Are planned communities safe from wildfires?

And, can we learn to adapt to fire?

Today I was reading an article about how the communities in Northern California are dealing with the risk from wildfire. One item that got my attention was where a “forestry and wildfire specialist” was quoted describing the Fountaingrove area of Santa Rosa which was devastated by the Tubbs Fire in October of last year.

…a housing development in a rural area that had been built following the highest fire safety standards. Vegetation had been cleared as required, and the homes were built of fire-resistant materials.

The article correctly stated that the development had been “reduced to ashes by the Tubbs Fire”.

“How could that have happened?”, I thought. Fire resistant building standards and cleared vegetation? Firefighters know that if those two characteristics can be checked off, a structure has a much better chance of survival. So how did the community get wiped out?

The Fountaingrove community is 4 miles north of the intersection of Highways 101 and 12 in Santa Rosa. The Tubbs Fire, the deadliest of the fires in 2017, burned into the north section of Santa Rosa, including the Fountaingrove area. It killed 22 people, destroyed 5,643 structures, and burned 36,807 acres.

map Pocket, Tubbs, Nuns, and Atlas
Map showing the perimeters of the Pocket, Tubbs, Nuns, and Atlas Fires. CAL FIRE October 15, 2017.

I would not call Fountaingrove a “rural area”. The thousands of homes there are very tightly packed, as you can see in the satellite photo below taken about five months before the Tubbs Fire.

Satellite photo Fountaingrove
Satellite photo of an area in Fountaingrove May 17, 2017, before the Tubbs Fire. Google Earth.

The next three photos are all of the same area, showing structures on Fir Ridge Road before and after the Tubbs Fire of October, 2017.

Fir Ridge Road
Fir Ridge Road area of Fountaingrove before the Tubbs Fire. Google Maps.
Satellite photo Fir Ridge Road
Satellite photo of the Fir Ridge Road area in Fountaingrove, June 16, 2017. Google Earth.
Satellite photo Fir Ridge Road
Satellite photo of the Fir Ridge Road area in Fountaingrove, October 17, 2017. Google Earth.

The photo below was taken before the fire, a few blocks south of the ones above. This home and all others around it burned.

South Ridge Road Fountaingrove
A home on South Ridge Road in Fountaingrove before the Tubbs Fire. Google Maps.

The Fountaingrove area burned in the 1964 Hanley fire. During the 53-year period until the next fire, the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the houses grew back along with a great deal of vegetation. Most of the homes have shrubs in the yards and multiple large trees, often between the houses that are very close together. Some of the structures are partially obscured from aerial photos by limbs hanging over the roofs.

It is difficult to tell if the homes in these photos were constructed of fire resistant materials. But it is clear that other Firewise principles were not being followed.

firewise wildfire risk home tree spacing
Firewise vegetation clearance recommendations. NFPA.

In a fireprone environment there should be no flammable material within 5 feet of a structure, and in the Home Ignition Zones 5 to 100 feet away, trees need to be 6 to 18 feet apart depending on the distance from the building. If on a slope, these distances have to be increased substantially.

An excellent video that elaborates on these principles has been produced by the NFPA. It points out that the areas in between the trees do not have to be nuked. But to be fire resistant they need to consist of green grass or fire resistant small plants, and should be raked or mowed close to the ground.

If a structure meets these Firewise guidelines, it stands a much better chance of surviving a wildfire. However, if the weather conditions are extreme, such as 60 mph winds and single digit humidity which can lead to spot fires igniting a mile ahead of the main fire, it can be difficult to save a structure.

Most homes are ignited not by the main flaming front of a fire, but from burning embers that land out ahead and start new fires. Likely receptors for these embers are leaves in a gutter, mulch, wooden decks, lawn furniture, attic vents, and accumulations of dead grass, pine needles, leaves, and other flammable material.

When a community is initially planned, the engineers may have done some things right, such as the design of the streets, and water systems. But if everything else is left up to the knowledge and discretion of developer and homeowner, very important principles might be ignored.

Fountaingrove did not meet all of the Firewise guidelines, but the streets were wide, making it easier for large fire trucks to access the structures. The very close spacing of the homes means that if one burns, the radiant heat alone can ignite its neighbor.

Other things to consider in mitigating the wildfire threat include multiple evacuation routes — if one becomes compromised by the fire, another could remain open. Large open spaces without flammable vegetation can serve as safety zones for residents who can’t escape. Backup electrical power sources that can keep pumps running so that community water tanks remain full can ensure firefighters have water at hydrants.

With the warming climate leading to extreme fires and fire seasons that are nearly year round, it is inevitable that deadly fires will strike many wildland-urban interface communities. Under the conditions we have seen in recent years, casually ignoring the threat will lead to more fatalities and property damage. It is not IF a fire will hit a fire prone area, but WHEN. The best solution is to learn to live with and adapt to fire, not ignore it.

Many factors can lead to an area being vulnerable to wildfire, including fire suppression leading to a buildup of vegetation, density of homes like at Fountaingrove, failure of homeowners to use Firewise principles, lack of community standards, insurance companies not understanding the issue, the federal government reducing expenditures for vegetation management and prescribed burning, lawsuits that halt vegetation management projects, and cutting the numbers of firefighters, air tankers, and Type 1 helicopters. When politicians take hold of just one of these issues while ignoring the rest, it can make it impossible to have a rational conversation about adapting to fire.

Discussions need to be thorough and nuanced, not politicized and influenced by industry that profits from using just a single, ill-conceived concept. And zeroing in on one vague term like “raking” and “poor forest management” simply confuse the general public when the complete picture is not illuminated.

Sierra Club argues against FEMA’s plan for the eucalyptus trees in Oakland’s East Bay Hills

The Sierra Club and the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund (SPRAWLDEF) filed suit on May 26 over plans by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fund a vegetation-management program in the East Bay hills that would increase fire hazards, threaten endangered species and native wildlife, and increase the financial burden on taxpayers.

“The best way forward is to promote native vegetation that is less flammable and encourages healthy ecosystems and greater biodiversity,” said Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter director Michelle Myers. “That’s a win-win for the environment and for homeowners who want to feel secure that they won’t lose their homes in another Great Fire like the one we lived through in 1991. Unfortunately, FEMA’s approach isn’t in line with the priorities of fire safety and habitat restoration.”

FEMA has over $5.5 million in grant money to disburse for vegetation management in the East Bay Hills from Richmond to San Leandro. These areas contain thousands of acres of highly flammable eucalyptus and non-native pines, which choke out more fire-resistant natives like oaks, bays, and laurel. Flying in the face of the best science and land-management practice, the Sierra Club said, FEMA has signaled its intention to fund a plan to thin flammable non-natives, rather than remove them entirely. The Sierra Club / SPRAWLDEF suit contents that this is the wrong approach.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups including the Claremont Conservancy, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, and the California Native Plant Society have all advocated for removing all of the flammable eucalyptus and pine trees over time so that less-flammable native habitat can reclaim those areas. In contrast to clearcutting, this approach calls for removing eucalyptus in phases, so that native trees — which cannot grow to full size underneath the eucalyptus canopy — are able to thrive. Mere thinning of eucalyptus and pine plantations in fact denudes hillsides to an even greater extent, as it requires the clearing of native plants in the understory.

Related articles on Wildfire Today:

Eucalyptus and fire
Wildfire briefing, March 11, 2015
A view of the potential in the Oakland Hills through the eyes of an Australian
20 years later, potential for another Oakland Hills fire?
Have some plants evolved to promote fire?
Wildfire news, February 1, 2009

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Barbara.

A view of the potential in the Oakland Hills through the eyes of an Australian

 

1991 Tunnel Fire
1991 Tunnel Fire. Screen shot from the Oakland Wildfire Prevention Assessment District video below.

The Oakland Hills, which was devastated by the Tunnel Fire in 1991, has some things in common with Australia. The most obvious is the eucalyptus trees, a species imported from down under. The volatile highly combustible oil in the leaves causes fires to burn rapidly under them and through the tree crowns. The eucalyptus contributed to the spread of the Tunnel fire, which killed 25 people, injured 106 residents, and burned 3,354 homes.

Christine Erikson has written about fires in Australia and authored a book titled Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty. During a visit to the United States in which she made presentations at conferences, she toured the Oakland Hills. Below is an excerpt from an article she wrote about the experience:

…I felt right at home amongst the swaying eucalyptus trees, which despite much controversy still stand tall in the Oakland Hills. Yet, unlike the ‘Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early’ mantra that is associated with living in eucalyptus dominated (i.e. fire-prone) landscapes in Australia, it was the continuing absence of an official policy on how to better prepare residents for future wildfires in the Oakland Hill that loomed large for me during the fieldtrip. What should residents do if evacuation is not a feasible option in the future? How can residents prepare so a similar disaster is prevented? These questions linger like ghosts at every twist and turn of the narrow, winding mountain roads where smoke, embers and flames resulted in accidents and panic that fatally trapped residents in 1991.

This ghostly presence clearly has not escaped the attention of the local Oakland Fire Department. In addition to official projects, the Department is now “unofficially” advising residents on what they can do to increase their chances of survival. Preparing properties in the Oakland Hills, however, is easier said than done. The recommended ten-metre clearance around residential homes is unrealistic in most of these neighbourhoods dominated by quarter acre blocks. A representative from the Oakland Hills Wildfire Prevention program pointed out that when these two-dimensional blocks are considered three-dimensionally, thus taking into consideration the considerable hill slope, these blocks become one-acre properties in need of defence. He furthermore spoke to the frustration of local building-, planning- and fire-codes not supporting each other. The statutory law of developing a given property, for example, sits within a planning code that does not necessarily follow local fire safety recommendations. 

The video below, produced by the Oakland Wildfire Prevention Assessment District, discusses the 1991 Tunnel fire and what the city is doing now to mitigate the vulnerability the area has to the next wildfire.

Eucalyptus and fire

Eucalyptus
Eucalyptus tereticornis’ buds, capsules, flowers and foliage, Rockhampton, Queensland. Photo by Ethel Aardvark.

Wildland firefighters in Australia and in some areas of California are very familiar with eucalyptus trees. They are native and very common in Australia and are planted as ornamentals in the United States. The leaves produce a volatile highly combustible oil, and the ground beneath the trees is covered with large amounts of litter which is high in phenolics, preventing its breakdown by fungi. Wildfires burn rapidly under them and through the tree crowns. It has been estimated that other than the 3,000+ homes that burned in the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire in California, about 70 percent of the energy released was through the combustion of eucalyptus.

Eucalyptus is one of three similar genera that are commonly referred to as “eucalypts”.

Jon Henley, a reporter who covered the numerous large bushfires a year ago in Australia, has written a book about fire down under, titled “Firestorm: Surviving the Tasmanian bushfire”. Below is an excerpt:

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“…Gum trees, as eucalypts are known, ‘are like weeds that come up on bombed-out blocks’, adds Jamie Kirkpatrick, professor of geography and environmental studies at the university. ‘They’re fantastically fast growers and great colonisers, but not great competitors.’

Eucalypts typically let through a lot of light, allowing other vegetation types such as scrub and grass to grow beneath them. They can live for maybe 700 years. But they won’t regenerate, Kirkpatrick explains, if what is growing beneath them over the years becomes too dense. Most eucalypt species, therefore — there are more than 600 in Australia, between 30 and 40 in Tasmania — have evolved traits that allow them to survive and prosper in the fires that will clear that undergrowth.

Some, like the mighty, 100-metre-tall Eucalyptus regnans — also known as the mountain ash, stringy gum or Tasmanian oak — hold their seeds inside small, hard capsules; a fire will instantly trigger a massive drop of seeds to the newly fertilised ground.

The myriad bright green buds that sprout spectacularly from the trunks of other eucalypts in the aftermath of a big fire are another kind of regeneration mechanism, bursting through the scorched and blackened bark within weeks of a blaze.

Within five or six years, ‘a burned forest will be looking pretty good’, Kirkpatrick says. ‘And a large proportion of Tasmania’s flora fits into this fire ecology. Pea plants, wattles — their germination is stimulated by heat and smoke. Fire is really, really important in Tasmania.’

At the centre of it all, though, is the eucalypt. Because these trees do not just resist fire, they actively encourage it. ‘They withstand fire, they need fire; to some extent, they create fire,’ Bowman says. ‘The leaves, the bark, don’t decompose. They’re highly, highly flammable. And on a hot day, you can smell their oils.’

The bark and leaves of eucalypts seem almost made to promote fire. Some are known as stringyor candle-barks: long, easily lit strips hang loosely off their trunks and, once alight, whirl blazing up into the flammable canopy above, or are carried by the wind many kilometres ahead of a fire to speed its advance.”

This is an edited extract from Firestorm: Surviving the Tasmanian bushfire by Jon Henley (Guardian Shorts £1.99 / $2.99)

Get it from Amazon Kindle or directly from Guardian Shorts.

20 years later, potential for another Oakland Hills fire?

It was 20 years ago today that a rapidly moving fire in the Oakland Hills east of San Francisco ravaged a community. Here is the way we describe it in our Infamous Fires Around the World document:

The “Tunnel Fire”, commonly referred to as the Oakland Hills fire or East Bay Hills fire, occurred on Sunday October 20, 1991. The fire killed 25 people (23 civilians, 1 police officer, and 1 firefighter), injured 150, and destroyed 2,449 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units. Eleven of the fire victims died in traffic jams on Charing Cross Road while evacuating. Eight others died on narrow streets in the same area. The economic loss has been estimated at $1.5 billion.

1991 Oakland Hills fire progression mapThe fire started when an ember from a grass fire the previous day blew beyond the fire hoses that were still on the fire perimeter and started a new fire. Houses, like the vegetation, have grown back and some of the residents that lived through the 1991 fire are worried when they look around and see that some of their new neighbors are not doing as much as they could to prevent another disaster.

Here is an excerpt from an interesting article in the Mercury News:

As autumn returned and the mercury hovered in the 90s in the Oakland hills, Milt Brown started to feel anxious.

Twenty years ago, on a scorching, wind-whipped day, he lost two houses in one of the nation’s deadliest and most destructive urban wildfires, an inferno that jumped two freeways, destroyed more than 3,800 homes and killed 25 people, including the Browns’ former baby sitter.

Although he tries not to dwell on the horrible memories — or the chance of another devastating blaze — Brown and other survivors of the Oakland hills fire worry that the painful lessons of that day are being forgotten. Or worse, they are being ignored by the many newer residents who didn’t experience firsthand the hell of Oct. 20, 1991. Even the subtlest signs of danger make him nervous.

“I’m looking at the two houses below me and the branches are touching the house,” Brown said from his perch on Buckingham Boulevard — less than a minute’s walk from where the fire erupted on a hot Sunday morning. “I’m in a box canyon. If someone throws a match in there it will set the whole block off.”

But it isn’t just those who lived through the Oakland hills fire who are anxious about what they fear is a growing complacency that has built up alongside the stately homes in these steep, once-woodsy enclaves. Fire officials say that time has not only given rise to dense stands of fast-growing and fire-susceptible eucalyptus on public lands, it has also given vegetation on private property throughout the hills 20 years to mature. It often takes a second notice before residents take heed and clear a defensible space around their homes to protect it from fire.

Thanks go out to Dick