New Yorker writer Ingfei Chen offers a steady look at the threat of wildfires in California, explaining why and how people living in the state’s “wildland-urban interface” can’t rely on the government for warnings and salvation, but must face the decision to flee or fight back largely on their own. People can take some measures to fireproof their homes, but hardening individual dwellings isn’t enough protection unless an entire community cooperates to be “firewise.” Local authorities need to step up. Anyone vulnerable to natural disasters should take note of this powerful report.
- “Fight or Flight” is taking on a new literal meaning for Californians who face wildfires.
- Successful evacuations rely on communications. Residents may not receive the warnings anyway.
- The big problem isn’t “mass panic,” but increasing fire hazards plus institutional missteps and lack of coordination.
“Fight or Flight” is taking on a new literal meaning for Californians who face wildfires.
Drought has exacerbated the threat of wildfires in California where the fire season has grown from six months to twelve. Blazes occur more frequently and rage more erratically. While past disasters offer many lessons, people are still figuring out the best ways to prepare for a forest fire and to protect themselves and their property.
Today, more homes are lost to the airborne embers that precede fires than to the main face of the flames.Homeowners are spending tens of thousands of dollars removing flammable trims and other hazards. They trim their trees, since branches can convey a fire to a home unless the tree is cut back properly. Some install rooftop sprinkler systems and maintain tanks of water just in case.
“In some parts of California, living for 10 months of the year under the threat of possible evacuation is becoming a normalized reality.”
Some Australian findings indicate that “defensible” homes, those prepared to be fire resistant, “are more likely to survive low-intensity fire” if people stay to fight back, mostly by extinguishing flying embers. However, even those who have mitigated risk to their property hesitate dangerously when they must decide to flee or stay – and thus risk their lives.
Successful evacuations rely on communications, such as making sure residents receive the warnings.
People resent mandatory evacuation orders, and, some holdouts always resist being ordered to flee and abandon their homes, but such orders are necessary to save lives. However, in some cases, government evacuation orders don’t extend to private property. People in sparsely populated areas can anticipate receiving less attention or help, so residents know they must rely on themselves. Officials teeter between sending early warnings which people may shrug off or issuing more timely alerts which may arrive too late to help.
“Making a single home fire resistant may not be enough to save it if neighboring properties are in flames, because it can catch on fire from the radiant heat of surrounding blazes; as with vaccinations, a sort of herd immunity is necessary.”
Issues also arise with cellphone service. A high volume of calls can overwhelm communication systems, or a fire might destroy the very infrastructure that enables warnings and emergency phone calls. Sometimes residents get an alert only after their homes are already blazing. Some people never receive official notifications and learn they are in danger only when friends call, they hear helicopters buzzing overhead, or smoke or even fire reach them.
Zonehaven, a start-up, now offers an online platform for people under threat, presenting a method local emergency managers can use to announce open evacuation routes and keep track of what is burning where. More than two dozen California counties have adopted it, and they used it in more than three dozen wildfire emergencies in 2021. Other authorities are using an online notification system modeled on the Amber Alert, initially formatted to track missing children.
The big problem isn’t “mass panic,” but increasing fire hazards plus institutional missteps and lack of coordination.
Government to-do manuals for dealing with wildfires are similar to those designed to help people prepare for other disasters, so they lack specificity. The timing of evacuations is particularly difficult in mountain or canyon towns with only one through road, but the law doesn’t require vulnerable communities to create alternate escape routes. Although evacuation routes should accommodate two lanes of traffic, some are hardly wide enough for a single fire truck. And when communities try to develop fire safety proposals on their own, political fights often erupt.
“Walking through the preparedness checklists is illuminating. It forces you to role-play your way through adverse scenarios and to ask what your priorities should be.”
Other risks, like flash floods or severe weather, loom in California – and, indeed worldwide – with increasing severity and frequency often due to climate change. Governments must step up with resources. Material such as preparedness checklists could help community planners consider different scenarios. Creating workable plans can be difficult and controversial because some aspects of a wildfire are always unpredictable, but some planning is better than none.
About the Author
Ingfei Chen is a freelance science writer and editor for The New Yorker and other publications.