Gas station without pumps

2018 November 10

Smoky air

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:23
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The air in Santa Cruz is full of smoke today, to the point where it is unhealthy (the EPA site AirNow gives the PM2.5 level as 175, well into the red “unhealthy” range).  This smoke is not coming from our local fire (17 acres and 93% contained), but from the Camp Fire 240 miles away.  The last time we had such bad air it was due to smoke from the Mendocino Complex fires back in July—we seem to be downwind of the worst fires in California since they started keeping good records in 1932  (the Mendocino Complex fires burned the most acres, and the Camp Fire, which is still only 20% contained has burned the most buildings).  Being downwind is bad, but is still a lot better than being in the middle of such fires.

Of the top 20 California fires for size, five have been in the past five years.  Of the top 20 for buildings destroyed, seven have been in the past five years.  Fire (not earthquakes) has always been California’s biggest danger for property damage.  Neither fire nor earthquakes lead to much loss of life, though smoke probably increases the deaths from respiratory illness, which is California’s fifth largest cause of death (after heart disease, cancer, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease).  Accidents are a much bigger risk for injury and death than fires are, being the sixth largest cause of death in California.  [Mortality info for California from the CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/states/california/california.htm]

I worry that climate change has lead to California being drier, so fires spread faster and further, and that the situation is just going to get worse. Population pressure and poor control of ignition sources (automobiles and power lines mainly) has resulted in very high probabilities of human-started fires that spread fast.  I wonder what the cost would be of requiring all electric lines to be underground—astronomical, but how bad compared to the cost of the fires prevented over the next 20 years?

Several of my close relatives have been affected by fire recently: my brother and sister had to evacuate in Colorado for the Cold Springs Fire 2 years ago (and almost all the trees on my brother’s property were burned, though the fire split around his house and the buildings were spared), my son had exams postponed at UCSB and came home early last year because of the Thomas fire, and my niece’s family have evacuated this week for the Woolsey fire (the fire perimeter is currently about 1000 feet from her house). More distant relatives lost a house in the Tunnel fire in Oakland in 1991.

I am fortunate to live in Santa Cruz, which is moister than much of California and has not (so far) suffered from any really large fires.  I do worry about some parts of town where there are a lot of blue-gum eucalyptus trees (known as “torch trees” to fire fighters, because of their high resin content)—those areas could burn very fast and spread fire to the rest of town.  Most of the blue-gum eucalyptus trees are protected by the city’s heritage tree ordinance, which strikes me as a bit misguided—the city should be actively trying to replace those trees with more fire-resistant ones that are native to the area.

1 Comment »

  1. I lived about 10 miles up the road from Paradise in 1970-72. Back then it was a disaster waiting to happen. Lots of houses in a forest. That whole stretch of highway for another 20 miles is houses in a forest. I do not think there is a forest management solution ever imagined that could have made the town safe. There is also only three roads out of town, all bounded by forest. Dry years, a stiff wind and a town is gone. I think we are going to see a lot more of this. A lot of the neighborhoods around Missoula are the same urban/forest interface.

    Comment by Garth — 2018 November 11 @ 14:37 | Reply


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