Horrible. Devastating. Disaster. Destruction. A monster.
These are all words regularly used to describe wildfires. In newspapers, on television, by broadcasters, by homeowners, and (most vocally) by politicians. Last week, a YouTube video of a family's harrowing nighttime escape from their home during the Valley Fire in California went viral. Smoke swirling in the dark, embers glowing on the hillside and blowing across the road, power lines swooping down in low arcs across the roadway, and the occasional ball of orange light that was obviously someone's home engulfed in flames all combined for an eerie effect that any Hollywood special effects specialist would be hard-pressed to replicate. The comments on the video and news sites described it as "Hell on Earth." Well, not really.
Here's what I saw through the lens of a fire scientist:
1. Fire behavior that was actually fairly moderate. Throughout the video, you can occasionally see the shadows of some taller pine tree against the backlit sky. None of these trees were on fire, and the mass of the canopy tells me they hadn't burned up yet. Most of the fire was on the ground, burning up grass and the low hanging oak trees that dot the valleys in this part of California. If the fire had been in the crowns and running, the videographers might not be alive to tell the tale. For an example of what a running crown fire looks like, here is a video taken by a camera set up by our research team back in 2003 in Montana, on the Black Mountain 2 Fire. At the time, I worked for the USFS Fire Behavior Assessment Team, and we set up equipment ahead of advancing flames Twister-style (although not quite so dramatic). You can tell that fire is incredibly powerful based on the roar (the sound of oxygen being sucked in at a very high rate) and the fire whirls - the fire was creating its own microweather.
2. The hottest burning elements of the landscape were the homes. Yes, the hillsides were glowing, but they are mostly covered with grass and leaves, which burns quickly and at lower temperatures. The balls of flame were square and stationary, indicating they were houses or other man-made structures. Tree don't burn like that. I don't know what the homeowners around Anderson Springs had done to make their homes more resistant to wildfire. Maybe they had implemented all the FireWise recommendations, like using fire-resistant roofing and siding materials, creating an area completely clear of vegetation in a 30-foot ring around their home and then thinning vegetation for 100 feet beyond that, and making sure woodpiles were set far away from the main structure. Maybe they did all that and their home still burned. But statistics suggest that most hadn't done those things, making their homes a roman candle waiting to be lit. Social science research on this topic has found that most homeowners in fire-prone areas are either in denial that they will ever see a wildfire, or they simply don't translate this understanding into effort. They truly believe firefighters will save their home. The owner of the Valley Fire escape video told one news agency that there was no aerial support, no firefighting effort at all. In a year when too many firefighters have already been killed trying to protect homes, this sort of statement makes me angry. It's just a house. And there was no aerial support because it was NIGHT, and it is incredibly unsafe for aerial support to try and do their already extremely dangerous job at night, when it is even tougher to see. Don't misplace a lack of preparedness on fire fighters.
3. Next year, the vegetation burned by the Valley Fire will regrow green and healthy. Most of the oaks in this part of California are fire-sprouters, meaning that even though they look black and dead now, within a few weeks, new leaves will uncurl from their trunks and the tree will live on. Grasses will regrow from roots, and be excellent forage for wildlife. An ecosystem that evolved with frequent wildfire will rebound just fine.
In a couple of years, the only evidence that there was a large wildfire here will be some blackened tree stems, some cat faces on trunks, a bunch of brand new homes, and whatever remains of the homes not rebuilt. There will be memorials to the lives lost -- civilians who made tragic choices not to leave that we are hard-pressed to understand.
What I saw in that video was fire doing what it has ALWAYS done, particularly in this landscape: burn flammable vegetation that has evolved to burn as part of a regeneration and propagation evolutionary strategy. To me, it was normal, and at some points, an impressive demonstration of nature. The only thing horrendous and awful were the homes in flames, but that had little to do with the fire, and everything to do with homeowner choices. When will we finally begin to stop demonizing fire and start demonizing the homeowners who simply choose to ignore that they live in a fire-prone landscape? It's time to stop ignoring science and start taking responsibility.
Crystal Kolden studies wildfire as a function of human and climatic influences. After starting her career as a wildland firefighter in northern California, she is now a professor of Pyrogeography at the University of Idaho.