Firestorms in the West have grown bigger and more destructive in recent years — and harder to escape. Massive and frenzied, they have overtaken people trying to outrun or outdrive them.
Gridlocked mountain roads prevented many Paradise residents from fleeing the Camp fire, which killed 85 people in 2018. This year, more than 30 people have died in the fires in California and Oregon, and again, in many cases, people were trying to escape fast-moving blazes.
There’s much work to be done on how we protect people amid a wildfire, including how and when we advise them to evacuate. But fire experts also are considering different ways to protect communities, and some of these ideas haven’t been given their full due as options for states that increasingly find themselves under siege.
One approach, seen in a bill proposed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), is to log more dead trees and dig more firebreaks, among other things. But it’s outmoded and environmentally problematic; environmental groups have attacked the bill for allowing the fast-tracking of logging permits, bypassing the normal review process, in areas far from any towns that could be threatened.
Beyond that, trying to prevent fires can lead to overgrown forests that set the stage for more catastrophic blazes. Rather than going down that road, or cutting trees and brush in order to make fires smaller and slower, the better, more scientifically based approach is to focus more on houses and less on trees.
Some of this is becoming common knowledge. Many Californians have heard the advice to install mesh screens on rooftop vents to prevent embers from getting into attic spaces, and to close off open eaves and the curves under clay tile, where embers can be trapped and smolder. The seminal work of Jack Cohen, a recently retired wildfire expert with the U.S. Forest Service, is finally being recognized: The conditions on and immediately around houses are more important to preserving lives than the conditions of the open brush or forest where the fire is centered.
“Uncontrolled, extreme wildfires are inevitable,” Cohen said.
What’s not inevitable is for houses to have wood decks and siding that give embers a chance to smolder, instead of patios and stucco exteriors. Exterior sprinklers help, too. Feinstein’s bill addresses this, with some help for fire-safe home renovations, but more as an afterthought. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill that targets community protection far more robustly.
Unlike what many people think, ground without plants can be a problem too: dead plant matter under gravel can catch fire, and wood-chip ground cover is even more dangerous. Well-planted green gardens are the best landscape for retarding fires, Cohen said, but that doesn’t have to mean heavy doses of water. Many drought-tolerant native plants are fire resistant and provide habitat for native wildlife — birds, bees and butterflies — as well.
The Escondido-based Chaparral Institute also is trying to get communities to look at smarter ways to save lives during catastrophic fires. Many communities located near vast open spaces such as national forests are rural in nature, with few routes out of town. During evacuations, cars choke the road, with the fire closing in from behind.
That’s why people shouldn’t have to leave town to be protected, the institute says. Other organizations are starting to take a similar view, especially after firefighters and law enforcement in Paradise saved the lives of 150 people by having them shelter in the parking lot of a strip mall. The fire raged around them, but they were safe. The Fire Safety Council of Mendocino County gives similar advice to residents there when evacuating might be risky.
Open, flat spaces within the community, preferably grassy, well-watered ones, could become effective areas for sheltering that might be a mile or two from people’s homes, providing a more realistic solution than expecting entire communities to drive 25 to 50 miles away, or even more. These spaces might include large playgrounds or sports fields at schools. Or cities could embrace the traditional idea of a large village green in the town center that serves as a communal gathering space for much of the year, and an emergency evacuation point during firestorms. Golf courses can perform the same function, and when placed between houses and backcountry, act as a buffer.
Forest management still has a role to play. And the state still needs to prevent residential areas from expanding any further into high-risk fire areas. But communities amid the brush exist throughout the state and must be made safer by following science. Protection from catastrophic wildfire is best done from the inside out rather than the other way around.