Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on January 2, 2018.

New Fires, Old Assumptions

We need to challenge wildfire’s orthodoxies if we want to have any hope of addressing the problem. Herewith, two good places to start.

The October wildfires in Northern California, the most destructive in terms of structures burned in state history, provide plenty of fodder for reflection. According to the California Insurance Commissioner, more than 4,700 residential properties were destroyed in the blazes—including five percent of the homes in the city of Santa Rosa—and another 10,000 residences were damaged, according to the Los Angeles Times. The state’s insurance commissioner expects total losses to push beyond $3 billion. Tragically, the fire also killed more than 40 people, many as they tried to escape. In the days and weeks that followed, media and policy wonks pitched blame and churned out neat solutions to our wildfire problem. Articles pointed to climate change, building practices, suppression capability, dispatch center “failures,” emergency communication limitations, forest management, and more.

We understandably want quick answers and clear solutions so we can feel whole again. But before we rush to find answers, we should pause to consider whether we’re even asking the right questions. While there are plenty of areas worthy of serious thought, I’ll offer two places to start.

We need to adjust our expectation that every wildfire can be extinguished.

Across the nation, we extinguish 98 percent of wildfire ignitions in their initial stages, a feat mainly accomplished by local fire departments. The remaining two percent overwhelm that response and become the fires we see in the news.

The usual knee-jerk solution to these bigger wildfires is to say that we should increase our suppression capabilities. But California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection already has more air resources than most nations, as well as a highly capable staff. Perhaps it’s time we admit the reality that suppression capabilities will never be adequate to control every fire, and adjust accordingly. This new mindset could lead us to build more fire-resistant housing, adopt smarter land-use practices, and put fewer firefighters in harm’s way. In other countries, wildland firefighters do not even carry burn-over fire shelters because they would never be deployed, at least in theory, in situations where they would need one.

We need to reassess the wildfire risk faced by urban and suburban communities.

Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood was not designated as a high-risk area on the city’s wildfire risk maps, and thus was not subject to regulations that make buildings more fire resistant. So a lot of people were surprised when more than 1,000 homes in the neighborhood were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire in October. As one resident told the Los Angeles Times, “We live in a subdivision in the middle of freaking Santa Rosa.”

That may be, but wildfire’s dynamics mean that, if you live in a fire-prone area, fire will eventually find you, whether you reside in a subdivision or a cabin in the woods. The “very severe” zone was five miles away, but that didn’t matter to the embers that showered into Coffey Park and sparked an urban conflagration. Our maps may be right in predicting the odds of where a fire might burn, but we need to do a better job of explaining them to the entire community. Residents need to understand that just because they don’t live in a high-risk area doesn’t mean there’s no risk. As Santa Rosa and many other communities can attest, “urban” does not equal safe. It simply suggests another type of human environment that can be threatened, and destroyed, by wildfire.

Challenging presumed orthodoxies like these is important if we hope to change anything in how we coexist with wildfire. The least we can do is ensure we aren’t fighting the next wildfire with old assumptions.

LUCIAN DEATON is project manager in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division.