behind our home, and went up the street to alert a firefighter. He promptly brought in a prison work crew, under the supervision of two deputies, and the 15 or so inmates attacked the low blaze with chainsaws and hand tools, and snuffed it out within an hour.
Residents also should learn from their local experts.
“Get to know the guys at your fire station,” urged Doug Campbell, a fire expert who has trained thousands of firefighters in the art of understanding wildfire, for the VCFD and many other agencies in the U.S. and abroad. “When they come to inspect your property, give them a cookie or two. Ask them about the fire history in your area.”
Campbell also encourages residents in wildland areas who think they might decide to stay to fight a fire to prepare for the battle. Close your windows and doors. Move flammable plants and objects away from the house. Put a ladder up to the roof, and set out tubs and buckets of water, with mops to put out blazes, in case you lose water pressure. Wear a hard hat and protective clothing.
Much more detailed information is available at the VCFD’s Office of Community Education, both by phone and online.
On a more personal level, Dale Carnathan, who manages the Emergency Operations Center, said that one of the lessons learned from the Katrina disaster is that citizens should have food, water and medicines on hand sufficient for a week or ten days. He said that he himself has stopped price-checking every item when he goes food shopping, figuring that having a little extra on hand could prove handy in case of an emergency.
With a little luck and a little foresight, we should be able to avoid disaster.
But when it comes to fire in our county, as Parker said, “It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.”