Thursday, July 24, 2008

Fire in California: What we need to know


David Carle was a California State Park ranger for almost three decades. He brings his experience to a timely book: "Introduction to Fire in California" ($18.95 in paper from University of California Press), scheduled for August publication, is one in a series of "California Natural History Guides."

The book contains 15 maps and some 90 photographs (including one of "Richard Nixon on his roof during the Bel Air fire of 1961" spraying water with a garden hose while smoke billows in the background); in five chapters it covers the nature of fire, vegetation types and fire across California, file policy, how to prepare for a wildfire, and a history of major fires in the state. That includes the Fountain fire in central Shasta County in 1992 which consumed 300 homes; and the Southern California fires in 2007, some set by arsonists and spurred on by the Santa Ana winds, that burned half a million acres and 2000 homes and killed seven.

Carle details how CAL FIRE responds to wildfires throughout the state. "Estimated flame lengths are one way to consider firefighting options. . . . So long as flame lengths stay below four feet, hand crews using shovels and axes can construct fire lines near the front of the fire.

"The heat and danger from rapidly spreading fire after flames are between four and eight feet high mean that fire lines must move back a considerably greater distance; only bulldozers or other heavy equipment can clear fire lines along the fire front. . . . A fire with flames between eight and 11 feet requires air tankers or helicopters to drop fire retardant. . . . Beyond 11-foot flames, direct fire suppression is simply no longer effective. No amount of water or retardant can make an effective dent in the energy being released."

The chapter on "Getting Ready: Life on the Edge" is worth the price admission. It diagrams creating a defensible space around your home and what to do during a fire evacuation ("bring combustible patio furniture indoors" and leave some lights on so firefighters can find your "house at night or in heavy smoke").

One way to thank the firefighters and volunteers is to become more informed about fire. This book will help.

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