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.
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 millionFinally, 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?