Fire in Southern California: How Close Are We to the Edge?

My report from the Ventura County Reporter. This was filed literally the morning the Day Fire broke out, so my timing couldn’t be beat, and, I’m proud to say, the story stands up to the reality of what ensued quite well. In an attempt to entice you to read it, I’m going to copy over the opening and a picture. Here goes:

    On my office desk sits a small blue and white cup. I use it to hold paper clips.

    Once glossy and smooth, now it’s badly damaged — cracked, charred, chipped and smoked — but I will never give it up, because it’s the only thing left from the fire in the Oakland and Berkeley hills that fully consumed my father’s home in October of l991.

    Everything else — family photos and paintings, silverware, glassware, a dishwasher, even a heavy cast iron stove — was incinerated.

My father was away, perhaps fortunately, perhaps not. In fact, he was visiting me and my family. We had moved to the Ojai area a few months before. When he heard the news about the fire, he was on the way to LAX, but he was not able to get home in time to help.

    Even after he returned to the East Bay, he was not able to get close enough to see the charred foundation that remained for two full days.

That fire, which burned about 1,600 acres, and killed 25 people, was so hot some houses exploded in flames even before the fire reached them, set off by temperatures that reached at least 2,800 degrees, when cast iron will catch fire and burn.

    The Ranch Fire, was a similarly wind-driven fire that burned through a corner of my back yard here in Ventura County in l999. It went on to consume 4,400 acres in Upper Ojai and Ojai, costing over $4 million to fight. Though mild by comparison, it had flames as high as 20 feet. Folks around here still talk about it.

    We all know these kind of wind-driven fires could happen again. In the infamous “fire siege” of 2003, the Santa Ana-fueled Piru and Simi fires burned through 170,000 acres of Ventura County in just a few days. Statewide that week in October, wildfire blazes seriously wounded 216 people, and killed 22. Since l970, 12 of the nation’s 15 most deadly and destructive wildfires in history have hit California, and every single one of those infernos was powered by the hot dry winds of late fall and early winter commonly called the Santa Anas.

    This is “the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse,” wrote Joan Didion in a memorable essay on the Santa Anas. “The violence and unpredictability of the Santa Anas affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds show us how close to the edge we are.”

    She was talking about Los Angeles, but the history of our region offers plenty of examples to prove Didion’s point. Although the Cedar Fire in San Diego three years ago is the single largest on state record, newspaper accounts from 1889 detailed a drought-fueled fire in what is today Orange County that was probably three times as large, and Native American legends from several tribes in the San Diego area recall a mass migration hundreds of years ago driven by what may have been an even bigger fire.

    So when, in July, I saw several stories in the newspapers suggesting that climate change could lead to a greater risk of fire in the West, an alarm bell went off in my mind. The time had come to look at the dangers we face. It’s scary enough already. Could it get worse?

Mug_from_my_fathers_house

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