This is truly an awful picture. When we first looked at it, it struck us an image from science fiction, or a close-up of some fiery organic membrane. But it’s the cellular, almost organic pattern you get when human settlement—in this case Paradise, California as seen from a satellite—grows into a fire-maintained forest ecosystem and that landscape burns.
Although that’s not exactly right. In Paradise mostly what burned were buildings. A closer resolution of this image would show many trees free of flames and surviving. The fire is being carried by the settlement’s structures. The trees at this point are almost bystanders to the catastrophe. That apparently perverse inversion of circumstances may only add to the end-times imagery of the photo.
But we can overturn that idea on its head by saying the hopelessness of this picture is actually key to where there is hope. If people’s homes are the actual fuel feeding this fire, what would have happened if they had been less flammable? And we know the answer to that question.
Fire hardening buildings to resist ignition, lifting crowns in the adjacent forests, managing flashy fuels, cleaning around buildings all lead to shorter flame lengths, less heat, fewer flying embers and a better chance of survival. It is difficult to do clinical trials to prove this for obvious reasons.
But experience is showing that neighbourhoods that take the steps to manage their buildings, including their roofs, porches and soffits along with the grounds 10 meters around them, are less vulnerable to rampant destruction by wildfire. We have seen cases where flames backed by winds similar to Paradise have not taken hold, sparing homes in communities that were fire prepared.
What happened in Paradise (and others) was terrible. But there are ways for us to prepare and adapt to the threat of more frequent, severe and intense wildfires.
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Adapting to climate change and the wildfire threat to communities will be the subject of a panel at the WFCA 2019 Annual Conference.
Photograph AP Digital Globe