Thursday, December 21, 2017

SoCal Wildfires And Controlled Burns

As huge swaths of SoCal burned up recently, I wondered why the state hadn't done more burns to deplete the fuel for the fires in a controlled manner and prevent these conflagrations. I did some research and found out a couple of interesting facts.
  • Because of how dry SoCal is and the requirements to safely do controlled burns, there are only about two weeks a year when you can do them.
  • The firefighters who do the burns are under contract for only 6 months out of the year.
  • Air pollution regulations consider the smoke from controlled burns to be man-made particulates, making it hard to get permits to do the burns.
  • Unlike the South, where controlled burns are the norm, in the West, we have followed a path of all-fires-are-bad and so there hasn't been much political support for increasing the amount of acreage burned.
The end result has been an accumulation of massive stockpiles of fuel in scrub and forests. One site claimed that, due to decades of build-up, the heat and size of the inevitable wildfires are beyond what can be contained.

Another interesting fact I pulled up is that under controlled burns, the flames aren't allowed to get much more than a foot high. The big trees get singed, but not burned down. The idea is to use fire to get rid of the flammable detritus on the forest floor.

Global Warming Climate Change may or may not play a role, but it's what is getting all the blame. Instead of that, it looks to me like we should have put a lot more effort into burning out the fuel stocks and less into worrying about air pollution and funding high-speed rail to nowhere. In the end, the air got polluted anyway and the cost of the damage was massive to the state.

On the plus side, we will soon have connected a couple of tiny, rural towns with high-speed rail service. Massive wildfires are a small price to pay for that!


Kelly the little black dog said...

Twice we've had controlled burns in New Mexico when we shouldn't have. Both fires got out of control. People died and whole downs were reduced to ash. And the fires burned for months. There is a good reason for only doing controlled burns when the conditions are right. As for air quality concerns blocking burns, not all of that is up to the state. Federal standards play a significant role in their constraints.

Foxfier said...

In addition--there is a major difference between a controlled burn in a managed area, and in one that hasn't had any upkeep since the early 90s.

About half of the really bad fires up in my folks' area of Washington, for the last two decades, have been "controlled burns" that were handled poorly. (About half of what's left are "natural" burns they allowed to spread.)

Because they aren't on managed areas anymore, you can see the difference between the fires in the 90s and the fires now-- now, the ground is visibly sterilized.

Various water restrictions hurt, too, though not in the obvious way-- there's been a drive to put all the water that's allowed to be used in either pipes or cement-bottomed ditches, rather than the old gravel or clay bottomed ones, which means there *isn't* the wider, wetter areas that use to slow down (and smoke out) the wildfires.

And don't get me started on refusing permission to remove dead, infested trees.