Saturday, October 27, 2007

California wild fires - a systemic failure?

Today's Saturday morning musings led me to think about the difference between the Californian and Australian responses to what we call bush fires. Then a question from a colleague caused me to dig further.
Now I want to pose a question to my US readers: is the Californian approach to the control of wild fires fundamentally flawed? I feel yes.

In posing and answering the question, I am not attacking the current response nor am I pretending to expertise about either bush fires or the US experience. My question is genuine, intended to draw out issues.

An Australian Comparison

To set a context, I have taken one large Australian bushfire, more correctly bush fires. It is a very large event, but not the biggest nor the most damaging in Australian history.

According to Emergency Management Australia, the longest official continuous bushfire emergency in NSW occurred between 21 December 2001 and 13 January 2002 when widespread severe bushfires burned throughout much of NSW - NE, Central Coast, Greater Sydney Region, Blue Mountains, Central West and South Coast and hinterland - and the ACT.

This took place during mainly extreme weather conditions across eastern NSW. Unusual fire behaviour was observed in many areas due to variable winds and extreme dryness of fuel.

The first serious damage occurred on 21 December 2001 at Eugowra (west of Orange) where fire swept through 19 rural properties destroying four farm houses and much equipment. Up to 100 large (out of control) bushfires burnt simultaneously in different areas at the height of the crisis.

It was the first time that large bushfires had travelled from the mountains to the coast (as they did in the Shoalhaven region for example). Ultimately over 650,000 ha (1.6 million acres) were burnt.

Initially, serious, destructive fires in the Blue Mountains and outer Western Sydney regions (including Hawkesbury and Warragamba) prompted a disaster declaration by the NSW State Government. A total of 121 homes were destroyed and 36 were seriously damaged and 304 with less serious damage. Additionally,15 businesses and 255 other structures were destroyed (incl sheds, carports, urban fences etc). The worst affected regions, in terms of homes destroyed, were Hawkesbury, Silverdale - Warragamba, Helensburgh and the Shoalhaven.

Approximately 10,000 people were evacuated (5000 alone in the Jervis Bay area), with 15,000 firefighters deployed from across Australia and New Zealand to fight up to 100 large fires for over three weeks as hot, mainly north-westerly winds and very dry conditions persisted. Over 200 km of fencing was destroyed, while well over 5000 livestock died along with large numbers of native animals (including many in national parks).

Costs were high. The provisional insurance loss figure ($80m) comprised mainly houses and commercial claims Other costs included around $70m for the NSW Government to combat the fires (incl $32m for private helicopters and planes for water-bombing etc); $7m for aircraft fuel and fire retardant; $1m for meals, accommodation, equipment and transport; vastly increased operating and salary costs of all authorities involved including urban and rural fire units, SES, ambulance, police, National Parks, State Forests and Department of Community Services; and damaged government/public property and infrastructure.

Further costs included multi-millions in lost income for the tourist industry (incl Hunter Valley, South Coast and Blue Mountains) and agricultural losses involving livestock, crops, pastures, fences etc; and forestry timber. Additionally, the NSW Chamber of Commerce said that employers faced a bill of at least $10m in wages for employees who were volunteer firefighters, SES, etc who were absent from work fighting the fires.

Apart from the cost of all uninsured private (up to 20% of total) and public property loss or damage, there was also the value of all interstate firefighting assistance plus the Federal Government's costs for the four military helicopters and a large fuel tanker used, and the cost of transporting two additional large Aircrane helitankers from the USA which were leased for waterbombing the fires.

In all, it was a pretty big set of fires.

The Californian Comparison
As at 27 October, the California Government web site lists 23 fires across San Diego, San Bernadino, Orange, Los Angles, Santa Barbara, Riverside and Ventura Counties. I have given the link, but this is a changing page.

By Australian standards, most of these fires are small in terms of area. Only eight burnt more than 10,000 acres, the largest fire burnt out 198,000 acres. So how did such small fires have such impact? Here I quote from Californian Government examples.
Case Studies

The largest fire in terms of area appears to have been the Witch fire. In official terms:

This fire has burned 197,990 acres and is 45 percent contained. The Witch Fire has joined the Poomacha fire in the north. Mandatory evacuations are in place for the community of Julian and there is still a threat to Pine Hills, Cuyamaca, Wynola, Santa Ysabel, Alpine, Mesa Grande and Harbison Canyon. Fire progression has slowed to the west, southwest, and northwest.
Residents are being allowed to return to portions of Poway, Valley Center, Escondido, Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego, Ramona and Rancho Bernardo, Del Dios, and Lake Hodges areas. Re-entry of residents is also occurring in the towns of Julian, Wynola, and Cuyamaca. Wildcat Canyon is closed. Highway 67 is closed from Poway to Ramona.
911 homes, 30 commercial properties, and 175 outbuildings have been destroyed. 62 homes, 10 commercial properties and 50 outbuildings have been damaged. 1,000 residences, 100 commercial properties, and 300 outbuildings are still threatened. 239 vehicles have been destroyed.
2,474 firefighters are assigned to this incident under unified command. 26 firefighters have been injured on this fire. The estimated cost of this fire to date is $9 million.
Now let's take a mid range fire, the Poomacha Fire, Pauma Valley, San Diego County. According to the official report:
This fire started October 23 as a structure fire on the Lajolla Indian Reservation. It has burned 42,000 acres and is 35 percent contained. The Poomacha Fire has joined with the Witch Fire to the south. 78 homes and 19 outbuildings have been destroyed. 2,000 homes remain threatened.
Evacuations are in progress in Valley Center. The communities of Valley Center, Rincon, Pauma Valley, Pala Reservation, and Palomar are threatened. This fire has resulted in 14 firefighter injuries. 1,794 firefighters are currently assigned to this fire under unified command with CAL FIRE and the Cleveland National Forest. The estimated cost of this fire to date is $1.6 million
Finally, let's take a small fire, the Grass Valley fire:
This fire has burned 1,140 acres and is 75 percent contained. The fire is northwest of Lake Arrowhead. 162 structures have been lost, and more than 6,000 homes remain threatened. The mandatory evacuation order for the community of Crestline has been reduced to a voluntary evacuation effective at 9:00 am this morning. All other evacuations and road closures remain in effect. Evacuation Center have been established at the National Orange Show in San Bernardino and Victorville Fairgrounds in Victorville.
State Highway 18 is closed from 40th/Waterman to the Big Bear Dam, State Highway 330 is closed at Highland to Hwy 18, State Highway 138 is closed at State Highway 173. Residents may leave via these highways (except 330) but cannot go back up into the Mountains. Access to Big Bear is via Hwy 38 from I-10 in Redlands or from Hwy 18 through the Hi-Desert in Lucerne Valley.
781 firefighters are assigned to this incident. The estimated cost of this fire to date is $3.1 million.
All very interesting. But what does it mean?

An Australian's Conclusions

I suppose the first thing that stands out is the mandatory evacuations. The Australian experience of standing to fight is simply not allowed. Mandatory evacuations explain the headline numbers.

The second thing is the relatively small number of firefighters. As best I can work out, the number is around 60 per cent of those mobilised to fight the NSW fires I referred to earlier.

The third thing is the scale of the property damage. Yes, California is far more densely populated. Even so, I cannot help thinking that the damage does, to some degree at least, reflect the combined effect of mandatory evacuation with lower number of firefighters.

The last thing is the scale of injury to firefighters. I do not know what this means because I do not know what is defined as an injury. Accepting this, California fire fighters appear to be at higher risk of injury than their Australian equivalents.


I do not know the US scene well enough to be prescriptive. On the surface, it would appear that California's wild fire system is less effective than ours.


Lexcen said...

A very interesting topic Jim. My perceptions are different to yours. I would refer to the conflict of approach to managing bushland between different government departments in Australia, those who advocate back burning versus those who advocate conservation. Furthermore, it's a standing joke amongst people of the outback on how a small back burning episode can end up destroying thousands of acres. On the other hand, in the U.S. there seems to be a more scientific approach to dealing with the problem. See this link
Not forgetting that last year we had to import firefighters from the USA.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning Lexcen on this fine bright day.

I checked the link. It's actually Canadian. For an Australian equivalent see the Bushfire CRC -

The US firefighters were very welcome indeed. As I remember it, last time they were added as individuals to the volunteer brigades to provide added professional expertise.

I would also be the first to admit that there are problems in the Australian system, more correctly systems, of the type that you refer to.I heard the first complaint of this type from country people over thirty years ago.

No system is perfect. But I think that there is gain on both sides in comparing systems.