Fire Misconceptions on the Radio

Dear Ms. Madeleine Brand,

Thank you for addressing the wildfire crisis in your December 14th Press Play radio show.

You asked some excellent questions. In particular, when a couple of your guests advocated for prescribed fire as a way to prevent another devastating Woolsey Fire, you kept pressing them on how such burns could be carried out safely with millions of people on the landscape. Mikke Pierson reflected the problematic nature of prescribed fire best when he answered honestly, “I have no idea.”

Prescribed fire, along with many other issues relating to wildfire in California, are terribly misunderstood. Such misunderstandings lead to misconceptions that can enable counterproductive public policy. A number of these misconceptions were repeated during the show. We are writing in hopes that this information will inspire you to pursue these matters further in future interviews, or perhaps as subject matter for another show.

The most notable misconceptions repeated during the show include:

1. Prescribed fire will allow us to live safely with Southern California firestorms.\
2. Large fires in California were unknown prior to the arrival of Europeans because of Native American burning.
3. If we let fire burn like is supposedly done in Baja California, we wouldn’t have large fires.
4.Dead trees pose a significant wildfire threat.

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Exterior Fire Sprinklers Saved 188 Properties – Wet homes don’t burn

As renowned fire scientist Jack Cohen has said repeatedly, the wildland fire problem is a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem. Cohen has been trying to help fire agencies understand this since 1999. Unfortunately, they have shown little interest. We are hoping with the recent wildfire tragedy in Paradise, California, attitudes will change.

But private citizens don’t have to wait.

There are a number of proven strategies and retrofits that can be implemented easily to homes and communities now. One is the installation of exterior fire sprinklers.

The story of the resistance to exterior fire sprinklers illuminates a crippling dichotomy between the structural fire protection and wildland fire communities. But first, the good news. Exterior fire sprinklers systems work, are affordable, and can be easily installed.

Exterior fire sprinklers in action in Australia. From Platypus Fire Pty Ltd.

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It’s about Flammable Homes, not forests

Here’s how to respond to those misleading posts claiming our recent fires are all about tree huggers preventing logging and a supposed fuel build up via past fire suppression.

1. Most of California’s most devastating fires were far from any forest (see map below).

2. For those few devastating fires that were near forests, most if not all of those forests around the communities destroyed had the kind of suggested thinning and fuel treatments misinformed commentators claim didn’t exist.

3. The majority of the area burned during the Camp Fire before it hit the town of Paradise had burned 10 years ago and was composed of habitats other than forest (e.g. post fire shrublands). The wind-driven ember rain that ignited the town came primarily from these 10-year-old sparse to dense shrublands, grasslands, areas damaged from salvage logging, and young tree plantations northeast of the town. A large percentage of the trees within the devastated town did not burn. See the fire progression map here and match it with the current view on Google Earth.

The Los Angeles Times discussed the science behind the fire’s path.

Here is an excellent map of the fire from the New York Times.

4. Climate change is drying the state. Dryer conditions lead to a more flammable landscape. We may also see more of the kind of winds that powered the Camp Fire into Paradise.

“The major factor is climate change across the west. Regardless of fuels management, we just wouldn’t be burning like this, especially in Northern California, in a normal year.”
– Dr. Leroy Westerling, UC Merced

More fires will dramatically alter the kinds of habitats we are used to seeing. Highly flammable, non-native weed-filled landscapes that dominate places like Riverside County will likely become more common. More on this issue here.

Tree Mortality 14 Final

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