California’s Must Choose Between Uncontrolled or Controlled Fires

Florida had over 2 million acres of prescribed (aka controlled) burns in 2017 and California had 87,000 acres of controlled burns in 2018.

Georgia has 1.25 million acres of controlled burns and Alabama had 944,000 acres of controlled burns.

California had 1.9 million acres of forests burned from wildfires in 2018 against the 87,000 acres burned in controlled fires.

State and federal firefighting agency experts say California should allow more fires that don’t threaten the public to run their natural course. What’s more, they say fire agencies should conduct more “prescribed” burns. Controlled fires are deliberately set, under carefully controlled conditions, to reduce the fuels for wildfires.

California has over 147 million dead trees. About 1 million trees get removed and 15-20 million trees are dying each year.

UC Berkeley fire ecologist Brandon Collins brought me here to show me the consequence of decades of fire suppression combined with climate change. This forest would usually burn nine times over the course of 100 years, but no fire had blazed here since at least 1908. “Without fire, you’re going to have these dense stands no matter what,” Collins says.
In 2014, the King Fire hit this unnaturally overgrown forest, leaping into the canopy and racing across a vast landscape. Limited patches of high-intensity fire would be natural in these forests. But in 47 percent of the 97,717 acres burned in the King Fire, the blaze was so hot that it killed nearly all of the trees.

About 18.6 million trees died in 2018, mainly the result of dehydration and beetle infestation, according to new estimates from the U.S. Forest Service. That pushes the total number of dead since 2010, shortly before the five-year drought began, to 147 million.

Data collected by McClatchy and Climate Central shows that California is barely making a dent in using fire to reduce the problems in forests. By some estimates, many of the state’s forests have up to 100 times the amount of small trees and underbrush than what grew prior to white settlement. Researchers estimate that prior to 1800, some 4.5 million acres of the state’s forests burned in a typical year — more than the 1.9 million acres that burned in 2018.

California needs to burn 2-5 million acres a year. This should be controlled burns instead of wildfires.

This level of burning needs to be near the historic levels. Almost the entire 33 million acres of forests needs to be burned every 10-20 years. More sensitive areas near populations need to be thinned and managed without fire.

34 thoughts on “California’s Must Choose Between Uncontrolled or Controlled Fires”

  1. A. Yes, I think you’re proving my point here. Building with concrete and steel solves the roof vent issue. Carpet is still a problem if a window breaks, which is why we need to keep fuel sources back from the building.

    Lot size:
    B. I can understand why you might have this impression. but I live in California, have lived and traveled and shopped for homes in various parts of California, and this is not true. Most places in California have a setback requirement which place the building at least 10 feet from the front or back of the lot (and even if there’s somewhere with a 6 foot setback in the front, after that is simply… street, not trees). For side yards, most homes would be no closer than 5 feet from the neighboring lot. So I’m saying this means that they should not have any trees or significant fuel in this space. They should build the sideyard fence out of concrete, brick, or more affordably, concrete brick. They’ve got some cinder blocks with nice reds and browns that wouldn’t look out of place.

    It is true that land in anywhere desirable is godawful expensive, but outside of a few urban areas, cities haven’t responded to that by letting people build right up next to the lot lines.

  2. The 747 is not ours. It is owned by a company and the plane could be anywhere in the world at any given time. We can’t just call them up and immediately get them to a fire. It is also slow to fill up and has to use large airports:
    There is a long list of firefighting aircraft in their booklet, but only a fraction of those are actually on call to be used and most carry a small load of water/fire retardant:
    We have 1 DC-10 but it can only drop 12,000 gallons. These Chinese ones I want California to buy hold more water than that 747 and scoop it from the reservoirs very quickly. The pamphlet lists the Martin Mars seaplane but I don’t think we have any of those anymore. Even if we did, it would be limited to 7,200 gallons. Those Chinese seaplanes can scoop up 26,000 gallons and fly slow enough and low enough to put it on the fire.
    California mostly is using airplanes that hold 1,200 and 800 gallons of retardant:
    And helicopters:

  3. So my comment was to hard for this forum?

    Now a shorter to see if that will get true the censure.

    I just show the physic that show why desert radiate more energy to space than forest and that California was most desert 200 years ago.

    And suggest modern high temperatures nuclear for production of all that no produces from oil more expensive than $20/bbr and how California could avoid wild fires.

    But California have few people with physic knowledge and many science denier as climate activists so you have to go on with solar wind power cut and wild fires.

    So gave I a link to the interglacial before with 2,5 C higher global avdragare temperature and 8C higher during 6000 years on Greenland.

    Early in this interglacial it was 2C higher global average temperature and 6C higher om Svalbard, that was the most life friendly climate in this interglacial.

  4. Most cities in california now require non flammable roofs and exterior siding. But that is often not good enough. sparks and flame can get in through any roof vents. And radiant heat from the flames goes right through the windows and canignites the interior of the structure. And with land as expensive as it is in California most homes don’t have enough land for a 10 foot fire break on all sides of the building.

  5. Keep in mind that florida gets on average 55 niches of rain year and most places get measurable rains in each month of the year. On average humidity levels average 70% all year long. And much of the forest fuels rot on the forest floor.

    California in contrast gets on average 20 inches of rain a year and 90% of that falls in 4 to 6 months of the winter. The summer months are hot and dry with no measureable rain. Humidity levels in winter in many places 50% but in the summer it is much dryer with humidity of only 20-30% in the dry months. When Santa Ana or Diablo winds are blowing humidity drops to 10%.

    The result of this weather difference is that controlled burns are easier to do in florida or much of the South East. And if the controlled burn gets out of control you can count on rain to help put it out.

    In california it is hard to do a reasonable controlled burn. Depending on the location the winter rains may make the ground to wet to start a fire. In the summer you cannot do controlled burns because the fires can easily get out of control and you cannot count on rains or humidity to help fight the fire. That means the best time to do controlled burns is in the late fall. unfortunately that is when the dry Santa Ana and diablo winds are the stongest.

    it is often easier to send crews on the collect and pile up forest fuels and cover them with a tarp. Then in the inter remove the tarp the light the pile. That means more people and more time needed.

  6. california is using 747, DC10 and DC9 aircrage that have been used for passanger and cargo transport. All Are jets. These are mainly used to were the fire is advancing. They work very well be they cannot gets as close to the ground or fly through narrow vallies

    Smaller aircraft and helicopters are also used to target smaller areas of the fire. Can drop water very close to fire fighters on the ground and can fly in terrain that larger aircraft cannot reach.

  7. There are no crosswinds. These are seaplanes. They can take off or land any direction they want. The more wind you have, the easier, as you takeoff into the wind and need less speed and thus have less drag from the water.

    I know I am going against prevailing wisdom. That controlled burns and logging are the answers. But the only real reason we have so many bad fires is the humans causing them by intention or negligence. It is perfectly reasonable to acquire the tools to put out fires quickly before they spread.
    By analogy, you could get some sledgehammers and dent the crap out of your new Dodge Hellcat, as it would greatly reduce the chance that it will be stolen. I just think it makes more sense to have better surveillance and police on the job.

  8. On a dry runway, a Boeing 737-800 has a maximum allowable crosswind component of approximately 33kts (38mph).

  9. The cool thing about starting from scratch is that, if you wait long enough, all the old housing stock will burn down and give you lots of empty new lots :).

    I don’t have a solution to small lots in the middle of the woods though. But at least we can stop zoning them that way going forward. Small lots inside the city where protected, for density, big lots outside the city for lebensraum. And people can choose which one they prefer, or can afford.

    I suppose, technically, you could institute a land management program where any home that burns down is automatically available for eminent domain, that way the state can modify lots after the fact. It wouldn’t be popular.

  10. What ye sow, so shall ye reap. Don’t allow nature to self-regulate? Build in wilderness areas? Push middle class and lower into suburbia with high property and rents? This is what you get…

  11. Use modern high temperature nuclear for electricity, synthetic fuel and all other things we get from oil more expensive than $20/bbr.

    200 years ago California was most desert that radiate much more energy to space for the fact that out radiated energy increases with the power of four to the temperature.

    Transform desert to forest is the human activity that increase global temperature the most.

    But we live in an ice age, 5C lower average global temperature than before, 2C lower than the beginning of this interglacial and 2,5 C lower than that before.

    If people in California was smart they get modern nuclear and effective fire protection.

    But they are not…

  12. Hog wash. There are no “very high winds” in California. Very rarely 70mph and that is with a winter storm (and fires are not normally associated with winter storms). Santa Ana winds are rarely ever over 40 mph except in the mountain passes. Airplanes capable of going over 350 mph are not deterred by even 100 mph winds. 820,000 lb of water in one drop:
    Winds are not blowing down power lines. The winds are knocking down rotting trees that are hitting power lines.

  13. I lived near Eglin Air Force Base in Florida when I was much younger. That’s a heavily forested (with pine and live oaks) base that is very nearly the size of Rhode Island. A big part of its mission is as a test range for explodey things. They take fire control very seriously. Hardly a day goes by when there isn’t a controlled burn taking place somewhere on the reservation, yet I don’t recall any wildfires, and certainly not that threatened anyone.

    Animals love the place, btw. In fact, Steve Erwin (a.k.a. The Crocodile Hunter) filmed there several times, so apparently all those controlled burns aren’t destroying the ecology.

  14. There are web sites that detail how to build a (nearly) wildfire proof house. Unfortunately, you have to start from scratch and they are not inexpensive, especially considering the amount of land you have to have to do it right.

  15. True, I was thinking of a suburban development where you’d just have a handful of trees in back or front yards, not thick stands. In a more rural, heavily wooded setting, yeah, they’d need a few hundred feet or more. A redwood can be 100 meters tall. You’d have to be at least that far away just to avoid it falling on the house. But then, you really could build a concrete bunker.

  16. It’s a scam. California Fires are big business to the tune of billions that must be spent each year in use-it-or-lose-it wages to Cal Fire, CDC, Forest Service, BLM, and to other County and Municiple fire crews. A young person out of highschool is paid straight wages 24/7s while on a fire, and that includes overtime pay and per diem.

    It is not usual for firefighters to make their regular $5K to $8K monthly wages plus another astounding $8 to $12K per month in Overtime pay. And when one fire breaks out anywhere, there is a shuffle of fire crews across the State so that everyone is on firecall. These same seasonal workers often live cherry off their wages plus many also draw unemployment when the season is over — so there is plenty of incentive to keep the fires burning and the billions flowing.

    California had the slowest fire season back when Schwartzeneggar was Govermator and banned overtime pay for all stateworkers… maybe it’s time to bring him back as a State Fire Marshall.

  17. pass a law saying no trees or dense vegetation is allowed within 10 feet of a building

    I think you’ll find that 10 feet, or even if you meant 10 metres, is still not enough to save any building that isn’t a thick walled bunker.

    If you’re dealing with full conflagration of thick stands of trees, you’ll need more like 100 metres to avoid any normal house getting enough heat radiation to explode windows, ignite curtains, melt electrical wire insulation etc.

  18. So, why isn’t anyone talking about addressing this with building codes and city planning?

    I mean, update the building code to use materials that aren’t fuel. Concrete. Tile roof on a steel frame. That sort of thing. It doesn’t have to look like a bunker, you can cover it with siding and paint it any color you want. Just not wood siding.

    Oh, I know, some of you are thinking that concrete crumbles under extreme heat, and steel frames buckle too. Sure. But at least the building isn’t made of fuel. And if you want you can pass a law saying no trees or dense vegetation is allowed within 10 feet of a building. Little bushes and lawns won’t provide enough fuel to damage the concrete. Any new neighborhood built to this code is a big firebreak. Lone concrete houses in the hills can ride it out (well, the residents should still head off to a hotel for awhile, to avoid the respiratory hazard).

    Rural communities could also push a denser development model. Stop zoning spread out developments in the hills and forests. Start zoning the town center for more density. Then surround it with a big fireproof town wall, medieval style.

    Sound like too much draconian state control? This is California, the big regulation state. So we might as well legislate with some integrity. Adapt the building style to the local climate. But no, we love our wood-sided, asphalt-roofed stick house exurbs so freaking much.

  19. Every other state manages to do this. Controlled burns have the fire department right there and are done on wind free days with higher humidity.

    But then again nobody can usually be blamed for massive wildfires so just let the inferno rage.

  20. I have to disagree. Firefighting can work. We just need seaplane tankers to put out the fires. We are using wimpy stuff now. Mostly we are using helicopters and small runway airplane tankers.
    When the winds kick up you load of some seaplanes with water and fly above the power lines. If they see a fire they can douse it very quickly.
    You want infrared satellites also that can identify and pinpoint a fire immediately.
    Everyone acts like it is impossible to to stop these fires until they run out of fuel…that just is not true.

  21. What I would like to see is a devise that can get in there and take a dead tree and shred it then char it, and leave it right there. Though you can push it over with a tractor and char it in a pit or some kind of oven as well. This retains the collection of CO2 from the atmosphere, and the nutrients remain available.
    Charring is not combustion, so there should be much less CO2 released. Some must be released because the charring machine/oven will require energy to heat the wood, bark, and roots (most of the roots can be charred as well. tractors have no difficulty pulling up the stump with the larger roots). When the wood is cooked, it gives off gasses that can be collected and used to power the ovens. The gasses can even be distilled and separated into different grades of fuel to fuel the tractors and such. This is not entirely pie in the sky:
    When we leave it to rot, a lot of methane as well as CO2 can be produced. This can make your tree impact worse for global warming than having no tree in the first place because methane is much worse than CO2. With the dead stuff cleared out more trees can grow. And you have the increased fire risk obviously.

  22. The problem with controlled burns is that they sometimes get out of control. Do you want to get the blame for burning someone out of their house?

  23. The obvious choice is uncontrolled fires because there is much less legal liability and no environmental law to work around.

  24. But Halsey said prescribed fires don’t help much of the rest of the state. The fire that tore through Paradise showed how ineffective clearing underbrush can be — it roared across 7 miles (11 kilometers) that had burned just 10 years earlier.

    “It was still grasses and weeds and shrubs, and that’s the model these prescribed burning advocates have used,” Halsey said. “They say if we have younger fuels on the landscape, we’ll have less fires or lower intensity fires, and we can use those areas to protect communities. And that has never happened in wind-driven fires.”

    The state acknowledged in a draft environmental impact report that clearing vegetation may not slow or halt extreme fires.

  25. Yes, the state of California is to blame. Ridiculous pixie green policies leave the state wide open to death by fire.

  26. Better yet, with so much wood waiting to be burned, California could set up a biomass electricity generation industry big enough to completely eliminate the hazard. Bring the ashes back as a fertilizer and well manage the trimming of the forest to double the wood growth and the CO2 absorption to the earth. Boy, California can create a model that will save the world.

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