Southern California Fires Demand New Techniques in Fire Science

The fires in Southern California are genuinely different than in the rest of the United States, breaking the well-established rules of fire control developed elsewhere in the country. Research into what makes these fires so different is critical to more effective firefighting.

Illustration for article titled Southern California Fires Demand New Techniques in Fire Science

Fires in Escondido, California on Thursday May 15, 2014. Image credit: Gregory Bull/AP

I know what you're going to say, because several already said it in the comments: Clear firebreaks! Build with stone! Set controlled burns! Southern California is different. Those techniques either don't work in the unusual geography, or aren't earthquake-safe. Read on to learn why you really shouldn't scoff at California for being so flammable.

Southern California is coastal desert with more deserts inland, not at all like the mountainous forests that regularly catch fire in other parts of the country. This geography leads to Santa Ana winds that drive fires over firebreaks. Meanwhile the chaparral scrublands don't respond well to controlled burns. Not only do the controlled burns not reduce the risk of another fire, but flat-out removing vegetation just causes invasive weeds to grow that burn hotter and faster than the native plants! Luckily, a research program is dedicated to looking at just fires in Southern California, learning how they're different and using that statistical data to develop new plans on how to best mitigate the risk.

Last year, the United States Geological Survey produced an educational video on just why fires in Southern California are so different than elsewhere, and how they're using data to develop new strategies in fire prevention and fire science. Given the severe drought in California and the potential for a hot El Niño summer, let's hope some of the science helps firefighters generate ideas for more effectively combatting fires this summer.


If you dislike learning via video, the USGS also provides a full transcript you can read instead.


Read more about the project here. Tip via Ben Young Landis, thank you! Try your hand at fire suppression as an emergency manager in the UN disaster simulator.


Video credit: Produced by the USGS. Archival news reel footage by the UCLA Film Archive. Fire footage by Photo One Productions, Bay 6 Productions and the Orange County Fire Authority.



Desert? No! It's a Mediterranean climate: wet winters, dry summers. We've got the same fire issues in California that Spain and Greece do, not that the Sahara (or Arizona) do.

As for protecting houses during Santa Ana events, the best thing the experts recommend is defensible space around buildings: making buildings and the landscaping within 30' of them (ideally within 100' of them) as non-flammable as possible. There are whole protocols for this (Google Fire-safe), but a lot of people don't do it. Note that this is a 90% solution: even the safest homes (unless they're totally non-flammable, like hobbit holes) do burn on occasion. Still, it's the best solution anyone has come up with.

As noted above, mass clearance of the vegetation simply doesn't work. Kudos for reporting that. There are always calls for wide-scale clearance of wild vegetation, in part because there's money to be made doing clearance.

Finally, it's worth noting that most chaparral plants survive fires once or twice per century, not every decade. The plants are as much a victim as the homeowners in these fires, and many plant species are disappearing from southern California as a result of all these fires. Right now, 95% or more of fires in Southern California are human-caused. Fires used to be a lot less common.