“Into the Wildfire”

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The Story

“Into the Wildfire”
by Paul Tullis
The New York Times Magazine, September 19, 2013

The Pitch

Every summer in the west, wildfires cause hundreds of millions of dollars of damage: 2009, California: an area the size of 9 Manhattans burned, $125m. 2010, Colorado: $210m. 2011, Texas: 5500 homes and buildings. 2012, Colorado again: $352m. The Dept. of Agriculture spends $2.2 billion every year on fire prevention and suppression, and the Forest Service’s fire plan budget has quadrupled since 2000.

Fire managers across the West–tasked with coordinating firefighting efforts based on empirical research, local conditions, and often simply their own experience and gut feelings–say these fires are acting in ways they’ve never seen before: slow-moving burns that grow at will and resist all known containment efforts–often without being fed by any significant wind.

These big changes in fire behavior are occurring just in the last several years, and though climate change is the chief suspect, they don’t really know what’s causing it. Humidity remaining low overnight in zones bordering activefires could be a factor, as it certainly didn’t used to be the case.

US Forest Service researchers can’t do anything about the weather, but what they can do is learn how fire spreads using new technology and the laws of physics. Previous models of fire behavior are all based on empirical data, so fire managers have been forced to just extrapolate from what they’ve seen before onto the new, extreme conditions. A scientific approach, though, can extend beyond the range of data at hand; the laws of physics are constant. So in a lab in Missoula, MT, Mark Finney and colleagues are creating different uniform conditions of the new, climate-change-altered western forests and setting them on fire to understand how the new superfires spread. Finney has a full machine shop to build custom equipment–apparatuses for experiments on convection and radiation as heat transfer mechanisms. They put the fuel in a chamber, create the weather conditions they want to replicate, and use the machines they’ve built to spread heat and fire in various ways.

I asked Finney if he’s finding out anything that’s different from what they thought. “Everything is different from what we thought,” he said. “People have no idea how fire actually spreads.” Grasses and pine needles, for example, won’t light by radiation–they have to be ignited by contact. “That is absolutely contrary to the models people have long adhered to,” Finney said.

Fire ecologists, meanwhile, are examining different landscapes across the West to see which are most susceptible to getting out of control. They’re advocating for not fighting some of the fires in less-susceptible areas and under non-extreme conditions: less-severefires destroy “ladder fuels” which, if they burn when it’s hot and dry, spread to the bigger trees and cause a fire to get out of control. With results of Finney’s experiments in hand, the theory goes, they should be able to allow only non-severe fires to burn, and keep them contained.

Giny Chandler doesn’t want to hear any of that. She’s the chief counsel for CalFire, the California agency that fights wildfires. With the wild-urban interface spreading in California (and elsewhere), a change in wind direction can send one of these less-severe fires toward populated areas, and that can mean damages, deaths and lawsuits. CalFire’s no-fire, no-how approach butts up against the ecologists’ theory, and while it may protect some homes in the short term, it’s probably contributing to bigger fires in the long term. Living at the edge of civilization, with wild, undeveloped territory your backyard–recreating, essentially, the iconic frontier days except with all modern conveniences–is an attraction to hundreds of thousands from San Diego to Sun Valley. Choosing a fire fighting policy, it seems, will either doom many of these homesteads to conflagration, or force owners to uproot and turn back. Already, fire insurance in these areas of California–from Laurel Canyon to the Berkeley Hills–is subsidized by the state; no insurance company will take on the enormous risk, whatever the premium.

As one of the thousands of evacuees from the 1990 Oakland fire, which killed 26 and torched 3800 homes at a cost of $1.5 billion, I know first-hand the chaos that ensues and how lives are ruined when drought, flame and sprawl mix. I’ll be the first to report from Finney’s lab, and I’ll spend a day in Sacramento and Davis, CA to talk to Chandler and the fire ecologists who disagree with her. Then, when a major fire strikes the west this summer, as it’s certain to do, I’ll look over the shoulder of fire managers to see what they’re doing, and how Finney’s research might help. I’ll have all the other elements in place before then so we can run a piece with stunning visuals from the fire and Finney’s shop while the news is still fresh, pushing the story forward with exclusive coverage of the research efforts to prevent the next fire disaster.

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