Afterburn

26 thoughts on “Afterburn”

  1. Good to learn you and your place are OK.

    Here in southwest Ontario it’s not fire, it’s water. The Great Lakes are ever so slowly receding from record or near record high levels. Lakeshore bluffs in my municipality on the north shore of Lake Erie erode when stiff winds blow from the southern half of the compass. Houses and cottages on low-lying dunes and dikes get hammered by spray and waves. Homeowners can only do, afford to do, so much. So they ask the municipality for help. The muni has a $4 billion (if memory serves) CDN infrastructure maintenance, repair, and replacement backlog. The outcomes the muni can afford to pay to *cough* mitigate flood damage are band-aids at best. So homeowners and the muni are turning to the province and feds for help, which will (probably?) be forthcoming.

    Water levels will eventually recede as will the risk and the damage. The memories of this event will fade. Water levels will eventually rise again, renewing the risk and the damage. Wash, rinse, repeat.

    Until, as you said and others have echoed, “. . . the pain is greater than the desire to maintain the status quo.”

    1. Andrew,

      I’m in NE OH and spend alot of time in northern lower MI on Lake Huron and many people along the shores of the GReat Lakes are freaking out about the last several years of high water levels, but it’s not something that is actually harmful (accept for the handful of properties that were too close to the shore to begin with) like the wild fires in the west and the hurricanes in the east. I think this climate change induced severity to the weather patterns will not be as devastating to the Great Lakes region as it has/will be on the west, east and south coasts of the US at least. I’m about 30 miles south of the Lake Erie shore line and our municipal water comes from Erie, so I take the position that the high water levels are great and just mean lots and lots of fresh water.

  2. @jeff I hope that it is interesting and useful to point out that standard, 2×4 “stick built” construction is much, much more resilient and safe in earthquakes than just about any other construction materials and methods.

    I, personally, had an aesthetic distaste for this kind of “cheap, American” construction until I gained a good understanding of surviving and mitigating the effects of earthquakes.

    That being said, this wooden construction that we all know is merely the interior (the “bones”) of the building and you can sheath the entire thing in fireproof material – specifically, concrete siding (such as Hardi-Board) and metal roofing.

    1. Even if you sheath it in Durarock or Hardi-board, the embers get sucked into the house through the attic and gable vents. That’s how these fires burn your house quite often: from the inside out rather than the outside in.

      1. I talked to a general contractor who is rebuilding numerous homes in the fire-affected area. He said there are numerous entry points for fire into the house regardless of construction method. Often, the whole house heats up to 800 degrees due to the surrounding fire and when the house ignites, it will burn in about 5 minutes. IOW, concrete won’t save you, nor will DuraRock over wood.

        1. I find this type of conversation to be frustrating. There are things we can all do to limit the likelihood of damage in a crisis. Cedar shingles on a roof? Bad Idea. Crispy dry shrubbery and dead trees all around the house? Not so good. Earthquakes? Bolt the frame of the house down to the foundation. I can (and have) mitigated those things. Not enough people do. When I talk to neighbors about this stuff people just don’t like the aesthetics of some of these options and/or don’t want to take the time or spend the money. Ultimately if a wall of fire sweeps across an entire county shit’s going to burn.

          1. Due to our lack of mitigation, our fires burn in a big wall or firestorm. I have evacuated 3 in my lifetime – always the same wall of fire driven by offshore winds. In the Painted Cave Fire, we had dry pines next to our house and a shake roof and our house didn’t burn. The others nearby were reduced to powder because the fire burned so hot and the wind happened to vector the fire onto those houses.

            I definitely agree about earthquakes. That said, I haven’t done it myself. I”m getting ready to sell anyway.

            People operate in two modes: complacency and panic.

  3. Eventually, hurricane season on the east coast might be like fire season in California. It might not hit you, but it’s going to hit someone.

    I still can’t believe they turned off the electricity to so many people. That has to be unprecedented.

  4. Forgive me if this came through multiple times – login issues, so feel free to delete duplicates.

    An interesting twist to it all: As is widely known, a large percentage of Californians are pushing for a greater proportion of energy to come from renewables, but the combination of deferred maintenance and the general unfitness of the tech for what renewables require may be contributing to system-failure-caused fires. Apparently, the intermittently high load placed on aluminum connectors by solar (PV) grid-tie cycling in and out is causing them to fail (spectacularly).

    On the fragility introduced by solar: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-07/rising-number-of-solar-rooftop-installations-flooding-grid/9845924
    and https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-01/rise-of-rooftop-solar-power-jeopardising-wa-energy-grid/11731452

    And on the failing connectors: https://www.utilityproducts.com/safety/article/14069293/connectors-the-weak-link

    Ultimately, PG&E is us. They gave us exactly what we wanted – cheap(ish) power, everywhere, as much as we wanted, all the time, and then, when we demanded it, so-called renewably. Any more “responsible” company would’ve folded for not being competitive.

    As you said, “the dominant culture has a strong preference for short term considerations rather than long term structural benefits.”

    What we got was our choice, the result of favoring both profitability AND affordability. A self-reinforcing catastrophe on many levels.

    1. Our industrial energy infrastructure is old. The bulk of it (oil refineries, pipelines, electrical transmission lines, substations, hydro dams, coal and nuclear power plants…) is between fifty and a hundred years old. Replacing it all is fabulously expensive and no one wants to pay for it. It’s the classic maintenance problem – you spend all the money and do all the work and you just end up with exactly what you had before.

      I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. We absolutely can run a civilized society on renewable energy. But that society wouldn’t look like the one we have now. That’s not a criticism of either renewables or our society. It’s just a statement of fact.

  5. Thanks for a rational and well thought out essay about California wildfires from someone who actually lives here. Based on the hyperbolic news coverage the last few years, you’d think that California is always on fire, everywhere, and we live out our lives in a failed state without electricity or running water. A few thoughts:

    – The vast majority of Californians aren’t at risk, now or in the future, from wildfires because they live in the coastal plains or the central valley. Wildfires are predominantly a phenomenon of dry mountains and canyons (e.g. sexy locations like Malibu or Sonoma County wine country) that are sparsely populated, relatively speaking.
    – That being said, it’s still a significant chunk of people. In particular, wealthy people living in the aforementioned scenic hills and canyons. I fully expect expensive measures to be taken, lawsuits and all. In the end, however, some areas will be have to be abandoned.
    – Firefighter worship is one of my pet peeves. They’re a huge part of my city’s budget for what is mostly an occasional EMT/ambulatory service. They’re obviously heroic when saving lives, but I think the people in say, the Oakland Hills, should finance their own special fire district if they insist on 100% service.
    – An old East Coast meme that’s resurfaced is that living in California is “unnatural” because it’s a fire prone “desert.” Tell that to the cranky pensioners in Spain, Greece & Italy, who live in a nearly identical climate, as their ancestors have for 3000 years. As my grandfather might say… proprio una cazzata..

    I don’t mean to downplay the very real and increasing threats of drought, fire and government mismanagement in California and other regions with similar climates. Remaining here will become ever more challenging, but there are some benefits from a resilience perspective, like the fact that neither heating nor air conditioning are strictly necessary. That might not seem like a big deal, but I recently visited relatives in the Northwest during a Thanksgiving cold snap and I couldn’t help but notice the constant hum of natural gas burning to keep their beautiful and large home above freezing. Burr!

    1. I second Brian. The amount of freeloading on the insurance/public safety systems by the wealthy in CA is unsustainable. Millions of people living in ranch houses with proper wiring and venting, surrounded by firebreaks (the street grid) pay to protect scores of mansions perched inside kindling piles. The only way my house catches fire is arson. Malibu burns every couple years.

  6. Your treatment of the subject is the most realistic and sensible I have read yet. I also live in this zone, but in a rare community that has underground power lines, so I have been less directly affected than most. But all the chaos and loss of a week of school and work time for people all around me, and the smoke…

    I hope your property continues to be spared in all the Octobers to come!

  7. We’re talking about a population that placed itself squarely in harm’s way by building in locations that naturally want to burn and much of the construction is highly flammable. But “blame the victim” won’t fly even if it’s largely true.

    Remember: Oakland used to be so dense with oaks that you couldn’t ride a horse through it. What are the solutions? There aren’t many. We could build concrete houses, but the gables and roofs would still burn. One guy nearby is rebuilding with concrete. Other than that, there’s no way to convince everyone to move back to the city. At least half the population finds it intolerable if you’re trying to raise a family.

    That takes us to the next piece of this huge puzzle. Firefighter’s keep pushing for more funding. This is a delicate subject so I’ll attempt to tread lightly here.

    It’s the pension obligations. The bonds are floated to allow city and county general funds to pay more to CalPERS while still keeping fire services up. CalPERS payment obligations are skyrocketing throughout the state. Read Pension Tsunami or Truth in Accounting.

    It’s also all the new whiz-bang junk they buy with matching funds. State pension compensation is outrageously high due to pension spiking and a bunch of promises made in the ’90s by politicians that we can’t afford.

    Firefighters are heroes who put their lives on the line to protect the public. I understand that.

    While I’m grateful for their services, firefighting is statistically not in the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the US. Logging is the most dangerous job, followed by fishing and aviation. Cal Fire and the Legislative Analysts Office both did a study on what would reduce fire risk. We need to remove tens of millions of acres of fuel and cut fire breaks.
    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2019/05/14/californias-government-solely-responsible-for-states-forest-management-and-wildfire-debacle/

    PG&E is somewhat to blame for failing to clear the lines, but even if the lines were cleared the forest floor would still catch on fire in other ways. The forests need to be thinned and we probably need to make grazing profitable again. The Spanish planted all the grass that goes brown every year to feed grazing animals. The native bunchgrasses don’t burn as easily.

    Me? I’m moving out. Like you said, we’re not going to do anything about this but hem and haw while the remaining millions of acres burn.

  8. Johnny, this article is particularly interesting to me, given I live on the eastern coast of Australia where we’ve had a number of bush fires. In my area alone, fires have flared up over the past five months. A worrying trend as we are not yet in the ‘traditional’ fire season. We live in a coastal town. We also have a remote bush block two and a half hours away. It has in the past few weeks completely impacted by two fires, both fires scaring locals with very long memories of past fires. Its clean up will take many months. Whilst damage to infrastructure will be attended to, it is important to realise the ongoing impact on the environment such as ongoing collapse of burnt trees and falling branches. Each time we visit the bush block, there are freshly fallen trees, not just on our access road but also on public roads. And the increased level of roadkill as surviving animals migrate to road verges for green pick. So impact continues beyond the fire events. Much thinking currently in our household here as we contemplate changes during the cleanup – infrastructure, securing water supply (creek is bone dry first time in 30 years of possession of the bush block), routines (placing fuel supplies away from built infrastructure for example), fire plan, analysing weather forecasts (including wind due to falling trees as mentioned above) to time our visits and many more other issues.

  9. I always hoped that that fire station was positioned away from the little downtown, supersized and located on the main highway so that it could act more like the CDF and be ready for Countywide mutual aid. This turns out to be its superior use. I definitely did not see this new scope of its use in the new location.

  10. So many scenarios, so little time, I shan’t ignore the enormity of this epoch. The harvesting of a cultural high tech madness. And I can’t even do three chin-ups and the fridge contains two partially eaten cups of chocolate pudding. All that sustains me are the many Johnnyisms that I pluck before ripeness. “Dog Whistles about public safety.” now that makes me laugh.

  11. Also glad you and your property escaped any real harm! We like having you around, good sir!

    A Priest I know has a saying about the various issues that are always being argued/debated/ect. in our country: Gravity always wins. Eventually, Reality will trump any utopian ideas of control we have over the environment, ourselves, and the world in general. The fires (or Nature, if you want) will always win.

  12. Sounds like it’s time to build America’s version of the “Hill Towns of Tuscany”…the future could be delightful.

  13. Glad you are safe and sound. That fire station looks a lot like one I worked on in a one-traffic-light town in southern Delaware. Very sophisticated systems and equipment, and a savvy Chief who clearly understood and appreciated what he was getting. But the funding sure wasn’t local.

    Another well-funded project I worked on was an emergency operations center in northeastern Maryland. Again, very sophisticated systems, huge datacenter, a dispatch floor, situation room, etc etc. That faculty also was not funded locally. The feds are building out these facilities as terror command and control centers. One may wonder who they are actually planning to command and control.

  14. “much of the construction is highly flammable”
    Exactly, I think the most cost effective measure would be to only to build with non flammable materials in wild fire zones.
    But that is never going to happen and traditional wood construction is defended with religious zeal and by vested interests.

    1. The climate is changing. It always has and it always will. People are doing things that are most likely contributing to the changes. But I prefer not to engage in the current political bifurcation on the topic. You can draw a line between the exhaust coming from our cars and these huge fires, but we’re not going to stop driving. More people fly more and more each year regardless of the floods and hurricanes. We’ll change when (and only when) the pain is greater than the desire to maintain the status quo. That’s a long way off…

  15. Glad you’re safe John, I was missing your blogs. I live in Victoria British Columbia and work as a handyman, last year a young lady who works for our provincial forestry department asked if I could help install a mini split AC unit so she could shut herself in, should we ever have another forest fire season like last year. So I naturally asked her about the projections for the future. Her answer was simple and very clearly annunciated “not good”.

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