The Terrifying Science Behind California's Massive Blaze


“We're seeing urban conflagrations, and that's the real phase change in recent years,” says Stephen Pyne, a wildfire expert at Arizona State University. It used to be that fires destroyed exurbs or scattered enclaves. “But what's remarkable is the way they're plowing over cities, which we thought was something that had been banished a century ago.”

The Camp Fire horror show, which burned 70,000 acres in 24 hours, and has now reached 125,000 acres, is a confluence of factors.

Fueling the Fire


On Saturday morning, Donald Trump tweeted about the wildfires currently burning in both Northern and Southern California: “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

It’s not very clear what he’s talking about, but we can hazard a guess. His administration, through its secretaries of agriculture and the interior, seems to equate “forest management” with logging. If that is what Trump is saying—that California has fires because it hasn’t removed enough trees—the tweet is written either in ignorance or misdirection. Logging is more often a cause of fires than a cure. Besides, the current California fires are not even in forests.

Start-up Blue Forest secures funding for first privately financed forest fire bond

Los Angeles Times

In a remote corner of the Sierra Nevada, amid 8,000-foot peaks and deep river gorges, a financial experiment is about to begin. Once this winter’s snow melts, workers will cut down small trees and burn off undergrowth across 5,000 acres of the Tahoe National Forest. But those workers won’t be paid by the U.S. Forest Service or any other public agency that typically funds forestry projects. Instead, the roughly $4 million will come from two foundations, an investment firm and an insurance company — which hope to make money on the deal.

Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy

Evergreen Magazine

This series of essays traces the history of the conservation movement in the United States, and its influence on the nation’s ever-shifting forest policy. The series expands significantly on a half-day lecture Evergreen founder, Jim Petersen, delivered to a graduate-level forestry class at the University of Idaho in February 2017. The term “felt necessities” is taken from The Common Law, a book of essays assembled in 1881 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in which he explains the historic underpinnings of the nation’s legal system. President Theodore Roosevelt thought so much of Holmes’ essays that nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1902.

Click the headline for the first essay, plus links to the other three.

California Wildfires: The Worst Gets Worse

Los Angeles Times

California is the most wildfire-prone state in the nation, and rivals Australia, South Africa and Chile for off-the-charts fire behavior and destructive potential. The recent Camp Fire near Chico in Northern California wiped out the city of Paradise and killed dozens of residents. Prolonged drought throughout much of the state is curing vegetation to an unheard of degree, and when fires are pushed by strong, dry winds — common in the fall months — they become unstoppable. Follow the link (in the headline) to a story about the Camp Fire, and find other links related to California’s wildfire dilemma.

'Lifeboats' Amid the World's Wildfires

The New York Times

Forests have burned in spectacular fashion this year, from California to Colorado, and Portugal to Greece. The fires left scenes of ashen destruction, but they did not wipe out everything. Scattered about the ravaged landscapes were islands of trees, shrubs and grass that survived unharmed.

It’s easy to overlook these remnants, which ecologists call fire refugia. But they can be vital to the long-term well-being of forests. These havens shelter species that are vulnerable to fires. Afterward, they can be starting points for the ecosystem’s regeneration.

Burning Impact: What Happens After the Fire

Only 2 percent of the land affected by the 211,801-acre Klondike and Taylor Creek fires on the Wild Rivers and Gold Beach Ranger Districts burned at high severity; an additional 75 percent burned at “low” or “very low” severities — or remained “unburned,” according to a recent U.S. Forest Service assessment. About 20 percent burned at medium severity.

Oregon Wildfire Costs Hit Record High in 2018

The Statesman-Journal newspaper, published in Salem, surveyed the high cost of wildfire suppression, highlighting that 2018 has been the most expensive season ever. The cost of fighting wildfires in Oregon reached an all-time high $514.6 million in 2018, according to data from Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. Fueled by wildfires that started early and threatened communities all summer, Oregon’s costs skyrocketed past last year’s record-setting total of $447 million.

Fire and Smoke: Our Reputation is At Stake

This five-article series published by the Medford Mail-Tribune and KTVL Channel 10 dives into the wildfire and smoke issues ignited by several years of heavy smoke across southwest Oregon.

Part 1: Our Reputation is At Stake
Part 2: Outgunned at The Start
Part 3: Could More Have Been Done?
Part 4: Firefighting Goes High-Tech
Part 5: Where Thinning is Winning