California Fire: A US tale of annual annihilation and rejuvenation
Major newspapers around the world use attention grabbing headlines such as “California is Burning,” “Power Lines Burning the West,” and “Biggest fire in History Rages in California” almost every year.
The latest was “Relentless California wild fire leave 79 dead, nearly 1,300 others still missing.” The culprits this time are two major fires still not fully under control, one in Southern California that is destroying the heavenly homes in Malibu and the other located in Northern California near an area with the most unlikely and ironic name, Paradise City. Many dump the ill-fated fire in the north as Paradise Lost.
Celebrity homes catch fire but a perspective is needed
Since it is California, celebrity millionaires make news even amidst these losses especially in the Malibu coast. One celebrity whose property was affected by the recent fire is Bruce Jenner who was famous in yester years as an Olympic athlete and a pitchman for the breakfast cereal Wheaties. He is now she and is in the news as a transgender ‘female’ media personality Caitlin Jenner after his famous and most public sex change.
Properties of reality TV icon Kim Kardashian, Hollywood icons such as Kim Baisinger, Pierce Brosnan and Robin Thicke, crooners like Lady Gaga, and Mylie Cyrus appear to have been affected in the destructive path of the fire.
Statistics pour in by the minute. To date, the two fires have claimed more than 1,000 sq. km. of land roughly one-third the size of Ernakulam District. But the statistics need to be evaluated in perspective. With a land area of nearly 430,000 sq. km., California is 12 times as large as the State of Kerala. In fact, it is as big as the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh combined. So, the fires, however extensive they appear on TV and however devastating they are to the affected, are confined to a miniscule part of the large State of California.
The losses are real and painful, however. This was hardly the time to point fingers as President Trump discovered when he correctly pointed out the mismanagement of forest services as a reason for recent fires. He also hinted at the need to restrict the flow of federal funds to the broken system in California, another point needed to be made. But he did so while people were suffering immensely and searching for help, any help. The parental instinct of admonishing errant children in self-inflicted distress with an “I told you so” could have waited until after recovery from the calamity on hand.
How does it feel to be surrounded by raging fires?
How do we who live in California cope with these natural disasters and still enjoy the many positives that clad our lives in this magnificent but quirky state? The smell, taste, feel and horror of fires are a whole lot different from the TV depictions when one faces it around the corner in your neighborhood.
My first encounter with the wildfire was when I was training for the Surf City Marathon in Orange County in Southern California. I was on the running trail November 15, 2008 straddling Santa Ana River at 5:00 AM as usual. This river is a small stream that winds its way into the Pacific Ocean from inland region. It is usually dry but would roar with rage when it rains hard in the eastern mountains. The cool morning air and traffic-less track that is some 60 km long provide a tranquil training ground for runners and bikers. And a group of us was running along keeping pace with each other.
Suddenly, the air became unbreathable and my throat began to scratch. Something was wrong, my teammates said. Could it be a fire nearby? The smoke got thicker and the air filled with debris as we ran eastward, almost directly into the fire. The orange glow of the flames towering over the mountain tops became visible soon. We turned back and began running away towards the ocean. And the air quality improved. Little did we know then how devastating the aftermath of our early morning exposure was going to be.
It was the beginning of an overwhelming fire that engulfed dozens of expensive homes in the cities Corona and Yorba Linda along.
Like hurricanes and tornadoes, fires are also named in California. The fire we encountered early that fateful fall morning would be named “Freeway Complex Fire” and a secondary fire started along the same path would be dubbed “Landfill Fire.” Together the two fires burned down 30,305 acres or 123 sq. km. of prime land and residential areas along the river trail in the cities of Corona and Yorba Linda. Corona was the fastest growing city in the US at that time and Yorba Linda, one of the most expensive residential areas in the State. When the fire was finally put out, some 314 residences were destroyed including several homes on my list of consideration for purchase.
In Yorba Linda, fire came very near the home of my running coach. She had to grab a few valuables, mostly family photographs, memorabilia and financial records and flee to a faraway shelter. Many homes that were landmarks on the running trail were burned down. The coach’s house was eventually saved, thanks to the firefighters. She returned home after a week of living with relatives. After eight years, her memories of doom and gloom have faded but the dangers of another fire in this vicinity remains as dire as before.
The following year I would purchase a house in Corona. My home is on the eastern slopes of the Santa Ana Mountains separating the coastal Orange County from the hilly inland territory of Riverside County. Perched on a tall mountain side we have a clear view of the towering and sometimes snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains to the north and the picturesque Big Bear Mountains on the east. The beauty hides the beast lurking behind.
Canyon catches fire again
In the American lingo, a canyon is the deep crevice between escarpments or cliffs between mountain endings or ranges. The only way to travel by land from the eastern Riverside County to the western Orange County is through Santa Ana Canyon that divide the Santa Ana Mountain range from the Chino Hills that are to the north. In between is the Santa Ana Canyon and the gentle slopes of the canyon is the cities and hamlets of the region that houses the increasing population of Corona Valley.
The mountain sides are beautiful. In the semiarid landscape of California, winter rain, although sparse, brings new sprouts. The marine layer, moisture evaporated overnight from the nearby Pacific Coast hovering over two dozen miles into the landmass, also contributes to the sustenance of the greenery. The usual sunny and warm weather along with abundant nutrients on the mountain side keep the slopes green and the shrubbery thick.
The spring season is mild but dry. The summer months of June, July and August are very dry and hot sucking every bit of the moisture from the greenery around Santa Ana Canyon. When I drive through the canyon highway, I can feel that there is danger lurking in the once green now gray mountain side, time bomb ticking slowly waiting for a spark. And the spark comes from a careless camper, a family frolicking with fireworks or rarely an arsonist with a stick of matches ready to inflict mayhem on the residents.
The terror of fires linger on far beyond the time they are contained by the fire fighters. After the deadly fires come the winter season starting in December. With no shrubbery and stabilizing plant roots, the soil on the mountain sides are loose. The nooks and crannies soak up rain water. The occasional small quakes in this seismically active region shake loose the soil resulting in huge mud slides on the slopes of mountains onto the unsuspecting valley dwellers. The spectacle of landslides is an unfortunate aftermath of the destructive fires from the previous season.
The drive from my home to work is a little over 20 miles, a mere 20 minutes without traffic. An eight-lane highway winds along the river is the morning and evening trek for me every working day. On fall day in 2016, the morning started normally but when I drove to the ‘91 freeway’ as the highway is affectionately known locally, the traffic snarled to a stop since the eight-lane pathway had been reduced to three lanes. I could see black plumes of smoke billeting from the mountain side.
Only when I drove closer I could see that there was a fire. It was relatively small and the fire fighters had not just yet started working on it. Two hours later, I was having a meeting in Orange County some ten miles away, I saw the small plume of smoke had now filled the whole area. The smell of smoke was everywhere and visibility had become low. The phrase ‘to spread like a wild fire’ was apropos in that in just two hours, the fire had engulfed thousands of acres of wilderness and destroyed dozens of homes in nearby housing tracks.
The ‘91 freeway’ was closed almost immediately because of its proximity to burn spots making my return trip to home a 60-mile detour meandering through the northern passes and winding their way to beyond where the fires were burning. The fires were brought under control a week later. By then dozens of houses were lost. Fortunately the fire remained on the western side of the Cleveland National Forest sparing the homes on the eastern slopes where I live.
How does the fires spread so fast?
Wild fires are often compared to combustion-powered hurricanes. The fires create a central column of hot air in the middle similar to the funnel shaped core of a hurricane. In northern hemisphere, the central column of hot air and smoke spins counter clockwise similar to what happens in a tornado. The hot air rises fast sucking in a torrent of cooler air from underneath to follow the plume of rising hot air. Only the resistance provided by the earth’s rotation prevents the tornado like flume from pulling the entire air mass from the region.
The collapse of the fast moving firestorm may also occasionally collapse similar to a soft ice cream cone that fall to the floor and spread over an area much larger than the initial scoop. When this happens, fire spreads over a very large surface area on the ground almost instantaneously causing spontaneous combustion of everything in its range. Humans cannot devise any defense mechanisms to prevent these events once they reach such disastrous proportions.
The twirling vortices of the fire is able to lift heavy combustible materials as tree limbs and other sundry debris still with a lot of fuel power for continued burning. These are then deposited by the funneling torrents to places miles away. Such wind carried burning debris ignite where it is deposited spawning more fires far away from the original hot spots.
In California, fires in the fall season (September through November) often have an added force behind them, the twirling Santa Ana Winds that blow from the desert to the coastline. They resemble the Vrischika kattu (വൃശ്ചിക കാറ്റ്) referred by the old timers who correctly identified the idiosyncratic seasonal but powerful winds that blow in the month of Vrischikam (വൃശ്ചികം). In Kerala, these winds make the torrential rains of South Western monsoons to dance and dance as though the plumes of rain showers are intoxicated out of control. In California, the fierce, random and dry Santa Ana winds make the fire columns to waltz through canyons and mountain slopes. During such waltzes, the direction in which fires spread is unpredictable but they will spread and will do so with the force of the wind behind them igniting new fires farther and farther away from the original source.
It is a legitimate question to ask why we hear about wild fires now more than ever before. The anti-Trump media in the US and elsewhere may want one to believe that his staunch stance against the Paris Climate Accord and his ambivalence about the legitimacy of the so-called Climate Change are partly to blame. They trumpet their grievances. What if he had signed the accord and poured research money into studying climate change? If Trump had done these things, California wild fires would not have happened.
Then, one may ask why the technology that tamed the space and established instant global communications cannot fix the problem of wild fires. The Atlantic quotes Park Williams, a professor at Columbia University and a frequent commentator on wild fires in the US, “We think that we as humans should be able to dominate this phenomenon of wildfire. And in reality, we can’t. Even though we can put a person on the moon, and even though we can create this global computer network, we can’t. This is a natural phenomenon that is similar to the ocean in that it is really big, that it is much larger than us when it really gets going.”
There is some evidence to indicate that power transmission lines that dot the wilderness scenery often start wild fires. A large tree toppled from its base due to wind or age could fall on to power lines. The catenary would swing bringing wires closer than their permitted separation for proper insulation thus causing sparks. A broken wire falling to the ground too could ignite a spark that then sets fire to dried brush in the vicinity. In general, power lines only cause fire when things go wrong above ground.
A 2012 study by the Edison Electric Institute revealed that underground cables had fewer problems during storms and were better for public safety all around. Burying all power lines is not practical in California with its 210,000 miles of overhead electrical lines. The cost of underground high voltage transmission lines is about $1 million at the low end and many times that in remote mountainous areas. This is five to 10 times what it would cost to hang overhead power lines. So, the underground option is practically impossible.
With humans encroaching wilderness by droves each year, the power companies may have to rethink their choices. In an environmentally sensitive populous, Californians do not want nuclear power or coal power, definitely not in their backyard. Just three years ago, the local activists closed down San Onofre nuclear power station in southern Orange County. This power generating station was close to the population center of coastal communities and so, all the generated power could have utilized locally. Removing the generating station involved seeking alternate sources through the power grid to meet the needs of a population hungry for electric power. Today, power comes from faraway places like Arizona where restrictions are not as stringent as California but making transmitting power over long distances and over wilderness unavoidable.
The population growth in the State has also played a critical role in bringing housing closer and closer to the traditional areas ravaged by fires. What was once remote outposts are now mainstream human habitats. Suburbs have merged into cities and cities have transformed into huge metropolises. Since 2006, California’s population grew by 12% to a record 40 million inhabitants now needing more houses and more services such as schools, hospitals and shopping centers for the residents.
Such is the official count of legal residents. Then there are the illegal component. One can legitimately dispute whether it is the 15 million illegal residents in the US claimed by President Trump or whether the 12 million figure claimed by the mainstream media is accurate. However, with nonexistent immigration enforcement policies, sectarian racial politics favoring illegal immigration and the existence of Sanctuary Cities, there is little dispute that the overwhelming majority of the illegal population resides in California.
Therefore, as many as 25% of the population in some regions could be illegal aliens exacerbating the demands on housing. With dwindling livable space and rising property values, illegal (and legal) residents are pushed away to live closer to fire prone areas.
Regardless of the actual cause of wild fires, man-made policies and decisions have influenced how these fires impact human life.
Hardly a new problem
Wild fires have been raging in California for centuries. In the days when news was conveyed through morning newspapers that had competing interests and therefore, had to choose whether to cover a local politician over wild fires in a faraway land, the local politicians always won over. And, the fires would have been relegated to an obscure corner in the inner pages commanding at best a casual glance from even the most astute reader. Those innocent days are gone forever. Today, since we have many more outlets for news beyond the morning paper, news of California fires become a hot commodity because of engaging pictures and video clips with the added ability to instantaneously share this tragedy in its full fury.
We tend to forget that equally damaging fires have engulfed California ever since gold was discovered and the American population moved west.
The worst fire that burned San Francisco happened during December 1849 and June 1851 during the height of the California Gold Rush. There were seven fires in all during this period, the sixth one being the most destructive. It is reported that arson in a paint and upholstery store in May, 1851 triggered this fire. The swirling wind took over from there. The wood-plank sidewalks of downtown San Francisco provided extra fuel. Before it reached the Pacific Ocean waterfront in about 10 hours, the fire burned down some 2,000 buildings in the city- nearly 75% of the then a burgeoning new city in the emerging western frontier.
Almost fifty five years later, San Francisco would be struck again in April 1906 by devastating fires following a 7.9 magnitude earthquake triggered by the plate movement of the infamous San Andreas Fault. Some 3,000 citizens died and over 28,000 structures were burned down. A great deal of doom and gloom hovered over the city making the San Francisco native and famed author Jack London (1876-196) to note, “Surrender was complete.” All of this happened half a century before the Paris Climate Accord was conjured up or Mr. Trump was born.
The fires of 2018 are beginning to be under control. Humans eventually win these fights but that is only after Mother Nature takes what is owed to her. She grudgingly allows the humans to have a fake sense of final success. Californians are searching for a more robust management of its forest resources so that the yearly cycle of fire, rain and landslide can be interrupted. There are no easy answers here but to leave the wilderness alone and live far away where wild fires would not intrude appear to be not an option.
(The author is professor of electrical engineering and computer engineering at California State University, Fullerton and a native of Ernakulam. He resides in Corona, California)