Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Pile of Ash

Marty and I decided to take a drive to where the Valley Fire burned  over an area that spanned 3 counties of California. It's only about an hour from where we live. The total number of acres burned was approximately 76,000 and 4 civilians died as well as countless wildlife that no one will ever be able to account for.

As we first drove down CA 53 toward Middletown we thought this isn't as bad as the media made it out to be. But the closer we got to Middletown the wider our eyes became. The town looked like a encampment for PG&E and CalFire with hundreds of trucks.

We finally figured out this used to be an apartment building.
Yes, that is a burned out truck.
It really looked this bad.
Fortunately the down town area was untouched. What house burned and what was saved made no sense. Burned houses sat right next to completely untouched houses. 

I decided to looked into why some houses burn and others don't. I found an article by Jack Cohen who is a research fire scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, based at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. Jack, I am told, has four decades of experience and is a pre-eminent expert on wildfire and home ignitions. What he said made a lot of sense to me. I thought I'd put it in here because a lot of my readers live in the boondocks just like we do.

Jack: Our general perception is that a fire comes rolling down a hillside and takes out a neighborhood like a tsunami or a lava flow just doesn't fit the physics of the problem. During big crown fires, for example, the flames pass by quickly so the radiant heat doesn’t linger in one place very long. That makes it incapable of igniting a structure that is 100 feet away. (hence the recommendation that we make 100 feet of defensible space) During wildfire the principle igniters of a house and the immediate surroundings are firebrands (aka embers), which means that the wildfire may be half a mile away, and we still have neighborhoods burning down.
A recent one with high destruction was the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado, where more than 300 houses burned. Most of them were in suburban neighborhoods, not surrounded by trees. And nothing else was burning other than the houses. It's  more common than you might think.
While we are paying attention to the great big flames and the towering convection columns of a wildfire, we've got embers igniting pine needles in the rain gutters, the woodpile on the deck, the dead grass or bark mulch right up next to the wood wall. When I go into one of these locations, I find that the wildfire has quit hours and hours before houses are actually burning down. They've ignited from embers and they just sit there with a little burning ember, slowly involving enough of the structure to where it can go to flaming combustion.
If you have a wildfire displaying extreme behavior, both in its intensity and its growth rate, it potentially can be large enough when it gets close to a subdivision to expose thousands of houses simultaneously. Then we've got a hundred engines that are totally overwhelmed. But if we have houses that are highly ignition resistant, the responding resources are much more effective. Suddenly they don't get overwhelmed and they can begin to tackle the smaller ignitions that do take time to develop.

The problem of embers falls into the no man's land between how structure fires are fought and how wild fires are fought. The inundation approach squirts lot of water, which works with solitary structure fires. That doesn't help with small ignitions. As soon as crews start inundating houses, they run out of water. Instead, we need to distribute a small amount of water in many different directions. So rather than having a big Type One engine squirting  1,000 gallons a minute and running out, we have the homeowner with a bucket and a mop and some water putting out the small ignitions.
Wild land fires are inevitable. It's about taking responsibility for the condition of your house, before the fire, because nobody else can. And it's not just the material that the house is made of, it's the condition that lends itself to potential ignition. How have you maintained your home?

You don't have to eliminate fire from your property completely, but you have to keep flames from contacting your structure and you have to keep embers from smoldering and turning into a big fire when they land on your house. Which means all of the fine fuels need to be gone from on your house and immediately around your house before fire season even starts. All flammable things need to be swept away from your house at least five feet. The grass needs to be mowed around the structure. You don' t have to mow an acre. You don't have to cut all the trees down. You just have to make sure they're not contacting each other and they're not right next to the forest. Make sure fire on the ground can't easily burn up the tree and torch out, because that creates embers close to the house. I highly encourage hardwoods like oak around the structure as a shield, they just don't support high intensity fire, and can become a very, very good radiation barrier. Absolutely get rid of your flammable wood roof. Make sure firewood is in a sealed crib, or away from the house. Act like the fire department isn't going to show up, because that's what's probably going to happen.


We drove on and at a bend in the road we came upon what was left of Hoberg's. I used to go there years ago to spend a week to a month practicing Transcendental Meditation in winter or summer. We called it Cobb Mountain back then. I suppose it is still Cobb Mountain. I remember walking the nearby golf course covered with snow one winter. A young woman in the group sprained her ankle and the leader, who was a very burly guy, volunteered to carry her out piggy back. I also remember hiking up into the surrounding forest in summer and being transfixed by the dry scent of the pine and the wind up high in the canopy. I decided to spend a week in silence one time. In the dining hall I sat writing short notes to my friends. Back in the day it was lovely old fashioned resort. Today it's a pile of ash.

The Hoberg's sign for those of you who may doubt.

What is left of the main hall.


  1. Renee, Just wondering if all the small cabins at Hoberg's also burned? Is everything gone? Suz

    1. EVERYTHING is gone. It's just really really sad. We had some good times there.