Fighting Extreme Fire Behavior

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Experts warn firefighters in California are facing fires that are more unpredictable and dangerous than ever.

“These fires are getting to the point of where the behavior is so extreme there’s conditions and behavior, fire behavior that firefighters have never seen before and that’s a problem,” says Edward Smith, a forest ecologist with The Nature Conservancy California Program.

Smith says the behavior has been changing so rapidly firefighting materials are becoming obsolete faster. One example is fire spotting, “Embers get picked up and they’re burning and they get blown through the air they’re going longer and further distances than they used to go on the charts that these firefighters have in these handbooks have to be updated frequently.”

He says lot of fuels to burn are contributing to extreme behaviors like fire tornadoes, “Just think about a fire that’s rolling in circles up in the air and throwing embers in all directions,” adding this results in, “bigger fires with high-intensity effects, where a lot of vegetation gets burned up, a lot of homes get burned up and they’re almost impossible to contain.”

Smith says we are partially to blame for the mega-fires that are becoming more frequent in our state, “A lot of that has to do with some of the decisions we’ve made about taking care of the landscape, taking care of our home and also the effects of a warming climate.”

Smith says their fire management program is working to pinpoint danger zones to prevent disasters, “What we do is figure out places where we can invest effort, energy, and money into reducing the fuels and reduce the number of trees and brush and shrubs and small trees in forested areas where those trees have grown up as a result of putting out fires in the past. And this is where it gets complicated, we’ve been suppressing, we’ve been putting out fires for the last 150 years and as a result we have a lot of small trees out in the forest where there used to be very few large trees so we’re trying to thin out some of those areas that have the highest risk of big fires starting up but also where we have values that we care about that might be damaged by that fire.”

He says it’s critical people do their part around their properties too like clean out gutters and clear vegetation around their homes and most importantly not put themselves and firefighters at risk if they’re asked to leave, “If we’re anticipating the types of conditions that we have now and aware of the extreme behavior that’s likely to happen, we’re better prepared to evacuate and take care of ourselves and be safe.”

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