Carr Fire – And All Fires

In news, world wide given it has shown up on Sky and other global news shows, is the Carr fire and just how horrific it is that California, and even beyond that, the west in general, is burning to a crisp due to Global Warming.

This IS a truly horrible fire. It IS a “big one” compared to prior fires. It has killed people and destroyed homes and buildings. It is NOT the end of California as we know it. It is NOT a disaster of Biblical Proportions caused by Global Warming.

My background includes one summer just after High School graduation. That summer, too, was a record breaking fire season. I think it was about August of 1971. THE big fire that year was the Clear Lake Fire. Things were so bad they were recruiting just about anybody who could walk and carry a shovel to be fire fighters. Well, three of us decided to sign up. I ended up working around the clock for about 4 days on the fire line at Clear Lake. Being basically untrained, I mostly carried around a Pulaski and chopping down brush or digging out a dirt break as directed by the line boss.

I also got to sleep on the ground in a paper sleeping bag and spend all day on the side of a mountain after a nice “few mile” hike from camp, sporadically under thin smoke.

So I’ve got some, even if limited in total time, experience on the fire line fighting a big fire.

But what is a big fire?

The Carr Fire is listed as a gigantic humongous 100,000 acres+ fire. Gee, 6 figures…

But in reality, that’s not a very good way to get a handle on size. Humans just don’t handle numbers more than about 2 digits with any kind of intuitive grasp (unless they have trained at it a lot).

It is much better to look at it in terms of a familiar linear distance or area. First I’m going to turn that into square miles, then square kilometers.

So there are 640 acres in a “section” and one section is one mile on a side. 100,000 acres is 156 1/4 square miles. That’s still over 2 digits, so lets make it a rectangle of 16 x 10 miles, roughly.

Now that’s still pretty big, but we can get a grip on it. I can walk 10 miles in a few hours. It’s a size I can understand. There is roughly 0.62 miles in a km. In km it would be roughly 16 x 26 km. Now that doesn’t speak to me as well as the miles do, but for some folks it will.

It is still big, but now it is pretty clear it isn’t like the whole top of the State is on fire. From Silicon Valley to the San Francisco airport is a 52 mile drive. 5 times longer than one side, and 3 times longer than the other. Lake Tahoe shows up on maps and many folks are familiar with that small blue area between California and Reno Nevada being Lake Tahoe. Per the wiki, it is 191 square miles. That’s bigger than the Carr fire. It is the little blue blob just in the ‘corner’ where California bends on the inside of the bend.

California land and Tribes

Now that IS still a pretty big area. Which leads me to the next point. Something I learned on that fire fighting job.

Fire Fighters spend a large part of their time waiting around for the fire to burn out. They allow large areas of “unimportant” land to burn and mostly act to protect structures and prevent spread out of easily worked bounds.

One day I spent several hours cutting brush and helping to make a fire break ahead of some small grass and brush burning areas. The next day I was sent to the far side of a dirt road and spent the entire 16 hour day sitting on my butt (and occasionally under a bit of brush to get out of the sun) waiting for something to happen. About 2 PM the firelighters came along and dribbled burning oil on the grass on the other side of the road. Winds were calm enough to start a ‘back fire’ that would remove the fuel in a wide enough path that the real fire, a guess of 3 or 4 miles away down slope, could not cross it. My job, that whole time, was to wait for some sparks to fly across the road and then go shovel, stomp, or piss them out. None never did for me. The guy a dozen yards away from me got one.

Now this fire line was maybe 3 miles long, and the fire was about 4 miles away. That’s maybe 12 square miles, or 7,680 acres of grass and some scrub that it was decided to just burn. Why? Well, there was nothing in it but dry grass and manzaneta brush, so who cares? It was mostly some kind of government land. Feds or State I think. In a couple of years it would even be improved after the burn. Certainly not something to spend a lot of effort or risk to keep from burning.

We made the fire line there as that was were the dirt road was at. No need to cut a new fire break. It was down slope to the fire, so setting a backfire there would not risk a runaway uphill burn. It was a good place to set the backfire as soon as the wind died down. Area doesn’t matter, places where the backfire will work and risk is low do matter. Existing fire breaks that don’t need scarce bulldozer time matter. Terrain matters. Scrub brush burned does not matter.

In the very far distance, I’d guess about 5 miles, maybe more, I got to watch a wonderful show of air tankers dropping borate. That was in the trees where I’d cut some brush on that fire line the day before. There were some structures, mostly unimportant outbuildings, out that way, a some nice timber that they wanted to save. That was where most of the effort and equipment went.

Overall, I came to understand that most of wild fire fighting was fairly boring, sedate even, and slow paced; interspersed with some very hard work and sporadic moments of lots of adrenaline. Chopping brush and stomping embers while cutting a few hundred yards of firebreak by hand with the smoke and smolder maybe 30 yards away can be a bit intense. Our team got enough break cut to defend, and then the Cat Tractor arrived and we were sent to dinner. Some parts we heard the crack of det-cord or similar linear explosive cutting a fire break on the quick, in the distance. At that time, only done as a last resort when nothing else could finish in time. Most of the time after that first day was “sit, stand, squat, and spit” and wait for embers. Defending the fire break. Waiting for the fire to just burn itself out.

Essentially, you wait for low wind conditions, then deprive it of fuel in a wide enough swath, and let the rest burn.

So what make the Carr fire an issue? Well, it was mostly out in the same kind of scrub oak, brush and grass area (the land is very much the same over a large part of the Central Valley area) and historically not many folks are out in that area. But the wind decided to send the fire toward the town of Redding. At some point, it jumped the Sacramento River (that runs basically from Lake Shasta through Redding) and got into the more populated areas. Essentially, IMHO, folks thought the Sacramento as a fire break would hold it, and the wind decided otherwise:

Carr Fire July 2018

French Gulch had a population of 346, just to give an idea of the population density out there. Whiskeytown is nearly abandoned and is largely part of French Gulch for things like mail and census. The town of Shasta is fairly large, at about 1700, but the wiki notes:

Situated about six miles (10 km) west of Redding, California along Highway 299, Shasta was once home to some 3,500 residents and a thriving commercial district. However, in the mid-1880s, the newly constructed Central Pacific Railroad bypassed Shasta, in favor of Redding and the town declined into “ghost town” status.

My point? Most of what the Carr fire is burning is what is rightly called “worthless”. The cities inside the area are of some historical interest, but not much really. Many of the folks living in places like Whiskeytown would rather have the money from FEMA than their “ghost town” house. In between these very small and isolated villages, it’s dead dry grass, manzaneta scrub brush, and some small valley oaks plus some digger pines. It’s a fun place to camp and fish, at Whiskeytown lake. Nice place to go shooting in the nowhere. Interesting historically from the ’49ers stories. Not something really anyone would miss if it burns and regrows outside of the small residential areas.

Where’s it’s a big issue is Shasta, with enough population to be a problem, and Redding which is now a significant urban area. We’d not want to lose a significant city, but that is all up to the wind.

I really hope that little places like Keswick (pop 451 ) have been saved from the fire. That fire lines were established and the land around them burned prior to the winds spreading the fire out of control on to Redding. I’ve driven over much of that area and more with my Dad when I was a kid. It’s special to me, and I dearly loved the old wood ’49ers mining towns, rundown as they often were. But realistically, despite all the hype, and despite the fire being big: Most of the area burned just doesn’t matter. If they can save some of the historical “ghost towns” and prevent the fire spreading into the rest of Redding, everything will recover in a few years.

Now realize all the other fires in California tend to be a similar story, but a much smaller scale. Mostly some scrub land with dry grass fires and some trees not useful for timber. Surrounded at a distance and backfires set while the crew mostly waits for it burn itself out and stomps on embers that blow over the line. A very few of them, or parts of them, places where really intense effort goes into saving lives, structures, or valuable lands & trees. And all of them too small to spot on a map of California without a pointer to them. So when the nightly “news” shows California almost covered in little bonfire symbols, remember that the symbol is larger than even the largest fire in the State, and that mostly the place is fine.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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20 Responses to Carr Fire – And All Fires

  1. philjourdan says:

    The sound of “going to fight a fire” when you are fresh out of high school sounds exciting! But then the reality of your description sets in and it appears to be a colossal bore for the most part.

    I never had the opportunity to “volunteer” to fight a wild fire. But I did volunteer to help clean up the bay in 71 when 2 Standard tankers had an accident. Our job? “rescue” ducks (and other water fowl) and take them to cleaning stations so they could be cleaned with dawn detergent (yes, that stuff really works).

    The problem was they had too many volunteers, and as the tide would sweep a sea gull (or duck) onto shore, so many folks would run for it, it would panic and swim back out to sea! So we wound up doing essentially nothing (realizing the problem, we – my friend and I – set out for a part of the coast not polluted by people, but alas were unsuccessful in our endeavors).

    But it did get me out of school for a couple of days.

  2. Steven Fraser says:

    I’ve never worked a fire, but our neighborhood in Massachusetts was bounded on the West by a swath of forest… still there, too.

    We used to explore the forest, climb trees, look for junk… you know, kid stuff for the late ’50s to early 60’s. At least twice there was a fire in it that I recall, that threatened the homes along the western side of the subdivision. There were fire department dirt roads in the area, so they worked from those, while the homeowners watered their roofs and siding, watching for airborne sparks. At least 1 time the fire came right up to the line of trees in a friend’s back yard. You could feel the heat on your skin, and see the evaporation of the roof water coming off of the buildings. Very exciting when you are 9 or 10 yrs old.

  3. Steven Fraser says:

    And, thinking about that forest… one year we found a 30′ section of rubber fire hose, cut and left by a fire crew. We schlepped that home, and tied it to a strong oaktree limb. Played ‘Tarzan’ on that for many summers…

  4. Larry Ledwick says:

    I held a wild land fire Red Card for a while when I worked for the state, went through the wild land fire fighting course as part of getting the card. Never officially used (because no one could figure out who would pay my insurance fees – State office of Emergency Management was not used to having anyone who actually did things in the field other than go to meetings and carry a clip board)

    I was good friends with the fire chief in my local volunteer fire district and he did draft me to run a crew of walk in volunteers to fight a couple brush fires near residential housing to assist the local fire crews. It was on the flank of a local mountain ringed with residential areas, and we took about 12 people and started at the bottom of a finger of fire that was working around the mountain toward a group of houses and just overwhelmed it with shovels and a very aggressive attack by some younger kids (just out of high school age) who probably did not really realize how much danger they were in a few times.)

    Very hard work when in contact with the fire as you mentioned. “The black” areas already burned were your friend and you always kept track of where they were as part of your personal escape plan if the wind changed.

    Working a grass/brush fire on a steep slope (near the limit of what you can walk up) is dangerous work with lots of hazards from rolling rocks to stepping in pot holes to making damn sure the fire never gets below you.

    But knocking down a finger of fire at 1:00 am near some houses was a big rush and very satisfying. I can see why folks do that work.

  5. cdquarles says:

    Hmm. Sounds a lot like Emergency Rooms ;).

  6. A C Osborn says:

    A really big fire is 3,000,000 acres, that was the one in New Bruswick in 1825.
    Or 2,500,000 acres in Michigan in 1871 or South Carolina in 1898.

  7. DonM says:

    Depending on source, in 1987, Russia/China “black dragon” fire … 18 million (wiki) to 30 million (USFS) acres.

    That’s a big one … I don’t remember hearing anything about it at the time. If it happened now it would surely be a damning confirmation of accelerating climate change/chaos/warming.

  8. John F. Hultquist says:

    Not all the vegetation within a “fire” burns.
    After the fire is out, an aerial view can be gotten, without smoke.

    See #8 & #11 in this slide set: Eagle Creek**

    Months after a fire, automated and human outlining of burned and unburned areas will allow mapping (GIS) of the extent. Most all press and media will have moved on.

    **Embers from the Oregon side went across the Columbia River and started fires – quickly put out.

  9. John F. Hultquist says:

    As mentioned above, about unburned extent, see Tables 4 and 5 in this document:
    Norse Peak Fire – east of Mt. Rainier

  10. John F. Hultquist says:

    Don’t miss the map and photos, near the end.

  11. E.M.Smith says:

    3 Million acres, 4687 square miles, or 47 miles by 100 miles.

    Very large, yes, but would fit in between San Francisco and Sacramento and not touch either of them (47 out of 86 miles), while reaching only 50 miles north and south of I-80 (or about 1/7 of the length of California at 770 miles…)

    The whole thing about 4687/163696 or 0.028 of the area of the State. 2.8%

    It really is very helpful to always convert to square (miles or km) and then to a rectangle sides.

    It really does help to visualize it better.

    That 30 Million acre Russian one would be 28% of the State and that’s really getting large… but a small part of Russia.

  12. Larry Ledwick says:

    Not surprising the Eco loons screw up everything they touch, in an effort to save it, they kill it.
    This same sort of mismanagement is why Yellow Stone burned in the late 1980’s, they had prevented the natural process of fires clearing over growth and creating natural fire breaks with small burns forming meadows.

  13. Kneel says:

    Interesting TED video re: California forest structure – sorry don’t have a ref handy.
    Essentially, the guy says that when people first arrived, most areas were “piebald” by fires – that is, fire could start, but it really couldn’t get far before it hit an area too low in fuel for it to continue. The area that did burn created the “break” for the next one, and so on, in a patchwork covering the entire area.
    Then people started putting out the fires.
    Which meant that there were no longer any natural fire breaks, and dead wood and other fuel accumulated year after year.
    Environmentalists also added to the issue by preventing the back-burning and firebreaks required to properly manage the forest.
    Once the fires start now, they have plenty of fuel and there are no natural breaks. Result is predictable – hot, widespread fires that do massive damage to property and forests and are nearly impossible to stop.

    So the big issue is NOT temperature, rainfall, or anything else weather/climate related. It is a management issue, pure and simple. Go back to managing the forest properly and these issues will go away. But you won’t be able to because “the environment!”. No point saying it’s better for the environment to manage the fires by deliberately lighting them at appropriate times and places – they don’t care and won’t let you, even though you can provide historical data to prove improvement in forest ecology, reduced economic losses and so on.

    Several years ago, a friend of mine was a volunteer firefighter and he advises that they basically had to threaten to walk away unless they had “permission” to backburn – no threat, no permission. And that was when it involved potentially very large damage to property and threat to human life (bushfires in and around the national parks to the north and west of Sydney)

  14. Terry Jackson says:

    That article is., um, just call it goofy. It starts with “Nearly 3,000 acres of state and local lands in California have been burned this year, about triple the size of the five-year average for this time of year.”

    Much of California is covered in brush, and a lot of that brush burns regularly, like every 35 years in some areas, and under 100 years in almost all of it. Overcrowding? Some species are serrotinous, as in the cones need a fire to open, and the resulting spacing can often be measured in inches because feet is too large.

    ANyway, don’t pay much attention to the article.

  15. Larry Ledwick says:

    Most of the western US is populated with fire adapted species. Much of Colorado’s forest burns on average about every 75 years or so. But failure to let small fires burn builds up small fuels that accumulate to the point the fires get into the crowns and you get massive fires that burn so hot that they sterilize the soil. The species that need fire only need a fire hot enough to soften the resin and open the cones but not so hot it kills the trees or burns them to bare sticks of charcoal.

    It is basically a choice of evils situation. Modern fire fighting practice during the “smokey the bear” period was too aggressive and did not let small harmless burns occur. That not only allows the forests to become prime beetle kill environment but it also over time starves out the niche for meadows (essential for a healthy ungulate population like deer and elk) and pioneer species like aspen here in Colorado.

    The indians used intentional burning for long enough to become part of the ecosystem. Fire is not always bad and snuffing fires the moment they send up a tendril of smoke creates the kind of conditions we have all over the west right now. It will take a couple generations of the newer fire fighting strategy of letting small naturally caused fires burn unless they put population centers at risk to get back to a balanced ecosystem that is not a Molotov cocktail waiting to ignite.

    Yes the brush country is basically standing gasoline but that is what it has adapted too, fast brief hot fires are normal in that terrain, but in the forest canopy, you want to have periodic small fires to keep the small ladder fuels from building up, and to thin the trees enough that crown fires are rare.

  16. I have been in 3 bushfires when I lived in Sydney (NSW) fighting to stop the house burning down. in two we lost all our fences in and around the 5 acre property and a couple of sheds. Both huge fires in north west Sydney were started by stupid burning off but the lack of hazard reduction helped the spread. In both those fires near us, houses were burnt down and in one, two people died. The three fires were about 10 years apart which is around the period of dry times from SOI El Nino. Prior to 1980 rural fire brigades used to keep up firetrails (good for walking and horse trails) and backburn in the off season.
    I read somewhere the California fires were started by arsonists as were the bad fires in Greece which killed so many. The Greens have a lot to answer for. There is no climate change. In Australia, there are periods of rain and periods of drought -this can can be seen by the record of the SOI (Southern Oscillation Index). The period can be prolonged and be worse at times. (the cycle is 9 to 16 years). Swings in the PDO where it co-incides with the SOI can be an indicator of severe drought and floods. SE Qld had big floods in 1974 and 2011. 2004 t0 2008 was a drought time (but not as bad as 1901 to 1909). It appears much of NSW and Qld is now in drought. The SOI was quite negative in 2016 and 2017 but lately has been around zero or neutral.
    I would think California would have the opposite cycle to the north east coast of Australia. Maybe more drought while we get more rain (+ve SOI)

  17. Blimey, big figure makes for typing mistakes. meant to put in an “as were the bad fires in Greece”. Also the floods were in 1974,( not 1994) in south east Queensland. Both the 1974 and 2011 floods people were killed. I image that in 1893 when there was about 1.2 m rain over three days in my area that floods were worse but then records were not as good and not as many people lived there but people also drowned.

    [Reply: Fixed it for you. -E.M.Smith]

  18. Graeme No.3 says:

    Forgive the length.
    Black Thursday
    Widespread bushfires occurred in Victoria in early February 1851. The height of the destruction happened on Black Thursday, 6 February 1851.
    ‘Fires covered a quarter of what is now Victoria (approximately 5 million hectares). Areas affected include Portland, Plenty Ranges, Westernport, the Wimmera and Dandenong districts. Approximately 12 lives, one million sheep and thousands of cattle were lost’

    The Black Friday bushfires of 13 January 1939, in Victoria, Australia, were among the worst natural bushfires in the world. Almost 20,000 km² (4,942,000 acres, 2,000,000 ha) of land was burned, 71 people died, several towns were entirely obliterated and over 1,300 homes and 69 sawmills were burned, and 3,700 buildings were destroyed. It was calculated that three-quarters of the State was directly or indirectly affected by the disaster.

    The Black Sunday bushfires were a series of bushfires that broke out across South Australia on 2 January 1955. Extreme morning temperatures coupled with strong north-westerly winds contributed to the breakout of numerous fires in the Adelaide Hills, with others as far south as Kingston and Millicent (250 miles away).
    Around 1,000 EFS volunteers from 60 brigades were tasked to the fires, but were overwhelmed. At 10am, the EFS head office requested urgent public assistance. Around 2,500 citizens volunteered. The fires were contained by 9:30pm, thanks largely to a fortuitous change in the weather and widespread public assistance.
    The fires resulted in two deaths, destroyed 40 homes and numerous other buildings. The Premier, Sir Thomas Playford, who was fighting the fires, also narrowly escaped death, sheltering with five other men in a patch of hoed earth
    The burnt area was estimated at as much as 600 square miles (160,000 ha)
    I remember that day as my Grandfather died (at 85 in hospital) and looking up from the Adelaide plain without seeing the Hills for smoke.

    The Ash Wednesday bushfires, known in South Australia as Ash Wednesday II, were a series of bushfires that occurred in south-eastern Australia on 16 February 1983, Within twelve hours, more than 180 fires fanned by winds of up to 110 km/h (68 mph) caused widespread destruction across the states of Victoria and South Australia.
    In Victoria 47 people died. There were 28 deaths in South Australia. This included 14 CFA and 3 CFS volunteer fire-fighter who died across both states that day. Many fatalities were as a result of firestorm conditions caused by a sudden and violent wind change in the evening which rapidly changed the direction and size of the fire front. The speed and ferocity of the flames, aided by abundant fuels and a landscape immersed in smoke, made fire suppression and containment impossible.
    Ash Wednesday was one of Australia’s costliest natural disasters. Over 3,700 buildings were destroyed or damaged and 2,545 individuals and families lost their homes. Livestock losses were very high, with over 340,000 sheep, 18,000 cattle and numerous native animals either dead or later destroyed. A total of 4,540 insurance claims were paid totalling A$176 million with a total estimated cost of well over $400 million (1983 values) for both states or $1.3 billion in adjusted terms (2007).

    I heard about this disaster coming by a friend living in what became a black earth zone. That was in 1970! He pointed out the local houses “that will burn, that too, that will be OK, that will burn” judging them by the precautions taken (or none in most cases). He left years before but he was right.

    Re the insurance claims: The State Govt. set up a Disaster fund of over 2 millions but when people started claiming they found it was nearly exhausted. One couple had been paid out enormous sums for their losses incl. a herd of thoroughbred horses and $15,000 for flowers burnt inside their house. They had gone overseas and were unavailable to answer questions like “why did neighbours never see any horses in your paddock?” And “how could you fit that much flowers inside the house and still move?”

    The Black Saturday bushfires were a series of bushfires that ignited or were burning across Victoria on and around Saturday, 7 February 2009 and were Australia’s all-time worst bushfire disasters. The fires occurred during extreme bushfire-weather conditions and resulted in Australia’s highest ever loss of life from a bushfire; 180 people died and 414 were injured as a result of the fires.
    As many as 400 individual fires were recorded on 7 February. Following the events of 7 February 2009 and its aftermath, that day has become widely referred to in Australia as Black Saturday.

    Much of this disaster was caused by Greenies. Firstly they built in the forested areas, didn’t take precautions e.g. plan escape or built a fire proof shelter but ABOVE ALL vehemently opposed preventative burning. In one town only 1 building survived, the owner cleared trees and bushes back 150 feet from his house before the fire. He was fined $58,000 by his local Council for doing so.

  19. Graham No.3, you forgot the Black Tuesday bushfire in Tasmania on Feb 7,1967 when 64 people lost their lives. It should be noted that southern WA, Southern SA, Victoria and Tasmania have a Mediterranean climate being hot and dry in the summer months (December, January and February) with February particular prone to bush fires. Sydney has a even rainfall but the summer months can be hot and dry periodically (as above in cycles of around 10 years). Most of Sydney is located in sandstone country which has little moisture holding capacity and the Eucalypts shed leaves in hot and dry times giving extra burnable fuel. South East Queensland (Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast) is better off as the climate is sub-tropical and the summer months are the rainy season when floods occur. October (Spring) is the worst for bushfires but luckily it is not so hot or dry as in southern states so grass and bush fires can be quickly contained.

  20. Terry Jackson says:

    A current article on forest fire preparation via thinning and brush control in Arizona Ponderosa Pine.

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