What’s Natural? A Look at Wildfires

Jim Steele writes: I am excited to announce my local weekly paper the Pacifica Tribune has added me as a columnist. Every 2 weeks I will post my column “What’s Natural”. The publisher has 5 other papers in the SF paper which might also carry the column. To publish a more skeptical and scientific opinion, while deep in the heart of this blue state is a bold move and reveals a commitment to objectivity and I am eager to see what kind of reaction it gets. Pacifica is just south of San Francisco. Next column will be a look at drought.

What’s Natural?

A Look at Wildfires

In early December I surveyed the horrific Camp Fire disaster in Paradise. Having been director for 25 years of a university field station located in the heart of the Tahoe National Forest, I’ve been a “student” of fire ecology for 30 years and wanted a closer look at why row after row of homes completely incinerated while surrounding trees were merely scorched, with leaves and needles browned but not burnt?


Large fires have recently ravaged about 1.8 million California acres a year, prompting media and politicians to proclaim a “new normal” that’s “evidence of global warming”. But UC Berkeley fire ecologists have calculated that before 1800, fires burned 4 million California acres each year (despite cooler temperatures). So what natural fire dynamics promote such extensive burning?

Wildfires have indeed increased since 1970, but that’s relative to previous decades of intensive fire prevention. As fire was recognized as a natural and necessary phenomenon for healthy ecosystems a new era began. In the 70s the US Forest Service moved away from extinguishing all fires by 10 AM the day after detection, switching to a “let it burn policy” if human structures were not endangered.

Paradise, unfortunately, sprung up amidst a forest dominated by Ponderosa pines. Largely due to frequent lightning strikes and dry summers, Ponderosa habitat endures fires about every 11 years. Fortunately for California’s coastal residents, lightning is rare. However, both regions are vulnerable to human ignitions, which start 85-95% of all fires. Recognizing this growing problem, a bipartisan bill was presented to Governor Brown two years ago to secure our power grid. Shockingly he vetoed it. That was a bad choice given the Camp Fire, Wine Country Fires and many more were sparked by an ageing electrical infrastructure. Recent studies show larger fires result from a confluence of human ignitions and high winds. But it is not just random coincidence. The high winds that spread these massive fires also blow down power lines that ignite those fires.

In 2008 the world’s foremost expert on fire history, Stephen Pyne lamented, “global warming has furnished political cover to encourage certain fire management decisions while allowing climate to take the blame.” How true. Both PGE and Governor Brown have blamed wildfires on climate change.

When you build a camp fire, you intuitively understand fire ecology basics. You do not hold a match to a log no matter how dry. You start a camp fire with kindling. Fire ecologists call forest kindling, like dead grass, leaves and small shrubs, “fine fuels”. In dry weather “fine fuels” become highly combustible in a matter of hours, or at most days, even during the winter. Furthermore, California’s summer climate is naturally dry for 3-4 months, creating highly combustible habitat each and every summer.

Additionally, camp fires only smolder without enough air, so we huff and puff to get a burst of flames. Likewise, high winds turn a spark into a major conflagration. It was strong winds that rapidly spread the Camp Fire. The fast-moving flames, feeding on “fine fuels” littering the forest floor, generated enough heat to ignite flammable homes that then burned from the inside out; but only enough heat to char the bark of most surrounding trees.

Miraculously spared buildings dotting a devastated landscape made the case for creating “defensible spaces” by managing the “fine fuels”. Surveying one unscathed church, the fire clearly came within 100 feet, scorching the base of every encircling tree. But due to a parking lot and a well-manicured lawn, the lack of “fine fuels” stopped the fire in its tracks. Trees on the lawn were not even charred. The public would benefit greatly if wildfire news stories emphasized the need to create adequate defensible spaces.

With high deserts to the east and the ocean to the west, California’s winds shift with the seasons. Land temperatures always change faster than the ocean’s. In the summer, warmer land surfaces draw in moist sea breezes. The resulting fog moistens coastal landscapes and reduces fire danger there. Thus, any warming, whether natural or CO2 driven, should increase the fog.

In the autumn, the land cools faster than the ocean causing the winds to reverse direction. The colder it gets, the stronger the winds blow from the high deserts towards the coast, peaking in December. These winds are called Santa Annas in southern California. The Wine Country fires were spread by the Diablo winds. But regardless of the name, the science is the same. Accordingly, it was November winds that fanned a spark into an inferno aimed directly at the heart of Paradise.

It has long been known that due to these autumn and winter winds, much of California endures a dangerous fire season year-round. On the optimistic side, any warming of the land during the cool seasons, whether natural or CO2 driven, should reduce these winds. Indeed, the natural drivers of wildfire are very complex, and maintaining a defensible space is our safest bet.

Jim Steele is author of “Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism”. Contact him at naturalclimatechange@earthlink.net

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January 4, 2019 2:19 am

” maintaining a defensible space is our safest bet.”

Also building houses in fire zones from non flammable materials would help,
but there are powerful forces that will stop that happening.

Reply to  jeff
January 4, 2019 5:14 am

… there are powerful forces that will stop that happening.

Homeowner associations blow my mind. For many years they insisted on cedar shake roofs for houses in fire zones. link

There was also the Australian case where a family was prosecuted for creating a safe zone that was too big. Their family’s home survived the next fire when the neighbors’ homes didn’t. link

It’s enough to make freedom loving people weep.

Reply to  commieBob
January 4, 2019 10:38 am

The cedar shake HOA issue isn’t solely a CA thing, it existed in Colorado until about 20 years ago when the major insurance carriers declared they would not renew nor write new homeowner policies for any home with cedar roofing. Colorado subsequently passed a law to supercede every HOA so that the homeowners could replace the dry cracked wood with fire resistant/retardant roofing material.

Reply to  commieBob
January 5, 2019 11:08 am

Dear commieBob

Nothing will change until bureaucrats face murder or manslaughter charges when their regulations kill.

One hope the magistrate concerned has sleepless nights and nightmares about the deaths he helped cause, though I doubt that he even cares.

Happy New Year


Reply to  jeff
January 4, 2019 5:42 am

Good article and great initiative, Jim.

It will be interesting to see how it is before the SJWs come in their jack-boots and try to silence communicating good sense and sound advice.

January 4, 2019 2:31 am

Yes, it should be absolutely obvious that is ‘kindling’ fuels that have been allowed to accumulate that cause such fires to burn out of control so quick. And then the the obvious fact that the vast majority of fires having a human component in ignition. What does that have to do with ‘climate change’? Gov Brown will surely be remembered in history as the idiot governor. He already is if truth is put to power. It is his policies that directly lead to the woody debris fuel problem we equate with kindling for a camp fire that is the principal cause of the conditions that make California ripe for fire. And then it is mostly people or corporations that actually ignite the majority of these fires. How many times will we have to repeat this truth so that it is regarded as factual? And who really is the murderer? The press and acedemics who repeat these lies that climate change is responsible for these fires become an accessory to murder when they repeat the lie that climate change is mostly responsible for these massive fires.

Reply to  Earthling2
January 4, 2019 7:48 am

He was already known as an idiot governor from his first go around.
Unfortunately the voters of California have short memories. Especially when the prospect of more OPM is placed in front of them.

Reply to  MarkW
January 4, 2019 10:22 am

Indeed Brown was known as an idiot, which partly explains his moniker of Governor Moonbeam. Still, one has to remember this is a state dominated by the film industry. The film industry blossoms because the people involved have great imaginations and the ability to emote. If you look at those movies from a technical point of view, none of them (except a handful of documentaries) touch on reality. Thus you have Uzis and AR-15s that can shoot hundreds of rounds without re-loading, satellites that can see through multi-story buildings to pick out individuals, people who can take life-threatening wounds and walk them off, animals that can reason as well as any human – the list goes on and on.
Reality in La-La Land is warped, and thus we KNOW that batteries can be developed that will power a car as far as any ICE engine and can be re-charged as quickly -or quicker – that an ICE engine can be refueled because Hollywood actors say it is so. We KNOW that climate the climate is warming because DiCaprio says it is. We KNOW that George Clooney is an expert on medicine, because he was the doctor on some TV show.
So, give us a break, treat us kindly, for we are uneducated, we do not know how to reason, and besides, we don’t have time. The sun is shining, and we have to get to the beach, after which we will go to the movies. We have our priorities.

January 4, 2019 2:35 am

I think the author misses a few things and oversimplifies.

Fine fuels (mostly pine needles probably) were the likely source of flying embers that set houses on fire from the inside. I don’t think burning needles on the ground at short distances (let’s say 30′ or so) have enough energy to combust a house from the inside.

Most houses, at least in the subdivisions and mobile home parks, probably combusted via radiant heat from adjacent burning homes. Very close lot spacing in that area.

From a video I saw, the church looked to be a metal building with few windows and no near structures to set it on fire.

Reply to  icisil
January 4, 2019 6:24 am

If you want a more accurate picture, here’s a link to an excellent article in Fine Homebuilding.

As others have noted, fire resistant building techniques are well known. The problem is getting people to use them.

Carbon Bigfoot
Reply to  commieBob
January 4, 2019 11:05 am

NO CB the problem is getting the Builders to sell the safety aspect. They are very sensitive to their profit margins ( I was ). The other issue is to educate the Banks, Real Estate Appraisers and Insurance Companies. Safety Premium is considered a non-essential when developing an appraisal that Banks will approve for a mortgage. SAD.

Reply to  Carbon Bigfoot
January 4, 2019 6:19 pm

You’re right. Individual contractors are between a rock and a hard place. There are others better situated to do the heavy lifting.

As Rhee commented, insurance companies said they wouldn’t insure any Colorado home with cedar roofing. I’m guessing that it wouldn’t be hard to convince insurance companies of the benefits of fire resistant construction in forest locations.

More than 100 years ago cities experienced huge conflagrations. That led to building codes that greatly reduced the spread of fire between buildings. The codes deal with local conditions. For instance, where I live, wind loads and earthquakes aren’t a big problem but the weight of snow on roofs is a big deal. In that light, I’m surprised that building codes don’t deal better with homes that are built in fire zones.

Reply to  icisil
January 4, 2019 7:50 am

Go back to the analogy of building a camp fire.
Kindling is just to get the fire started. The kindling then ignites the bigger pieces.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  icisil
January 4, 2019 8:28 am

icisil January 4, 2019 at 2:35 am

I don’t think burning needles on the ground at short distances (let’s say 30′ or so) have enough energy to combust a house from the inside.

Then, ….. icisil, ….. why in ell are you addressing the subject you described?

Address what the author stated, to wit:

the fast-moving flames, feeding on “fine fuels” littering the forest floor, generated enough heat to ignite flammable homes ……. that then burned from the inside out;

Reply to  Samuel C Cogar
January 4, 2019 3:20 pm

Houses that ignite on the outside don’t burn from the inside out. Houses that burn from the inside out do so through radiant ignition of furniture and stuff through the windows or the attic catching on fire from embers sucked in through the soffit vents. IMO the author is not that informed.

Reply to  icisil
January 4, 2019 3:30 pm

Or in the case of mobile homes, the heat from an adjacent burning mobile home would be enough to easily penetrate the 2″ thick walls and burn it from the inside out. There were a lot of mobile home parks in Paradise.

Reply to  icisil
January 4, 2019 7:06 pm


As I have said in another comment the article is geared to a newspaper with a limit of 600-800 words. Indeed there are many details I was forced to leave out. I am glad commenters are filling in the blanks, but you seem to have a different motive.

Your motive appears to be an egotistical attempt to denigrate my knowledge and thereby elevate yourself as the wiser one. If you simply wanted to add to the conversation your posts would not be so snarky.

Reply to  Jim Steele
January 5, 2019 4:55 am

You sound like you’ve been marinating too long in leftist CA. This is their stock-in-trade response when their egos get wounded – accuse someone of doing exactly what they themselves are doing (in all fairness, this is done by all kinds of people, but leftists universally do it in politics and social identity issues). Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel bad, but I place accurate conveyance of facts over your feelings, especially when it comes to issues of this magnitude.

Reply to  Jim Steele
January 5, 2019 3:44 pm


icisil, your rants ridiculously strange

Reply to  icisil
January 4, 2019 11:15 am

My guess is that piles of pine needles ignited the adjacent rotting redwood deck, or firewood stacked against the home (it was November). That raised the internal temperature of the mobile. The curtains inside the home then ignited due to radiant heat from the burning deck.

G Mawer
Reply to  icisil
January 4, 2019 11:40 am

In this case it was the wind driven embers from the fine fuels that get into the eves and attic vents. Then the house would ignite within – and go to the ground without extinguishing efforts. It would take miles of defensible space to prevent that!
Living here and driving thru some of the area I can see that a lot of the surviving structures had metal roofs and stucco walls.

Bloke down the pub
January 4, 2019 3:00 am

Is it beyond the ken of man to design homes that are not so susceptible to fires?

Reply to  Bloke down the pub
January 4, 2019 3:15 am

No. In other prior fires homes designed with that in mind survived while homes all around and even next to them burned.

Roger Knights
Reply to  Bloke down the pub
January 4, 2019 5:41 am

Asbestos shingles might help. But the asbestos alarmists would object—and prevail, I suspect.

Reply to  Roger Knights
January 4, 2019 7:44 am

Brick works better then asbestos. With Tile or Slate roofing, or even metal though that requires a heat resistant underlayment.

Most modern homes are not built to resist fire. You’d think if someone was going to shill out a couple of hundred grand they would want to make sure it could survive a natual disaster that happens regularly in that area.


Reply to  Schitzree
January 4, 2019 9:23 am

It is more complicated than that. A brick house can easily burn if vents allow embers to be blown into the structure and light it from the outside. Even combustible siding can avoid burning if it is elevated above ember collection points and far enough from radiant heat.

Steve O
January 4, 2019 4:22 am

“To publish a more skeptical and scientific opinion, while deep in the heart of this blue state is a bold move and reveals a commitment to objectivity and I am eager to see what kind of reaction it gets.”

A lot of people who have only been exposed to one side are going to be exposed to things for the first time. Some of them are not going to like it. Others will be amazed.

Reply to  Steve O
January 4, 2019 5:06 am

The reaction is predictable; how Jim and his publisher handle will be of interest and crucial to the longevity of the column. The reaction also will be “natural.’ People don’t like having their world view challenged when they think emotionally rather then critically.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Gary
January 4, 2019 6:30 am

“rather then critically”
………. than…..

January 4, 2019 4:27 am

Another thing to think about. Your garden.

I visited Marysville in Victoria, the town that was largely wiped out in the “Black Saturday” great bush fire of 2009, a couple of years after the fire. Most buildings and surroundings had been completely gutted, but a number of Victorian mansions and their gardens had survived almost unscathed. A local biologist explained it. Back in the 19th century it was customary to try and recreate “Old England”, so gardens were planted with European plants and trees (very often oaks Quercus robur). Nowadays native plants and trees are all the rage.

Most Australian plants (e. g. eucalypts) are very fire-prone while oaks are among the least combustible trees extant.

Reply to  tty
January 4, 2019 4:38 am

Deciduous trees in general are much more fire resistant and have several advantages –


Reply to  jeff
January 4, 2019 5:36 am

“Young said: “California is vulnerable – not because of poor forest management as DT (our so-called president) would have us think. We are vulnerable because of climate change; the extreme weather events and our extended drought is part of it.””

Just another d@mn idiot who thinks repeating what other people say is intelligence. High winds blew in the Paradise area for a full week before the fire started. A few hours would have been enough to dry everything out regardless of the temperature. High winds are normal there.

Wow from that article

It’s not uncommon to hear stories about people who stayed to save their homes and later celebrated with friends at the pub only to return to a smouldering ruin. The cause of this enormous disappointment and personal tragedy are the airborne embers of burning leaves and bark that cause spot fires ahead of a fire-front and continue to fall after a fire has passed.

Reply to  icisil
January 4, 2019 5:41 am

oh h3ll… ignore the 1st 2 paragraphs. That was a comment that I decided against posting earlier, but it stayed in the comment box for this comment, and I didn’t notice.

Reply to  icisil
January 4, 2019 7:50 am

Too late, I already read those first two paragraphs.

And I can’t unagree with them now. 😉

Don Perry
Reply to  icisil
January 4, 2019 6:18 am

“……DT (our so-called president)…”
So much for your reliability to state fact. FACT — Donald Trump IS our president. You may not like that, but he IS, in fact, our president. PERIOD.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Don Perry
January 4, 2019 6:33 am

Don, the quote you quoted was itself a quote from a linked article, not the commenter’s opinion. An apology is in order.

Reply to  Don Perry
January 4, 2019 6:51 am

Apology not necessary. One good fnckup deserves another.

Reply to  Don Perry
January 4, 2019 6:56 am

FWIW, the unintentioned comment was intended originally for stephen skinner’s comment below.

Reply to  Don Perry
January 4, 2019 8:00 am

I don’t see that DT’s comment is aimed at icisil, just commenting on a piece of the quote.
No apology is necessary.

Reply to  jeff
January 5, 2019 4:00 am

“Deciduous trees in general are much more fire resistant and have several advantages ”

Several of the pictures in the linked article are from Marysville. I recognize the sites.

Reply to  tty
January 4, 2019 5:07 am

Stands of Aspens (“asbestos trees”) might make good buffers.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  icisil
January 4, 2019 6:35 am

Lol, a local nursery misspelled “Quaking Aspens” as “Quacking Aspens” once on their reader board next to I 5 in Mt Vernon, WA. The Marx Brothers instantly came to mind.

stephen skinner
January 4, 2019 5:09 am

What a great article.
As a species we are equipped with instincts and mental abilities to work out where the best and safest place are for shelter. As we have ‘advanced’ some have allowed themselves to ignore such considerations such as:
– Can this place flood?
– Do Hurricanes come through here and how far above sea level is my house?
– Does this forest burn regularly?
– Is there an active volcano or fault line nearby?
It is of course much easier to build where-ever one feels like and blame any natural calamity as a man made fault. Therefore people in UK are expected to pay extra climate justice taxes/damages because Neil Young lost his home to a wild fire.

Reply to  stephen skinner
January 4, 2019 7:56 am

“Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”


Reply to  stephen skinner
January 4, 2019 8:03 am

For the last generation or two people have been conditioned to believe that is the responsibility of government to protect them, therefore they don’t need to worry about such things anymore.

Reply to  stephen skinner
January 5, 2019 11:23 am

stephen skinner

I liked these bits:

Young said that the choice of sponsor “doesn’t work for me. I believe in science.

He then goes on to say:

“California is vulnerable – not because of poor forest management as DT (our so-called president) would have us think. We are vulnerable because of climate change; the extreme weather events and our extended drought is part of it.”

So it seems the most powerful man in the world takes no scientific advice whatsoever and instead must listen to an ageing rock star.

I mean the guy says “our so-called president” !

As said elsewhere here, the guy can’t even understand the realities of life i.e. that DJT IS POTUS never mind begin to comprehend the complexities of climate science.

Bruce Cobb
January 4, 2019 5:19 am

From the School of Advanced Pedantry (SAP), the statement in the first paragraph of …”wanted a closer look at why” does not require a question mark.

michael hart
January 4, 2019 5:25 am

Enjoyable read. It also shows, once again, that global warming is too often used as an excuse for not having taken steps already known to be necessary.

Sensible government doesn’t need such excuses. Thus the London Thames Barrier was built by the early 1980s because local sea-level changes and likelihood of flooding was well known long before global warming became fashionable.

January 4, 2019 5:35 am

Jim Steele is an educator.

Don K
January 4, 2019 5:54 am

Jim. Good to see an well written article on the California wildfires by someone who actually knows something about California forest ecology. Any chance you could follow up by interviewing some seasoned firefighters about the difficulty (or ease) of securing buildings against these wind driven disasters? The lack of adequate evacuation routes in some places also needs to be addressed. And so does the difference between pine forest wild fires (Camp Creek fire) and chaparral woodland (Woolsey fire). I suspect that preventive burns might, and I emphasize MIGHT, be practical in the pine forests. My guess is that nothing short of scraping the existing plants away religiously and planting something like iceplant can tame chaparral and grass wildfires (Oakland hills).

January 4, 2019 6:05 am

„Thus, any warming…”

Everything you wanted to know about wildland forest fires but were afraid to ask (https://phys.org/news/2018-04-wildland-forest.html):
“Dr. Dominick DellaSala, Director of Forest Legacies and one of the co-authors of the report, said, “The Wildfire Suppression Funding and Forest Management Activities Act IGNORED THE PAST THREE DECADES OF SCIENCE that has found fires, including large high-severity fires, are an ecologically essential part of forest ecosystems and create highly biodiverse wildlife habitat.” “… large wildland fire complexes, including large patches of high-severity fire, generate critical ecological resource pulses of dead trees […] that are associated with extraordinary levels of biodiversity.” “… so large-scale thinning proposals that alter forest conditions over large areas and release HUGE AMOUNTS OF CARBON have a VERY LOW CHANCE …”

Large Variations in Southern Hemisphere Biomass Burning During the Last 650 Years, (Wang, 2010):
“… large variations in the degree of biomass burning in the Southern Hemisphere …” “… DECREASE by about 70% from the late 1800s to present day …”

Global trends in wildfire and its impacts: perceptions versus realities in a changing world (Doerr & Santín, 2016) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4874420/: „… global biomass burning during the past century has been lower than at any time in the past 2000 years […].”

Different historical fire–climate patterns in California (Keeley & Syphard 2017)
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315875417_Different_historical_fire-climate_patterns_in_California: „Future fire regimes will be less affected by global warming than by other global changes… …because over 95% of ignitions are due to humans.”, “…better control of human activity is a potentially more tractable option than controlling climate, weather or fuels …”

Why wildfires are bigger and harder to control (Moseley, 2018, University of Oregon), https://earthsky.org/earth/why-wildfires-bigger-harder-to-control-wildfire-season-2018: „According to the Forest Service, climate change has expanded the wildfire season by an average of 78 days per year since 1970.” but „In fact, many areas have fire deficits – SIGNIFICANTLY LESS fire than we would expect given […] current climatic and forest conditions.”

Reply to  ASem
January 4, 2019 2:13 pm

When you quote DellaSala you need to be made aware of the fact that when he references “science” he is mostly talking about “political science” or “religious studies.” You might want to ask him how the “protected” “rare and endangered” plants in the Kalmiopsis are doing after the four catastrophic fires have taken place there in the past 30 years. As a fire ecologist, he is an excellent self-promoter.

Also — when we are talking about “natural” conditions are we including people in that definition? I am fairly certain that most of the landscaped-scale fires that have taken place in California during the past 10,000 years were set on purpose by people. Native plant, animal, and archaeological evidence supports this hypothesis. That is why fires were “more frequent” prior to white settlement and the introductions of grazing and then “Wilderness,” not lightning. Trump was exactly right, but it isn’t California forest management that is to blame — it is federal forest management and the imposition of federal regulations that have led to these predictable (and clearly predicted) results.

Tom Abbott
January 4, 2019 6:05 am

I used to write articles for a local newspaper. The editor almost always cut the most pertinent part out of it. As a result, some of my columns were probably a little confusing to the reader.

I admit I was probably longwinded. But every point was important, imo! That’s one reason I never got started on Twitter, because I would just be getting warmed up at 140 characters. 🙂

You wrote a good article, Jim. I’m wondering how the alarmists are going to react since you took a couple of shots at CO2.

Reply to  Tom Abbott
January 4, 2019 2:34 pm

Tom, you need to edit your articles yourself instead of making/letting the editor do it for you.
You can get help making a worthwhile statement in fewer words from your local Toastmaster’s Club.

January 4, 2019 6:11 am

Beautifully written article, Jim. Concise and full of wisdom, as is usual with your stuff. Hope your column gets syndicated. It would be of interest to know if the Pacifica Tribune prints comments on your article, and what is being said in response.

James Francisco
January 4, 2019 6:13 am

When I lived in California the folks that had lived there a long time would say when we have a wet period, the brush grows a lot, then it will be a big fire hazard when the dry winds come and they will come.

Tom Halla
Reply to  James Francisco
January 4, 2019 6:26 am

Exactly. With entirely normal weather for Northern California, it gets dry enough to burn every year. Unless one uses mechanical removal of the brush, or goats or such, there will be a fire hazard.
So unless one uses often repeated small fires, one will get a big fire.

Reply to  Tom Halla
January 5, 2019 3:29 am

I’m not familiar with the biology of the brush to which you refer, however in Eastern Australia, we have many varieties of scrub and small bushy trees that have a similar growth habit.

If you burn them once, the adult scrub is killed, but it regenerates in dense stands from seed in the now bare soil… and if left to mature, will create a high-fuel environment for the next fire.
However, if burnt at close intervals, such as succeeding seasons, the new generation does not achieve maturity , flower and drop seed. Two or three such burnings, reduces the scrub regeneration to the point where is it replaced, predominantly by grasses.

The grasses, themselves, are fire fuel when dry, but the overall fuel load is much lower, the ”ladder fuels” which take fire into the tree canopy, are much reduced, and controlled burning at practiced by indigenous peoples, is much easier.

We do not have a choice whether we have fires, only when and how damaging.

Flight Level
January 4, 2019 6:15 am

Folks who operate over there once told me that concerned passengers over Canada often alert cabin crew of remote wildfires.

However common cockpit practice is to quietly ignore the sightings since the officially accepted position is that wildfires have occurred in Canada’s forests for thousands of years and are deemed necessary for a healthy forest and, even if forwarded to ground, the information will be disreguarded.

Reply to  Flight Level
January 4, 2019 8:10 am


They aren’t protecting the information adequately?

Flight Level
Reply to  MarkW
January 4, 2019 9:01 am

I meant ignored, not taken into consideration, probably a translation glitch, my bad.

Smart Rock
Reply to  Flight Level
January 4, 2019 10:09 am

Flight Level – you are right. Canada is a big and sparsely inhabited country and has far too many forest fires to even think about fighting them all. Fires are only tackled if they directly threaten human habitations. And if they do, people already know about them.

Also, most fires in Canada start where there are no people, so the old adage that 90 percent of fires are caused by human activity is totally untrue – at least in the boreal forest. They are mostly caused by lightning strikes. I once saw this myself in real time. A sobering experience; it grew very fast and my exploration crew had to evacuate in a hurry.

Peta of Newark
January 4, 2019 6:21 am

What is natural.
(Its taken me 2 cups of coffee to work this out – I can feel the migraine starting.)

Imagine me/you are gardeners.
We are betrothed a totally poor, barren & infertile patch of ground. Bare rock basically

So what do we do, we add ‘fertiliser’ We do work upon the surface of the bare rock – we physically grind it up and also use chemical agents to loosen it up a bit more. Anything ‘acid’ would work a treat as rocks are based (base – doncha luv English) on metallic alkaline chemistry.

On the larger scale to do this we would employ volcanoes, mountain building (and subsequent crumbling= gravity) plus ice sheets or even meteor impacts to do the physical grunt.
Then we might use rainfall to do the chemical grunt to reduce the coarse rubble to something finer and more ‘soil-like’ Rain being made of water becomes acid when it falls through any amount of stuff like carbon, nitrogen or sulphur oxides.
There goes them volcanoes again. Ain’t they sooooo useful?

If we could lay hands on any, we’d get some organic material from somewhere/anywhere and mix that in to give the new soil some water retentiveness.
Then and as per The Bible, we no longer possess ‘Stony Ground’ and are thus able to profitably ‘cast our seed’
Plants and trees will thus grow nice and strongly. The very basis of being a Good Gardener innit?

But, all your initial hard work of grinding, pulverising, mountainising, vulcanising, chemical wizardry, meteoritics etc need to be maintained – otherwise all the goodness you created will gently wash away (into the sea via gravity) by the very processes that created it
If not = careful, you will return to a patch of infertile & dead bare-rock.
Because as the process runs its course, the trees & plants will grow slower, weaker, less numerous and more disease prone. They will die prematurely and become tinder.
As productivity declines so does the retained water content of the soil -hence plants with better drought resistance will move in.
Unfortunately and with the exception of cacti, most of these plants are chock full of volatile organics that burn especially well.

Does this mean what we humans perceive in our own lifetimes or in the parts of recorded history? (the bits anyone bothers to read and absorb)
But in the real business of gardening, three score plus ten is nothing. Nil. Next to zero

The Gardener here needs a lifetime where one of his/her years is at *least* 1,000 Earth orbits of the sun.
Then, he/she will see/reap the benefits of their initial work and *also* be witness to the gradual decline if they cease their maintenance and upkeep – their garden will return to bare rock & stones if they’re not careful.

Question, when was the last time any serious gardening/maintenance happened on the parts of the world that are now burning?

Reply to  Peta of Newark
January 5, 2019 3:51 pm

Indigenous burning IS maintenance under your definition.

Frequent cool burning retains the majority of organic matter in the soil, rather than destroying it. It also biases the vegetation away from shrubs that leave the ground under and around them bare, and toward grasses that retain fibrous root mass after the fire has passed.

DR Healy
January 4, 2019 8:30 am

I believe you have entirely missed the most important factor in this equation, which is fuel load. We quit harvesting timber about 1980 and the fuel load is at least 60% higher than it was in 1953. When fires get started they then burn much hotter and quickly become uncontrollable and far more damaging.

The correlation between area burned and fuel load is quite impressive.

January 4, 2019 9:21 am

Oct 8 1871.

January 4, 2019 9:25 am

This article is not very informative. People are not learning about how embers ignite structures.

January 4, 2019 9:28 am

I was visiting with different construction tradesmen after the Carr fire which was west of Redding in August. The question regarding why one house burned while the neighboring house survived may in part be related to windows. Recent construction seems to focus on vinyl frame windows since they seem to hold up to the area heat and don’t require as much maintenance as wood frame windows. The installer indicated that they were replacing many of the vinyl frame windows because of distortion. He also stated that some of the houses that burned were due to the vinyl distorting due to the heat allowing the glass to fall from the frames. Embers then blew into the house, starting the house on fire.

Another item that was raised from the Santa Rosa fires was the design wind speed used to design the power poles. As a result of recent hurricanes structure design for wind speed loading has increased in complexity. Since the power lines are typically maintained in a corridor created by removing trees some distance from either side of poles/lines, I would not be surprised of a venturi affect increasing wind speed when the wind blows down the transmission line. Perhaps we will see a change in the requirements for power poles in the not to distant future.

Finally, since Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that might have reduced and/or prevented fire threat, shouldn’t California Attorney General Xavier Barcera add him to the PG&E lawsuits that will be coming?

Perhaps for a change we should move to require our politicians to be licensed and insured. Licensing would require specific attributes beyond being an attorney or being rich or being from a family dynasty. The hitch is in getting and keeping insurance, although a market would likely develop. Sarc.

Jake J
January 4, 2019 10:55 am

A little over a year ago, we moved into a house in the Columbia River Gorge that divides Washington and Oregon. This is wildfire country; since 2015, about 100,000 acres of forest have burned, and another 100,000 acres of grassland has burned.

We have 20 acres, most of it grassland. We have a perimeter around the house that’s 100 to 200 feet in the most vulnerable directions. The least vulnerable side has a 30-foot perimeter, but we’ll be doubling that this coming year. The siding is Douglas Fir, and the roof is steel.

All of the combustibles that might matter to us are grasses. The closest forest is a couple hundred feet, and it’s on the least vulnerable side — the east, which in our setting gets essentially no wind. We have a barn that has stood for 125 years. But we’re paying attention anyway, and have created a 30-foot buffer around it. And we will be having our field grass mowed at least once a year starting next year.

“Environmentalists” want to prohibit any building outside of the cities. Make no mistake about their goal. We don’t need them to tell us how to live.

Mike Smith
January 4, 2019 11:21 am

Good if simple write up. A couple of great points that deserve more attention:

* Folks claim that climate change has made the fuel more combustible. But the fact is… California has always had very long and very dry summers. Most of the fuel is highly inflammable for most of the summer, every summer. It was always so.

* Most fires are started by humans and/or their activities. California has undergone serious population growth. More people equals more fires. Furthermore, folks have spread out and developed homes in high fire risk areas (just like Paradise). Again, more fires.

Moonbeam (and Gavin) need to stop bleating about climate change and get on with the real job of managing the forests and fuel and enforcing the regulation of PG&E and other utilities. In addition, they need to completely reexamine their emergency alert systems and evacuation plans, the failure of which were responsible for significant loss of life.

January 4, 2019 11:54 am

Several commenters mention my article left out some important issues. Indeed that is true. However it is targeted for a newspaper and I am limited to between 600 and 800 words. Most op-eds for you biggest newspapers demand such a word limit. So much information must get left out. The hope is that enough detail and concepts are provided to make people think. For those who have read my numerous WUWT posts, they are typically 2000 to 3000 words and I still fret over how much I left out. On the other hand many people think anything over 800 words is too much to bother. They don’t want to wade through “the weeds”.

That said I angled to see commenter add the details about other critical factors regards wildfires.

January 4, 2019 11:55 am

Several commenters mention my article left out some important issues. Indeed that is true. However it is targeted for a newspaper and I am limited to between 600 and 800 words. Most op-eds for you biggest newspapers demand such a word limit. So much information must get left out. The hope is that enough detail and concepts are provided to make people think. For those who have read my numerous WUWT posts, they are typically 2000 to 3000 words and I still fret over how much I left out. On the other hand many people think anything over 800 words is too much to bother. They don’t want to wade through “the weeds”.

That said I am glad to see commenters add more details about other critical factors regards wildfires.

Melbourne Resident
January 4, 2019 12:51 pm

Jim – Great article. As someone who lost a home to the 2009 Victorian bushfire, I have personal experience of fire behaviour a and some understanding of the reasons why some homes burn and others survive. The biggest problem seems to be the lack of protection for openings along with the impact of embers. Big fires also generate high winds and the so called “embers” are really large chunks of wood and burning bark from trees. Victoria’s main expert on wildfire behaviour attributes up to 85% of homes are lost due to ember attack and the bigger the fire, the faster it travels. Yes, vegetation and fuel loads are important, but they will always build up over the years, giving us these ‘once in a generation forest fires’, so if people are going to live in the forests (as I do), then the house has to be designed to withstand the firestorm. I rebuilt, and the new house has rammed earth walls, steel roof, fire blanket underneath that wraps down onto the walls, and fire shutters on every opening. Keep publishing as we need your calming influence.

Reply to  Melbourne Resident
January 4, 2019 1:26 pm

Rammed earth or straw bale construction is highly fire resistant as well as very attractive, and often less expensive. I’ve seen photos of bale structures that withstood fire that obliterated surrounding structures.

Reply to  Dave
January 4, 2019 3:39 pm

And rammed earth would be perfect for a lot of Southern California Fire risk areas. I’m interested to hear more about how the fire blanket and roof/walls integrate. Is it to seal the soffits and save vents?

Melbourne Resident
Reply to  Alex
January 8, 2019 4:13 am

No the main reason for the fire blanket was to stop fire entry at roof level. It wraps onto the walls so that embers cannot get inside the ceiling spaces. It seals off all the soffits under the roof and there are no air vents through the walls. Not sure if that would be legal in some jurisdictions. We do have penetrations for aircon and the like, but they are all sealed with intumescent mastic. Above the fire blanket is a thick insulation layer of rock wool overlain by the steel roof. I was on the building commissioners round table that came up with the improved building standards and codes for building in bushfire areas – so had a heads up before we designed the house as to what was going to be required. We are in Flame Zone – the highest rating and need a structure rated for direct flame contact. The fire shutters are designed and tested for one hour of direct flame. To lose one house was unfortunate – to lose two would be careless!

January 4, 2019 4:03 pm

How many house fires started because of a power surge ???
CBS News reports, “A power surge left thousands without power for most of the day in Stockton after smart meters on their homes exploded on Monday.” “Neighbors in the South Stockton area described it as a large pop, a bomb going off, and strong enough to shake a house.”

And when people evacuated, were they told to unplug all electrical appliances??
“The alarm was first raised shortly before 8am when people called the fire brigade to report their appliances had started smoking and catching fire.”

January 4, 2019 4:16 pm

Jim: What are you considering “natural?” Does that include people? Are they part of nature, in your opinion?

My thought is that California Indians created and maintained the vast prairies and savannas with purposeful landscape-scale fires for millennia before white settlers arrived with their horses and cattle. Lightning fires would have been secondary in their influence on animals and plants, and “wildfires” would be unusual. Your thoughts?

My PhD is in the study of fire history in western Oregon (Coast Range) over the past 500 years — where there is hardly any lightning ever, and then usually accompanied by drenching rains — but the patterns of savannas and grasslands in the interior valleys is much the same as areas more prone to lightning strikes. Same with native animal “habitat” — a function of adapting to people and fire over thousands of years. Nothing to do with “climate change” or periodic “wildfires.”

January 4, 2019 6:56 pm

That’s wonderful news Jim. I spend a lotta time in Pacifica as it is where my “significant other” resides. Been trying to get her to read some of your writings for a while. But no, she’s stubborn and thoroughly indoctrinated in the alarmist ideology. Now she will probably read you as she reads the Tribune!

Reply to  eck
January 4, 2019 7:13 pm

Lets (you and your significant other) have a glass of wine at Pacifica’s Grape in the Fog and chat. Just give me a date.

Reply to  Jim Steele
January 6, 2019 8:06 pm

Would like to. I’ll get back to you on that.

The Third EYE
January 5, 2019 2:19 am

This is some funny shit! Your trying to make up a scenario where the trees didn’t burn but the houses did. Perhaps you forgot to look at the cars and how they melted in a straight line.
Yea maybe you need to cut back on the damage control and go full energy weapons and Agenda 21.

Reply to  The Third EYE
January 5, 2019 7:18 am

Third Eye, What are you ranting about? Making up a scenario?

You confuse observation . Obviously you have not surveyed the area or paid attention to all the photos with incinerated houses and cars, but with standing trees, ie the accompanying photo. There are hundreds of similar photos

Melbourne Resident
Reply to  Jim Steele
January 8, 2019 4:18 am

Jim – we had the same issue – 207 houses in our town burned out of 324 whilst many of the big old Eucalypts survived – when it got to us – the fire was no more than 8 to 10 feet above ground level and the biggest source of fuel on the property was the house itself. I can send photos of the aftermath with many trees still standing but the brush below completely burned out. This guy no not of what he speaks.

Russ R.
January 5, 2019 4:55 am

It is very difficult to remove all human sources of ignition. It is worthwhile to try, but very difficult to achieve suppression of all human sources. A hot catalytic converter is enough to start dry grass on fire.
It is impossible to change the issue with dry weather and wind.
All you have control over is the fuel load, and the resistance of the homes to withstand a fast moving “fire storm” as well as pine trees do.
Remove fine fuels around homes. New homes built to be fire resistant. Both on the exterior, and sealing ventilation systems.
And targeted burning of surrounding areas. Those areas will burn. It is just a question of whether it burns on a day of our choosing, or it burns under the worst possible conditions, with no resources in place. For many places we need to move beyond “natural burning” to scheduled burning.

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