The origins of the Santa Rosa wildfire

Are we asking firefighters to do the impossible in containing wildfires without eliminating contributing building factors?

For most firefighters, the sights, sounds, smell and fury of the current California Wildfires are beyond our comprehension. There are at least 22 separate wind-driven fires currently throughout the state, with the worst being centered near Santa Rosa and the Napa Valley regions. These fires have resulted in over 20 deaths, 3,500 structures destroyed or damaged, and total devastation so severe that returning citizens cannot find landmarks or streets to find their way back to their own homes. Over 8,000 firefighters are reported to be on the fire lines.

California wildfires are almost a yearly event. For as long as there has been a California, there have been wildfires during the dry season – some caused by nature, such as a lightning strike – some by human carelessness, such as a camp fire not properly extinguished – and some intentionally set by arsonists. But how do these fires grow to this magnitude? To answer that, we need to take a look using an historical approach.

Rise of the Fire Scope command system

A San Diego Cal Fire firefighter monitors a flare up on a the head of a wildfire.
A San Diego Cal Fire firefighter monitors a flare up on a the head of a wildfire. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP)

On Nov. 5, 1961, the Bel Air Fire caught the attention of the country. It was a fast-moving fire fueled by dry tinder and fanned by the Santa Ana or “Devil” winds just as the current series of fires. But the Bel Air became notable to the public for two separate reasons:

  1. The Bel Air fire was the first to be captured on television and broadcast around the country on a relatively new daily phenomenon known at the Nightly Network News.
  2. In addition, Bel Air was noted to be one of the first neighborhoods of the stars and many of the approximately 500 homes destroyed belonged to movie and television personalities.

But from a fire service standpoint, the Bel Air fire marked a turning point. Heavily criticized for the lack of command and coordination at this fire, the California fire service produced a system called “Fire Scope” that provided the first true large scale command and control system that not only coordinated the fire attack, whether from ground forces, air units or task forces consisting of several engines, but also devised a method of rapid deployment of additional resources to combat these wildfires.

Fire Scope drew these resources from across the state and deployed some units either directly to staging areas near the fire scene, or directed units from a further region to move toward the fire but to then back-fill empty fire stations at strategic locations in order to maintain adequate coverage.

Fire Scope was also the forerunner of the Fire Ground Command system developed by the Phoenix Fire Department in the 1970s for use on structure fires, which then morphed into the “all hazard” Incident Command System or ICS that post 9/11 became the National Incident Management System, or NIMS.

Along the way, Cal Fire also consolidated and reorganized into the largest single fire service entity in California. More recently, Cal Fire developed a fire triage system, whereby fire units can quickly determine which structures are defendable and which – due to a combination of construction, location, lack of water and weather conditions – cannot be saved.

Oakland, Calif. brush fires consumed 800 homes an hour

Probably one of the closest fires that mirror the devastation of the current Santa Rosa and Napa Valley fires occurred on Oct. 19, 1991, in Oakland, California. Oakland had experienced massive brush fires in 1923, 1970 and 1980, but the 1991 fire proved to be the worst of the lot.

It began as a small fire on a hillside that firefighters quickly contained, but embers stayed hidden in a thick area of pine needles and sprang to life again in the evening when the Santa Ana winds grew stronger. These winds changed direction several times overnight, each time spreading the fire in a new direction, and the narrow lanes on the hillside made it nearly impossible for fire equipment to make access ahead of the fire.

At its height, the Oakland fire consumed nearly 800 homes an hour. In just that one day, the fire took 25 lives, including one firefighter; injured some 150 others; destroyed over 3,000 homes; and burned 1,500 acres before being contained.

Common conditions contribute to wildfire spread

What each of these fires has in common are the conditions that make the underbrush dry as tinder:

  • The relatively high air temperature,
  • Low humidity,
  • Strong Santa Ana winds, and
  • The continuous construction of new residential neighborhoods in otherwise pristine wildland areas.

Many of these homes continue to be constructed with wooden shake roofs that are susceptible to the large burning embers that travel on the winds ahead of the main fire and doom the house by setting the roof afire. While wood shake roofs add to the rustic look of the area, defendable homes usually have tile, asphalt or metal roofs.

For many years, Californians in these urban-wildland interface areas were also able to remove the nearby underbrush and create a firebreak for their home by several prescribed methods. One of the more popular was known as “disking.” Using a tractor equipped with a series of discs similar to those used in farming to plow under old vegetation and turn the topsoil, disking was later prohibited for fear it disturbed the habitat of the indigenous wildlife in an area.

As the current California fires continue to rage, we need to stop, honor and pray for the safety of those firefighters who are on the line trying to achieve containment to this devastation. But at the same time, are we asking these men and women to do the impossible? We grieve for the victims who died in these fires and empathize with those who lost their homes, but if we continue to construct these types of structures surrounded by such kindling and susceptible to these winds, can we expect any other outcome? History and nature are emphatically telling us “No!”

Stay safe!

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