California Fires 101: 9 things to know


My most recent book, DISORDERLY CONDUCT, Maggie McDonald and her family are racing to get out of the path of a deadly firestorm started by an illegal campfire.

If you live outside our state's boundaries, it might be hard to picture what that’s like. Our climate and terrain make these fires unlike those in any other state. Here are a few introductory facts.

1. We make an extreme effort to manage our forests well, including periodic controlled burns to reduce fire hazards and protect species that depend upon fire to complete their lifecycle.

2. "California Forest Management" is specialized. Even if we clear-cut and paved over our forested lands (which we can't do because most of our canyons are too steep and too deep), it wouldn't solve the problem (see Santa Rosa, Paradise, and Ventura) and would create more problems than it would solve (see flooding and mudslides that follow the burns.) Irrigating every inch of forest wouldn't work either (see the devastation of irrigated vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, and Southern California.)

3. California’s climate is not like that of other parts of the country. We get zero rain between May and November, so air, ground, and vegetation are all dry, dry, dry. In the fall, we get wicked wind storms—things that might be called hurricanes if there were any rain associated with them. Most of the creeks and rivers in our forests are bone dry six months out of the year. (And that's in years with NORMAL rainfall). That means ALL the water for fighting these fires needs to be trucked or flown into remote staging areas before it can be carried by humans into even more remote fire areas.

4. While some of the fires have been caused by illegal campfires, including those set in illegal marijuana grows on remote federal land, fires are easily started by the sun shining on broken glass from a discarded beer or soda bottle, or even sparks from a dragging muffler.

5. When you think of California land, think of remote, steep wild land, not urban skylines or suburban home tracts. Think of the most treacherous scenes you've seen in thrillers on television and in the movies. California's wild hillsides have been stand-ins for Afghanistan, Korea, Vietnam (which is ridiculous), Tibet, Mars, and most of the remote planets you've seen in Star Trek and Star Wars. If your screen depicted nasty, impossible to navigate dry terrain, you were looking at California.

6. Even with all those challenges, our residents and our fire-fighters are savvy when it comes to fire. We've developed techniques and predictive models that have been used all over the world to lessen the danger and speed the containment of fires. But the recent firestorms are just that. Raging storms that create their own weather and defy existing models. Frustrated scientists have turned to recording as much accurate data as they can, hoping that, sometime in the future, they can look at trends and develop new models. Chances are, climate change will happen fast enough to outstrip their efforts.

7. Climate change? In most of the years I've lived in CA, we've been able to count on rain for Halloween, with additional storms occurring regularly through May or even June. We used to be able to ski in July. Some years, parts of Yosemite never opened due to too much snowfall. But it's November 10, and there's no rain in sight. Ski seasons wrap up in April now.

8. We're not complaining. We live here because we like the climate. We know the dangers. We roll with the punches. But to have someone with zero scientific education who is afraid of rain telling us he knows just how to solve our problems is ludicrous. Think about that. Think about the disasters that befall your state. Will he dismiss them? Diminish them? Tell you how to handle them? Withhold funding because he's in a snit? Count on it.

9. Withholding emergency funding from California is a bad idea. We are one of the few states that contributes more to the federal budget than we take out. The US needs us more than we need it.