It can’t happen here.
Yes, it can. And the Lake Christine Fire was the rude awakening needed to burst that bubble. Now that we know we aren’t immune to these terrifying wildfire events, what do we do about it?
The next wildfire is not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “when.” Accepting this inevitability is the first step. The Serenity Prayer offers wisdom to guide the next:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”
Knowing the difference is key. Where can we effect change and where can’t we? We don’t know where the next wildfire will start, what direction it’ll spread, how fast it’ll move, nor how severely it will burn. So, we should just fireproof the whole valley to eliminate any risk, right? No. It’d be prohibitively expensive and do unacceptable damage to local ecosystems. Plus, history shows this radical approach not only doesn’t work but also makes the inevitable fire even worse.
Our decision space — where we can effectively make change — is in taking measures to reduce our homes and communities’ vulnerability to wildfire. Though the next fire is inevitable, losing homes and lives is not. The data is clear — home protection happens out the back door, focusing on the structure itself and fuels in the immediate vicinity. It basically boils down to reducing/eliminating your home’s ignitability. If it won’t ignite, it won’t burn. The good news is, you don’t have to live in a concrete bunker surrounded by gravel to increase your home’s survival chances.
Definitive research from the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Science Lab in Missoula, Mont., tells us that the factors that determine a home’s survival are local, within 100 feet of the home in the Home Ignition Zone. The HIZ is comprised of the surrounding fuels and the structure itself. The idea is to break up the continuity of fuels between surrounding wildland fuels and the fuel of the structure itself. Tree canopies should be spaced widely enough to prevent crown-to-crown fire spread. Shrubs should be pulled back from structures and ground fuels like grasses should be irrigated, kept short and away from the sides of buildings, overhanging decks and wood piles.
Counter-intuitively, most home wildfire losses don’t occur because a flame front spreads like a wave across the landscape and into the urban/suburban environment consuming everything in its path. Rather, wildfires spread into the built environment via ember storms, dense showers of sparks driven by high winds that form drifts in the nooks and crannies of homes. If they collect on flammable decks, shake shingle roofs or gutters clogged with leaf or needle litter, home ignition occurs and it’s adios.
Next time you look at news photos of homes burned in wildfires, look at the surrounding trees. More often than not, the leaves or needles are singed only on the side facing the house. Otherwise they are green and intact. The burning house singed the trees, not the other way around. What you may also see is a line of homes reduced to ashes surrounded by intact trees — a vulnerable house ignited then the fire moved house to house, down the line. As communities in the Wildland Urban Interface, either we mitigate together or burn together.
Pre-disaster community planning is also essential. Most importantly, this means swift, efficient and effective alert systems and adequate access and egress along roadways. Subdivisions with narrow, one-way in/out roads are death traps both for residents and first responders who may risk entry. In the early hectic moments of the Lake Christine Fire, the roads were so choked with traffic that firefighters trying to respond were immobilized.
The take-home is that we are all individually responsible for the fuels immediately around our homes and the ignitability of the home itself … and for ensuring that our properties don’t pose a threat to our neighbors. But we are also collectively responsible for ensuring that thoughtful and pragmatic emergency plans are in place and that have community buy-in and awareness, well in advance of any actual wildfire disaster.
Certainly, many of us watched in horror as the Camp Fire swept out of the northern California hills to obliterate the densely populated foothill town of Paradise. The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. It killed 86 people, injured 18, burned 153,336 acres, destroyed 18,804 structures and is estimated to cost $16.5 billon. And, according to an investigative article in the LA Times from Dec. 30, 2018, “Here's how Paradise ignored warnings and became a deathtrap,” much of that loss of life and property was preventable. The article states: “In the aftermath of the Camp fire … local and state officials said the tragedy was unforeseen and unavoidable, an ‘unprecedented’ monster of fire … In truth, the destruction was utterly predictable, and the community’s struggles to deal with the fire were the result of lessons forgotten and warnings ignored.”
Look up the article and digest it. It’s a gripping, horrifying hour-by-hour tale of calamity. Paradise was lost and much of it may have been preventable.
We too live in paradise. Let’s learn the lessons of Paradise, Calif., and prevent our own paradise lost.
For guidelines on protecting your home from wildfire, see Firewise.
Arriving in 1984, Shoemaker has lived in communities throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, finally putting down roots and raising a family in Carbondale. Having recently stepped down as Wilderness Workshop’s executive director after 20-plus years, he’s still wondering what he’s going to be when he grows up. This column may be a start.