The Why Files The Why Files --

Up in smoke? Lessons from the California fires

California's burning: 2007 edition
Blonde woman sits atop charred pile of rubble, distraughtLast week's fires in Southern California grew with astonishing intensity, fanned by near-record Santa Ana winds. An estimated 518,000 acres -- an area larger than New York City -- was scorched, along with more than 2,800 structures. At least seven people were dead, and about one-half million evacuated at the height of the flames. The economic cost has long since passed $1 billion.

Brandi Aurelio in the remains of her home in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., Oct. 28, 2007. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

The 2007 fire season was nearly as destructive as 2003, when the largest fires in the history of Southern California obliterated 3,500 houses. Wildfires and burning houses have also taken center stage in Central California and the Northern Rockies, where a construction boom is fueling a frenzy of concern about the wisdom of living in beautiful places where fire is practically inevitable.

Red dots indicate wildfires on coast of Southern California. Click for high res. image
Satellites show smoke from wildfires in Southern California spreading over the Pacific Ocean. Fires are outlined in red. Photo: October 22: NASA/MODIS Rapid Response

The focus of concern about western wildfires occurs at the wildland urban interface (WUI), where houses are built on large lots on land dominated by trees, shrubs or grasses. The WUI is booming: From Maine to Montana to California, people are pouring foundations in the wilds: In California alone, 5.1 million people live in the WUI, says Volker Radeloff, a forest ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies California. Nationally, 38 percent of houses are in the WUI, he adds, although much of this land does not face wildfires in today's climate.

Suburban neighborhood at night, wildfires blazing over distant hill
Santa Clarita neighborhood in Los Angeles County, October 21, 2007. Photo from Wikipedia

The 2007 fires showed the predictable risk of development in fire-prone areas, Radeloff says. "When [Gov.] Arnold Schwarzenegger said this was a tragedy, he was right. But when he said the big problem was the wind, he was wrong. No, this is a man-made problem."

We got to wondering about some specifics:

Is global warming making Western fires more severe?

Can society respond by putting buildings in safer locations?

What makes a house fire-resistant?

Is global warming fueling the wildland fire crisis?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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