‘It can happen to you. When you think it can’t, it can happen to you.’

By: Erika Soderstrom

A seemingly pleasant summer day on July 23rd turned dark in Shasta County, California, as the Carr Fire ripped its way through the county.

The Carr Fire, which would soon become the eighth most destructive fire in California state history, destroyed 1,079 residences and killed eight people. The town of Keswick, located in Shasta county was nearly completely wiped out, leaving just two out of fifty homes standing. The Carr Fire created a fire vortex which generated winds of 143 miles per hour and stretched the length of three football fields. The fire started due to mechanical failure of a vehicle. That, combined with record heat and dry conditions caused the Carr Fire to spread quickly.

Steve Bustillos barely escaped the Carr Fire with his life after the fire vortex hit his neighborhood. “I’ve seen a lot of things in my life but it was weird. Seeing the trees with nothing on them, the ground barren, and, at the time, pieces of my truck still on the side of the roadway,” he said.

Sarah Kline returned to her parents property on Nov. 3rd, it was her first time viewing her parent’s property since the fire vortex hit her neighborhood. Kline left with her parent’s on July 27th. “Everything is ash,” she said. “My father came here over and over again looking for his wedding ring and he never did find it,” she added.

“It was probably the scariest event I have ever been in, in my life,” said Redding Mayor, Julie Winter, who became Mayor of Redding Dec. 2018. “I felt, as the mayor of a city, I should’ve be been a little better prepared and the message for all of us was, ‘It could happen to you. When you think it can’t, it can happen to you.’”  

These are just a few of the thousands of stories behind the Carr Fire.

Months later, on Nov. 8th, during a seemingly calm morning in Butte County, California, the Camp Fire sparked terror as the fire took eighty-five lives and destroyed the entire town Paradise, California. A dry forest accompanied by strong winds, overwhelmed emergency responders as they tried to evacuate as many residents as possible. It is now the deadliest fire in California state history.

“There was just one story after another that was impossible to forget,” said Kirk Johnson, a New York Times National Correspondent in the West, in an interview with The New York Times’ Podcast The Daily.

This is a brief story of two wildfires that impacted California in 2018 alone. On a list of California’s top twenty most destructive fires, eight of them, nearly half, have occurred between 2017 and 2018. Eight of the most destructive fires in the history of California have occurred over the past two years. Wildfires are changing. They’re become more intense, more destructive and more lethal, and there are a couple factors as to why.

The Environment

Megafires, such as those seen most recently in the Camp and Carr Fires, are fires that have burned at least 100,000 acres of land, and they’re occurring more often.

Due to a century of fire suppression efforts in the west, there’s build up of dead vegetation and overgrowth of trees, ripe for burning. Climate change is a major influencer too, due to warmer temperatures year round and drought, fires have the ability to burn more intensely.

Another reason is a growing Wildland Urban Interface Zone; the regions where urban areas encroach on wildlands. Nearly half of the people in the Western United States live in such zones, according to a Western think tank, Headwaters Economics.

Experts agree that finding concrete solutions will depend on addressing the root causes. In the interim, local, state and federal officials are trying to piece together solutions from what is known about these catastrophic fires.

Solutions

One way to ward off megafires is by reintroducing fire to the west, which was once a major part of the landscape a century ago. Native American communities once utilized this method of controlled burns on their lands. That ended centuries ago, due to federal legislation that made it illegal to ignite fires on public forest lands in 1911.

Ashland is not exempt from these potential megafires either, as it sits in the Wildland Urban Interface, similarly to the Carr and Camp fires. Historical studies indicate fires were once a part of the landscape, dating as far back as the 14th century, according Chris Chambers, Ashland Forest Division Chief. A lack of fires allowed for more trees to grow that would have been burned down from low intensity fires throughout the year. After discovering fires once played an active role in the landscape, officials began introducing controlled burns to the environment, shortly after in the early 2000s.

However, reintroducing fire to a landscape that hasn’t experienced it in a century is proving to be difficult and expensive. The forest went from fifty trees per acre to “well over a hundred and seventy five trees per acre,” said Chambers.

Without controlled burns, certain plants that might have been burned during a low intensity fire grew into large trees, providing more fuel in the event of a forest fire. “...there's not a textbook on how to do it [controlled burns],” said Chambers.

Beyond the initial difficulty of bringing fire back to a landscape that hasn’t experienced it, there is also the added costs to consider. One acre of controlled burning, which entails burning small trees and bush and dead ground vegetation, rounds out to cost approximately $1,100 to $1,200, according to Chambers. Add that cost per acre to a landscape that has not seen fire in a century, and the end dollar amount becomes expensive quickly. While there is an inflow of funding from federal, state and city dollars, as well as opportunities of sending specific trees to the mill, costs still remain high.

“On the flip side of the cost is, you have to look at the benefit and the avoided cost. How much you spend per acre on fighting wildfires? It varies, but if you look across a lot of different fires, it's a pretty big number,” said Chambers.

Emergency Notification Systems

Due to miscommunication, overwhelmed 911 centers and electrical issues during the California fires in Shasta, Butte, Napa and Sonoma counties, evacuation orders and communication became disordered. Emergency notification practices and systems have taken the attention of the media.

“That’s the one of the big lessons I think everyone learned from Paradise, Carr Fire, as well as the fires in Napa and Sonoma counties last year,” said Michael D’Orazi, Fire Chief for Ashland Fire and Rescue. “Evacuation is one of the major highlights of everyone’s concerns right now,” said D’Orazi.

In the summer of 2018, Ashland introduced a new free community notification system named Nixle to sign up to receive text, voicemail and email notifications regarding “ ongoing issues, major events, air quality advisories, evacuations, and all emergencies affecting town,” according to the City of Ashland Website. Such notifications can be sent for by selected administrators, Ashland Fire Department being one of them.

The Nixle communication system has also captured all the the landline numbers within Ashland. If a major event were to happen, all landlines could be notified.

Beyond signing up for a communication application system and having a landline there are an additional three emergency communication options available. One of which is a siren system set up in the plaza downtown, the upper end of Granite Street, on Oak Street by the Wastewater Treatment Plant, and at 1910 on Highway 99. Though there are a handful of sirens in Ashland, it is limited to those that can hear it. In addition, there is a 1700 AM radio station that allows for citizens to listen to emergency alerts.

Finally, there is the IPAWS system. Which can be used by federal, local, state, tribal and territorial authorities can use to issue emergency notifications to all cell phones within the area, regardless of whether or not residents have signed up for a notification alert or not.

“You have to realize that evacuations don’t necessarily happen at, you know, in the daytime. They can be in the middle of the evening, they can be in the mornings, they can be in the weekends…” said D’Orazi.

Through hearing the stories of those impacted by these megafires, and discussions with experts that face these challenges on a daily basis, it is clear that the harmful side effects of these fires are extensive. Beyond the devastating loss of life and the destruction of entire communities survivors are affected mentally, emotionally, and even physically. These fires are complex in nature and there is not one clear, single and easily obtainable solution. And these fires are likely to continue to erupt. Communities that are susceptible are planning for the next megafire that may well affect their town.