Jackpot? A Round-Up of This Season’s California Wildfires (So Far)

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Last week, there were three (major) California wildfires in the news: The Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in Northern California, and the Hill and Woolsey fires in Southern California, which are still burning, not entirely contained. Here is a map:

And here is a shot of the Camp Fire from space:

Impressive. (To add to the stress for Southern Californians, the fires are a only a few miles from the bar where the Thousand Oaks shooting took place.) Wildfires — not all of which are forest fires — are “compound events,” “a combination of interacting physical processes that occur across multiple spatial and temporal scales.” The mother of all compound events is, of course, science fiction author William Gibson’s notional Jackpot, with which readers will be familiar. See here for the full quote, which I have shortened. Here Wilf (from the future) speaks with Flynn (from the past):

[The Jackpot] was androgenic, [Wilf] said, and [Flynn] knew… that meant because of people. Not that they’d known what they were doing, had meant to make problems, but they’d caused it anyway. And in fact the actual climate, the weather, caused by there being too much carbon, had been the driver for a lot of other things….

So now, in her day, he said, they were headed into androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad sh*t, like she sort of already knew, figured everybody did… No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures…

… and wildfires, of course. In this post, I’m going to look at the tangle of news flow for this year’s California wildfires at several scales, starting with the individual, then zooming out from the infrastructural to the regional, and finally outward to climate. I’ll add a salute to the working class people fighting the fires, and conclude. At every scale, I’ll try to use a little imagination, and speculate how the “seriously bad sh*t” might get worse; I’ll label those sections: Stressors, on the assumption that if you have enough stressors at enough scales, your interacting physical processes will get even more dynamic than they already are. (I’ll write other posts on how it all might get better, I promise.)

The Individual Scale

One thing you, as an individual, might find useful in preparing for a wlldfire is a “go bag” (one of those phrases, like “fry pan” or “no-fly zone” that makes me ashamed to be a speaker of American English. It seems to have arisen no later than 2004; Wikipedia redirects “go bag” to “bug-out bag”). From KQED, “Here’s What You Should Have in Your Emergency Bag”:

  • Medication
  • An extra set of keys
  • Eyeglasses or contact lenses
  • Hearing aids
  • A change of clothes
  • Some water and snack bars
  • Cash in small bills
  • A first-aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • A portable radio
  • Charging cables for your cellphone and a portable cellphone battery pack
  • A copy of your ID
  • respirator face mask

Obviously, a go bag is not a survival kit; the assumption is that outside the area from which you were evacuated, all systems are still “Go.” Stressor: How many simultaneous fires in the same locale would it take for you to require an evacuation kit, instead of a go bag? (The respirator face mask is, I think, peculiar to the California area; I can’t find the link, but I believe that masks make it hard for cellphone facial recognition systems to work; it would be a grim irony if more advanced technology makes it difficult to communicate with the outside world without removing your mask and breathing harmful particles from wildfire smoke.)

Another thing you, as an individual, might wish to do is escape from the fire in your car (assuming you have one). That was a big problem in Paradise. One example:

Jolly was driving just behind Davis, when she was rear-ended and her car pushed into a ravine. The car was stuck and filling with dense, black smoke.

A second example:

I looked around and it just kept surrounding me growing bigger; I saw cars stuck in gridlock trying to leave, fire surrounding both sides of them.

(This is an entire genre of short videos of people driving through hellish flames, praying, or singing to their children.) Stressor: As above. Paradise is a small town about 26,000 people. What happens if multiple simultaneous fires gridlock an entire region? Apparently, the world’s worst traffic jam was on China’s Beijing-Zhangjiakou highway. It was 62 miles long and lasted for 11 days. Now throw a fire into the mix…

The Infrastructural Scale

First, it looks like Pacific Gas & Electric was up to its old tricks again. (See Naked Capitalism here and here for how PG&E skimping on maintenance caused 2017’s wine country fires.) Downed wires are said to have sparked the Camp Fire. Sacramento CBS:

“We have eyes on the vegetation fire,” said one firefighter in a call to dispatch. “It’s going to be very difficult to access Camp Creek Road, it’s nearly inaccessible.”

Thursday morning at 6:43 a.m., Butte County firefighters called dispatch after seeing flames across the Feather River from Poe Dam.

“It is on the west side of the river, underneath the transmission lines,” the firefighter went on to say. “Probably about 35 mph sustained wind on it.”

Stressor: California just bailed out PG&E shareholders for liaibilities from the Wine Country fire. So there’s little incentive for PG&E to change.

Second, I don’t mean to be alarmist here, but what if the bridges melt?

Third, the complicity of the real estate industry (and the local governments that regulate land use). The Guardian:

Of the tens of thousands of homes burned by wildfires in California in recent decades, nearly all were located in this suburban-rural borderland. With housing shortages and high prices plaguing cities throughout the state, it is unsurprising that residents build on the fringes, places often replete with natural beauty. Yet residents are often unaware of the risks inherent in living there, and the need to mitigate those risks accordingly – their lives may depend upon it.

(This speaks to the idea that “natural disaster” is generally a misnomer; if you choose to build your house on the side of a volcano and it’s destroyed by a lava flow, then proximate cause is your choice, not “nature”).

The Regional Scale

Just because the Camp Fire didn’t reach the Bay Area doesn’t mean that the Bay area wasn’t affected. From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Bay Area residents woke to a strong, sickening smell of smoke inside their homes Friday morning as thick, sooty air from the Camp Fire near Chico poured into the region… The Camp Fire ignited and quickly exploded out of control Thursday morning, and by afternoon the Bay Area was bathed in an eerie brownish-orangish glow. Many residents reported the smoke was stinging their eyes and hurting their throats. Parents kept their children indoors. It’s not unusual for smoke from wildfires hundreds of miles away to reach the Bay Area, but with this one, the pollution reached the region in only six hours. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has issued an air quality advisory for Friday and suggests people stay indoors and close windows if they smell smoke. Elderly persons, children and individuals with respiratory illnesses should take extra precautions to avoid exposure.

And wildfire smoke is a genuine health hazard. Wired:

“The air quality today is very bad, on par with something you might encounter in Beijing,” says Ralph Borrmann, a public information officer with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. In the US, that might seem like an anomaly—but it’s more a portent of the country’s new, char-coated normal. As climate-change fuels increasingly large and frequent wildfires that hit closer and closer to densely populated urban centers, the smoke they produce is becoming a public health crisis.

Over the years, researchers have tried unsuccessfully to measure the full health effects of wildfire smoke. The general consensus, based on hospital records, is that more smoke means more trips to the doctor for things like asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, COPD, and heart failure. Children, the elderly, women, African Americans, and those with underlying chronic diseases appear to be most susceptible. But it’s been tricky to prove causation, because air pollution comes from so many places—wildfires, yes, but also tailpipes and factories.

Well, it’s a complex event, or a complex of complex events. Causation is hard. Stressor: Because of causation issues, it’s not possible to pursue legal remedies for harms due to forest fire smoke. San Francisco can’t sue PG&E for putting X number of asthmatics into hospital wards, for example.

Climate: Less Moisture

Here is a terrific tweet storm from climate scientist Daniel Swain that I recommend you read in full:

On dryness: “But what’s causing that trend? Is it just bad luck? While the exact level of dryness in a particular year is somewhat random, less precipitation in autumn & spring–California’s “shoulder seasons”–has long been a projected outcome of climate change.” Based on the responses to Swain’s tweet storm, this stressor: People wedded to their particular spatio-temporal process find it hard to see the compound event in its totality; this goes beyond “denial.” It’s not just climate, as Swain agrees. But it’s not just brush control, either. No matter what you see on the ground…

(Fascinating true fact: The air can get so dry that moisture is actually sucked out of plants, making them even dryer and more suspectible to fire.)

Climate: The Role of Wind

The fires this year have been extremely fast-moving. Here’s why. Wired:

The driving force has been extreme wind—gusts of up to 60 miles per hour, perhaps even 70 in the hills of Southern California—blowing through the state. Wind further desiccates already dry vegetation and pushes the fires along with incredible speed.

The fire-fanning winds originate in the jet stream, a band of strong winds in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. The jet stream strengthens at this time of year, amplifying its natural meandering nature and creating troughs that move south through California, which you can see in the tweet below. That’s why all these fires popped up on either end of the state nearly simultaneously: They share a common origin in the jet stream.

stressor: More simultaneous fires, to the extent that California’s firefighting capacity is overwhelmed. (Recall that we’ve already refused to disincentivize PG&E’s shoddy maintenance practices by bailing them out; and high winds take down wires.)

Shout-out to the Firefighters

There are a lot of stories, but I’ll just pick out one:

Hours later their engines were caught in the same traffic jam [see above] as cars ignited and trapped firefighters and fleeing residents alike. They all might have burned right there were it not for a Cal Fire bulldozer operator who “saved our bacon,” Peck said. The bulldozer plowed flaming vehicles out of the roadway to clear a lane for the fire engines and several dozen vehicles to move to a grassy area that the bulldozer had scraped down to fireproof mineral soil. They all stayed in the makeshift refuge until the worst of the fire passed.

Kudos to the anonymous bulldozer operator! And not all those who fight fires are firefighters. Nurses, for example:

After working to ward off the fire, Ferguson’s makeshift crew was instructed to return back to the hospital.

Once there, volunteers, staff, and even strangers rushed to set up IVs, water, gurneys, snacks, and blankets to help anyone they could. Ferguson and Chrissy stayed with their C-section patient, who couldn’t even walk yet, in a car and helped her breastfeed her son and gave her pain medication. “I did get fearful but not enough to stop what I was doing,” she added.

I should add that there is one really nasty aspect to who gets to be a firefighter, and it speaks California’s essence as a high Gini co-efficient state. Russia Today:

Somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of the state’s forest firefighters, or nearly 4,000 people, are low-level felons from state prisoners… Working in “Conservation Camps” set up by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the inmates are trained to clear brush that can potentially trigger a fire and also battle the flames when a blaze does occur…. For California taxpayers, the cheap labor amounts to more than $80 million in savings per year.

Worse, they can’t get jobs as firefighters on release:

It’s not easy for inmate firefighters to make the transition into professional firefighting. Wildland firefighter jobs are so competitive that 200 or 300 applications might come in for one opening, and Cal Fire is reluctant to promote the fact that they might hire well-trained felons over people with no criminal record, even for seasonal jobs. The Los Angeles County Fire Department won’t hire felons at all. Still, an estimated 3 to 5% of inmates do make the jump, often by working with the U.S. Forest Service.

That seems dumb. It doesn’t sound to me like California has a surplus of firefighters, and if it’s got capacity now, it soon won’t. It’s also unjust.


I’ll close with an image that’s the quintessence of Jackpot; a firenado:

Yikes! Expect more, if current trends persist:

Stressor: At some point, events compound: Nine fires in Southern California instead of three, drier brush, the flames moving faster than ever, high winds taking down power lines in too many places to count, traffic jams everywhere, firefighters doing triage because there are too few of them, too few trucks, too few air tankers, chemical retardants that fail because some MBA jiggered the formula, smoke that settles in over the Los Angeles basin and doesn’t dissipate… A shortage of masks….

Comments from California readers, and readers in fire-prone areas, most welcome.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Corbin Dallas

    I genuinely wonder if I should prepare a go-bag or if its kind of prepper/survivalist nonsense that encourages a libertarian “i’ve got mine” approach over infrastructural change. I’ve come close to assembling it before, but something about it to me symbolizes a kind of giving up on the state and on your fellow man in times of emergency. Would be interested to hear other’s take on this.

    Also, that video about the dude returning to find the skeletal remains is very, very much NSFW and NSFL. Please be aware when viewing.

    1. jrs

      Maybe it depends on how near one really is to areas likely to burn?

      I share your distaste for suvivalism as a go-to tactic to deal with a world gone wrong, it’s a messed up immoral ideology. But at the same time it doesn’t mean having a few earthquake supplies are the problem (to use an example of a disaster any west coaster automatically understands).

    2. oaf

      Every able bodied person in a situation where disaster might strike would do well to have not only a *go-bag*(B.O.B.), but also such items as appropriate to enhance one’s chance of survival if the obvious way to safety gets blocked. Those who are prepared have a better chance of being able to assist those less fortunate if/when the time comes. Every region has unique circumstances. Don’t wait till the time comes to think out a course of action. Have a plan, and a backup plan, and a contingency plan; continuously monitor whether the plan is working; because the time to adjust strategy is while there is still time to trend towards a positive outcome. It is not letting down your fellow citizens to survive and be there to help them. Train, practice, teach.

      1. HotFlash

        Second this so much. In an emergency (aka panic), you will react the way you have been trained, so train yourself well.

    3. Lynne

      At the risk of sounding harsh: NOT having a go bag is irresponsible and selfish. Not having one is saying that the person expects others to put themselves at risk to make a rescue and/or supply basic provisions that should not be necessary. But then, I grew up on the Great Plains, where people were expected to stock provisions to get through a blizzard and to maintain emergency kits in all vehicles, AND you were expected (and we did when necessary) provide food and shelter to anyone caught out when the storms hit. To this day, some of us shake our heads at the selfishness of people who insist on going out on the roads in bad weather and then call on the cell phones complaining that the rescue crews are taking too long to get to them, heedless of the fact that those rescue crews are endangering themselves to make the rescues.

    4. Mattski

      Yes, my daughter is begging to be homeschooled so that she won’t get shot. The right has wanted to kill the public schools; they are doing so in very literal fashion.

      Still haven’t decided what to do. (One of our conversations weighed the implications of going to a predominantly Black local high school, where racists call in death threats, or a predominantly white schooI–where she could play soccer–but where young white kids sometimes bring guns.)

      But I don’t plan to sacrifice my family, as long as I have to. This is why I have an Outback and not a Prius. When the big event comes, I want to be able to drive over the bodies, with a big tank of gasoline.

      Ready the go bag. Self preservation is a healthy instinct.

      1. jrs

        Although others might, you aren’t exactly making the case that survivalism isn’t pathological right here.

        Drive over the bodies? what kind of sick sarcasm is this?

        1. ambrit

          Actually, quite pragmatic.
          One of the big lessons we learned from going through the “Katrina Experience” was that outside ‘help’ is often thoroughly messed up, usually due to incompetence or lack of planning on a regional level.
          Even in the best of circumstances, during a disaster you will be left to your own devices for a while.

          1. Anarcissie

            It’s remarkable that there is so little collective planning for disaster. The state apparently can’t do it — I guess the goods, time, and energy needed are stolen, mostly in advance, by politicians and bureaucrats. I recall that in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, FEMA and Red Cross people were dumped in one of the affected areas without water, food, equipment, or directions, and had to be fed by previously unorganized anarchist groups. Since we can’t, for example, store a few hundred gallons of water or fuel or a generator at police stations and firehouses, I guess we have to see what we can do with our friends, neighbors and nearby relatives.

      2. The Rev Kev

        ‘This is why I have an Outback and not a Prius. When the big event comes, I want to be able to drive over the bodies’

        Don’t want to do that, mate. Don’t want to do that. Driving over bodies will get the limbs wrapped around your axle and jamming the wheels – then the zombie hordes will catch up to you.

      3. Lambert Strether Post author

        > Yes, my daughter is begging to be homeschooled so that she won’t get shot.

        Well, so much for the public sphere.

        I don’t blame her, or you, but what an indicator. (I wish I had a better sense of the aggregate numbers, as opposed to the coverage of individual shootings. My intuition is that the death count for suicides by gun is a lot higher, but “if it bleeds, it leads.”)

        1. ambrit

          There is a leading indicator for the destruction of the ‘social fabric.’
          First, the Neo-liberals abrogated their side of the ‘Social Contract’ established after the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Now the general public is withdrawing from the ‘Civic Sphere.’ Next will probably be the breaking up of the informal ‘National Consensus.’ After that, a formal breaking up of the country. This ‘story arc’ is fairly logical.
          As to the problem of violence in the public schools; this is a reflection of the general culture. Violence is now becoming the norm for resolving disputes.

      4. ChuckTurds

        Not smart, driving over splintered bones could puncture tires. Think about getting solid tires if you plan to do that. Or better yet, get a tracked vehicle like the one in The Shining.

    5. S brown

      Get the bag together. You look at one disaster after another in this country and you see how the neoliberals running our government don’t give a darn about helping people. If you can take care of yourself and loved ones, then it puts you in in a position where you can help others when they are in desperate need of it at such times.

  2. Samuel Conner

    Perhaps add to your “go” kit a folding bike equipped with off-road tires and a bottle of oxygen with fittings to supply your respirator. For when you have to ditch the car. And one of those reflective thermal blankets for when you have to shelter in place and hope that the fire passes over you quickly.

    Not entirely kidding.

    I can put in a favorable plug for the “Nova” by Downtube (no financial interest to declare). I’ve been using one for about a year and it is quite nice.

    1. Synoia

      and a bottle of oxygen

      Always useful in a fire, but not probably for the reasons you believe. You’d be better off with a full Scuba Tank of compressed air.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        It’s scary to think a town like Paradise can be gone overnight.

        As for what to take or do, this is one consideration: A boat.

        I remember watching one of the Pompei/Herculaneum movies where Romans and non-Romans tried to escape by boat.

        I believe the old 1930’s or 1940’s movie about the great fire in Chicago also had people getting into the river.

        So, for those who can afford ocean-front prices, a boat is a must.

  3. Tom Stone

    I’m wearing an N97 mask as I type, I picked up a couple of cases of them during the Tubbs fire which left me with permanent damage, masks weren’t available the first few days and I was ferrying supplies in my pick up truck.
    Air quality has been very bad in Sonoma County and this time I had enough masks to share with family and friends.
    I do have a bug out bag and I’d advise those putting them together to add some of their important paperwork.
    Until the rains come the bug out bag is in my tuck and the truck is pointed out for a quick get away if needed.This is the new normal, adapt or die.

  4. Nealser

    From Thousand Oaks; I evacuated with my family at 2.00am on Thursday night after getting alert on mobile phone. The hills were on fire. Our preparation was very poor. One change of clothes and passports. Left important papers and valuables behind. It was nerve wracking not knowing if the house would be burned down. We’re back home now and the house if safe.
    It was a strange feeling driving down the highway not knowing where to go. We were lucky to find hotel. Local info was pretty good via twitter and regular news conferences. About a mile away there were 17 homes lost.
    I drove down the 101 freeway this morning and the hills of Calabasas were like a moonscape. I’m amazed more structures weren’t lost.

  5. Oregoncharles

    The news this morning is that Malibu has burned, including the homes of a long list of Very Important Celebrities. Remember, show business is a key local industry. Those people have pull, lots of it, which the people of Paradise do not. I suspect fire prevention will now be a much higher priority in California, and especially the LA area.

    Or am I too cynical?

    And on a different note: Oregon is NOT burning, just California. We’re going to get another wave of refugees. But this means the disaster hasn’t reached full scale yet. I think we’re in the Jackpot, but the fires haven’t yet reached the level called for.

    There’s a major, very expensive development north of town called Vineyard Mountain. After Oakland burned, the local fire marshal told residents there that, in the worst conditions, if a fire started at the foot of the mountain, it would take 10 minutes to reach the top. As far as I know, there’s no road connection from the top down the the north side of the “mountain.” It’s a trap.

      1. Oregoncharles

        I know Oregon is not exempt. We’ve experienced really extreme fires. I was talking about the extent of the disaster.

        Hmm: I bet SoCal and BC are at either extreme of the jetstream oscillations.

        We were lucky.

        1. marku52

          We in SW Or had unhealthful air pretty much solid between July 15 (1500 lightning strikes lit fires all over the place) and mid Sept. Now they forecast that bad air will be back here from the Camp fire tomorrow.

          And we are 5″ behind on rain just like No Cal. Another lightning strike and we’d be right back in it.

      1. Fiery Hunt

        Hi Lambert…
        mistake in the 1st paragraph…the Camp Fire (in Nor. Cal) destroyed Paradise, not the Hill Fire (So Cal.).
        It’s labeled in the map right but not the opening paragraph.

    1. jrs

      Didn’t bad smoke persist in Oregon for *months* in some parts? That’s the reports I heard from people on the ground there. I cant even imagine how horrible it must been, just having breathed a few bad days in CA and that being bad enough. That doesn’t sound like much refuge at all!

      1. neighbor7

        Went to Ashland in August for Shakespeare fest, they’d had toxic atmosphere for 5 weeks, plays had to be moved indoors… hot, humid, and diffuse smoke, pretty nasty.

          1. marku52

            Yes, big losses for the Britt festival (outdoor concert series) and the Ashland Shakespeare fest. Lots of wineries complaining about bad summer attendances as well.

            Since this problem impacts Rich People, I expect some resources will be devoted to fire suppression.

            1. Jean

              Ashland Shakespeare has suffered a catastrophic drop in quality over the last decade after they installed a new artistic director. If you like “Hip Hop Shakespeare” and that kind of thing…that’s Ashland, now, stay home and save your money.
              Rumor is they are going to replace this fool after large drops in attendance.

      2. Oregoncharles

        Yes, but not that noxious here in the Willamette Valley. Ashland, mentioned below, was much closer to the fires, which reached into southern Oregon.

        But here, it isn’t real till places like Vineyard Mountain go up. Not that I wish them harm – I have friends up there. But it’s a scary place in fire season – which is over, here, though it is unseasonably dry at the moment.

        1. marku52

          We had thought about retirement relo to Paradise, visited, and my spouse said “One way in, one way out, not good in a fire”

          Too prophetic. Smart woman.

    2. Skip Intro

      Malibu is in a chronic fire alley, but subsidized insurance and real estate interests make sure it is rebuilt bigger and better each time. The natives knew to avoid it. More people living there should read Mike Davis’ City Of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (PDF), or perhaps just skim his 1996 article, Let Malibu Burn: A political history of the Fire Coast:

      Fire in Malibu has a relentless, staccato rhythm. The rugged coastline is scourged by a large fire, on average, every two and a half years, and at least once a decade a blaze in the chaparral grows into a terrifying firestorm consuming hundreds of homes in an inexorable march across the mountains to the sea. In one week last month, 10 homes and 14,000 acres of brush went up in smoke.

      And it will only get worse. Such periodic disasters are inevitable as long as private residential development is tolerated in the fire ecology of the Santa Monicas.

      Make your home in Malibu, in other words, and you eventually will face the flames.


      From the very beginning, fire has defined Malibu in the American imagination. Sailing northward from San Pedro to Santa Barbara in 1835, Richard Henry Dana described (in Two Years Before the Mast) a vast blaze along the coast of Jose Tapia’s Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) Spanish prohibition of the Chumash and Gabrielino Indians’ practice of annual burning, mountain infernos repeatedly menaced the Malibu area throughout the 19th century. During the boom of the late 1880s, the entire ex-Tapia latifundium was sold at per acre to the Boston Brahmin millionaire Frederick Rindge. In his memoirs, Rindge described his unceasing battles against squatters, rustlers and, above all, recurrent wildfire. The great fire of 1903, which raced from Calabasas to the sea in a few hours, incinerated Rindge’s dream ranch in Malibu Canyon and forced him to move to Los Angeles, where he died in 1905.

      From the time of the Tapias, the owners of Rancho Malibu recognized that the region’s extraordinary fire hazard was shaped, in large part, by the uncanny alignment of its coastal canyons with the annual fire winds from the north: the notorious Santa Anas, which blow primarily between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, just before the first rains. Born from high-pressure areas over the Great Basin, Santa Anas become hot and dry as they descend avalanchelike into Southern California. The San Fernando Valley acts as a giant bellows, sometimes fanning the winds to hurricane velocity as they roar seaward through the narrow canyons and rugged defiles of the Santa Monicas. Add a spark to the thick vegetation (frequently above 40 tons per acre in the Malibu area) on such an occasion, and an uncontrollable wildfire will result.

      1. Carri

        Skip intro….thanks for that history. I knew much of California was subarid, but interesting the history. Can’t imagine…last few years multiple times a year we get the smell and smoke in Wisconsin. It would be interesting to hear what Californians think needs to be done..from building construction, or? Forestry? And what’s being done wrong…by let’s say the state?

    3. JBird4049

      It’s a trap.

      It has been awhile since I have driven around but last I checked, Northern California has a number of smallish, sometimes isolated communities with undersized roads going serving them. There is only Highways 101 and 5 really (I supposed one could include the Pacific “Highway”) to get anywhere quickly north and south. 101 is already overloaded. Makes me think of a number of places but especially West Marin and all the housing on, around, and nearby Mount Tamalpais. 1-3 roads in and out. It is not necessary to worry about just mass deaths, but a few accidents or a large fire hitting the roads and getting people out and firefighters and supplies in would be. I can just see large numbers people to just get water while trapped somewhere. Some of small towns really would be isolated.

      1. anon

        We live in a canyon in the Hollywood Hills, in a high fire danger area. There’s quite a bit of old housing stock amidst a lot of vegetation. Our neighborhood has held meetings about fire emergencies, including escape routes, etc. Most of our hillside streets are narrow and winding. The main canyon roads that run over the hills to the San Fernando valley are also narrow and winding, and typically gridlocked during morning and evening rush hours. In a fire emergency, people would be trapped.

      2. John Wright

        Absolutely, I have temporarily re-located to a rental in Marin County after getting burned out in Sonoma County.

        As one drives 101 North from the Golden Gate Bridge, one can see many hillside homes and apartment buildings that are very vulnerable.

        A few months ago there was a 15 acre blaze above the San Rafael area.

        The firefighters stopped the fire before any houses were burned.

        I talked with one Marin resident who related that he had blown in styrofoam attic insulation..

        Talk about sleeping under a very flammable ceiling blanket.

        Definitely undersized roads. Sometimes only one car can get through between the cars parked on the street.

        If this area goes up and drivers are panicking, my plan is to walk out to the bay.

        And it has happened before:


    4. Lambert Strether Post author

      > It’s a trap

      No kidding. I think there are three basic tendencies for dealing with the coming chokepoint:

      1) Save the rich. Sort based on control of capital. Mars, New Zealand; robots and AI replace the working class. (This is delusional, of course, and will end with the rich eating each other.)

      2) Save _____ identit(y)(ies). This is where identity politics (right or left) goes. Sort based on ascriptive identity. In practice, that means sorting on access to capital, if not control of it. (For example, if you are upscale, you are more likely to be able to afford clearing brush, filling your swimming pool, having a swimming pool, than if you are downscale.)

      3) Save as many as possible. This is where the left ought to be going. Triage should be our last impulse, not as in #1 and #2, the first. Sort using sortition, or as close as you can come.

      In fact, I’m rather hopeful for humanity at least at the working class level. I mean, the nurses didn’t say of their patients, “F em, I’m outta here.” No, they tried to save as many patients as possible, often using their own cars. Ditto the firefights, who rescued people and animals. No “F em, it’s too hot, I’m outta here” for them, either. Not, I suppose, rational according to the tenets of neoliberalism. But collectively excellent.

      * * *

      Oh, I happen to think #3 is the only ethical perspective. But #1 and #2 are doing their very best to make their scenarios come true.

  6. Synoia

    I live in the California OC, on the suburban flatland’s. There are fire areas close, the National forests, close enough for smoke and ash, but not close enough to burn down our homes.

    1. We’ve had little to no rain for some years. That’s probably just a coincidence and nothing to do with our climate.

    2. We used to get Santa Ana Winds, high pressure systems, with hot dry winds from the desert,
    a few 3-4, times per year. Now they appear to be the default climate. August used to be the hot month. Now we get January, February, March, April, August, August, August, August, August, August, August, and then Christmas. Of course we are not so stupid to claim this is a manifestation Climate Change.

    3, We are so pleased Mr Trump has identified the root cause or our firenados, poor forest management. We appreciate his erudition and knowledge. We a pleased to know it has nothing to do with limited rainfall, but just our own bad habits. We’ve probably neglected to appease the Right Rain gods and our predicament is self-inflicted, and is in no way (R)elated to climate change.

    4. The Bad forest management has nothing to do with the federal Level, “All fires are bad” policies, so we’ve accumulated fuel without smaller, limited, fires, and now burn everything in really big fires. The ability to suppress these fires with periodic rain, now missing, is (D)irectly related to the liberal, left-wing politics pronounced by our Hollywood Icons, and could not possibly be (R)elated in any way to a changing climate.

    5. The only question we have of DC politicians, including some alleged “Ds from CA,” is how clearly they can enunciate Opposition to all that is Trump or “R”, without saying one word on what could be better. (Thanks Diane, Nancy, Kamela etc).

    1. scarn

      Howdy, neighbor! HB resident here. Us flatlanders are relatively safe. But let’s not forget that fires routinely burned the edges of the Anaheim uplands and Corona this last decade. That fire up Holy Jim was a sight to see! We are lucky that loony firebug set the thing in a week with onshore winds, because otherwise I assume every house in the arc from Portola to Rancho Santa Margarita to Coto and Ladera would have been in bad trouble. The fire that torches our foothills is coming, just like the earthquake that liquidates the packed clay under my foundation is coming. Plan accordingly: The swell will be epic the week that fire burns.

    2. John Wright

      One should not be too confident that a fire cannot spread to the flatlands.

      I recently went to a lecture given by a young woman who was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Washington State southward.

      She related that at the time she was hiking, there was a forest fire in Oregon, but was told, “It won’t jump the Columbia River”

      But it did.

      Embers can travel many miles in the wind and launch new fires..

      I had first hand experience in California’s Sonoma County on October 9, 2017.

      The speed of propagation can be very high.

      In Sonoma County, in 1964, the Hanley Fire took 4 days to reach Santa Rosa, in 2017 the Tubbs fire took about 4 hours to travel approximately the same route.

      Some background: https://www.sfchronicle.com/thetake/article/Wine-Country-fire-of-1964-Eerie-similarities-to-12267643.php

  7. GF

    (Fascinating true fact: The air can get so dry that moisture is actually sucked out of plants, making them even dryer and more susceptible to fire.)

    Were we live in the highlands of west central AZ not far as the crow flies from the CA border, right now the temperature is 48 degrees with the humidity 12% and the dew point is -2 degrees with the wind out of the ENE at 13 mph. This dry air is being blown into SoCal and gets heated up as it moves down slope to the ocean. So very dry air.

  8. juliania

    Thank you for doing a special post on this, Lambert. One fact that impressed me in reading NC’s coverage the past few days was one link that pointed out for the Camp Fire the areas which had recently burned still being vulnerable to fire, even in thinned forest, because the grasses there allowed fire to race across. What can you do? Mow and keep mowing? Maintain huge herds of goats? Also, when you get a ‘crown fire’ that can leap a great distance, such thinning might actually create more of a hazard since the fire can move more rapidly in between the trees. I don’t really know what the solution would be. We need our trees, God knows. More firefighters, sure, but that fire was impossible to fight; it really was. Several reports noted that firefighters could not possibly do that; they instead helped fleeing residents. Time was of the essence because it was moving so rapidly in those winds. Ah, the winds; can we now stop the winds?

    I saw that fire tornado on one of your previous threads. I was almost in a brush fire once; nothing like this, but your knees turn to jelly. Not just the fire and smoke, but the sound of it. God bless all who were and are experiencing this hell.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > What can you do? Mow and keep mowing? Maintain huge herds of goats?

      I couldn’t work this in, but it might interest you: “Could rewilding help prevent big wildfires?” [Anthropocene]:

      Small fires consume woody debris; so, quite literally, do big plant-eaters. Because their feeding patterns are varied rather than uniform, with some areas heavily grazed or browsed and others ignored, [animals] produce patches of low- and high-flammability vegetation “interspersed in arrangements that could impede the spread of landscape fire,” write Johnson and colleagues.

      They can also change the land itself. By digging through soil litter and turning it over — think of wild boar rooting for food — big plant-eaters can bury material that would otherwise become fuel. Barren passages created by the heavy, ceaseless steps of migrating herds can be seen not only as trails, but as potential firebreaks.

      Much does remain to be learned, and the use of animals to fight fire is sure to be complicated. In certain instances browsers — animals who feed on tall growth, such as shrubs and small trees — could promote the spread of grasses, in turn making fires more likely. “There is some evidence that elephants can sometimes have that sort of effect in Africa,” says Johnson. “If we’re reintroducing species, we should aim to restore complementary suites of species — browsers and grazers — to prevent these unwanted kind of effects.”

      There’s a role for predators, too, in preventing potentially trouble overpopulations, such as deer whose munching prevents saplings from maturing turns forests into in fire-prone thickets. That’s a problem now in New Zealand, says Johnson, where vegetation didn’t evolve to withstand the pressure of deer introduced to the island from elsewhere. Yet that doesn’t mean non-native animals are intrinsically fire-prone: in Australia, non-native swamp buffalo seem to reduce fire intensity, and may actually play wetlands-enhancing roles performed by now-extinct species.

      The dynamics may also vary from place to place. As for now, say the researchers, historical evidence of animal-induced fire control is strongest in warm environments with moderate rainfall and grass-dominated vegetation. Extinctions didn’t seem to have much affect on fire patterns in shrublands and arid grasslands. And it’s at at least possible that, where fire did follow extinctions, it was just a coincidence. Maybe climate changes were the culprit.

      Nevertheless, the possibilities are tantalizing. Some modern studies already suggest that people could work with animals: researchers have described how grazing reduces fire frequencies in Kansas tallgrass prairie, Kenyan savannah, and tropical Australian forests. More research is needed — but the future could well be a place with more big animals and fewer big fires.

      More study needed, I think, but interesting.

  9. just_kate

    Almost had to evacuate last year for the Thomas fire, my destination options then were close to both the Hill & Woolsey fires this year. I have a go bag and several escape routes mapped out, the freeway closures have been a nightmare – used to take for granted all the backway/canyon options but these fires pretty much nixed those alternatives, you don’t want to be stuck on any of those roads! Having animals adds to the anxiety of feeling prepared. Ventura county has excellent disaster planning and communications plus twitter – getting good information helps but it’s exhausting waiting it out. Since last years fire I always have a full tank of gas in my car as well.

  10. Shonde

    I moved to Faribault, Minnesota from Oceanside, California in May. I joked to Minnesotans that I had PTSD from my 16 years in California since every time I saw a puffy cloud on the Minnesota horizon with an otherwise clear sky, my body would tense up. In California, that one puffy cloud might mean fire.
    I will have to deal with snow and tornadoes now but will never again have to walk my dog in brown air with dead cinders flying through the air. No more cleaning up the ashes on the driveway and patio or packing up my van and parking it on the driveway with the hood pointing out. No more visiting my husband at the VA hospital in San Diego and suddenly seeing on the room TV water dropping planes and helicopters in the area of my home. All those memories and more come back every time California burns. Is that PTSD?

    1. JBird4049

      Maybe? Earthquakes and other fun events do give me a sense of just how small I am and how little I can influence somethings. One moment it’s good, the next, not so much and with little or no warning. What fun.

  11. Fiery Hunt

    Born and raised here in Northern California…
    It is just going to get worse. I was working about 5 miles from highway 24 when the Oakland Hills fire went.
    That was considered a freak event.

    Then there was the destruction of Cobb
    But that was a little town barely anyone knew was even there so it got kinda the shrug…you know, it happens.

    Cue the Valley Fire and the blowtorching of parts of Santa Rosa.

    And the Mendocino Complex Fire, and now the Camp Fire, not to mention all the others all over the state.

    The girl and I want so badly to get out of the h3llish Bay Area (which we can’t afford)… but where we can afford is A) without economic opportunities, B) is in the boonies (i.e. has no infrastructure to speak of, say like water mains or multiple exit routes) and C) bears the brunt of these events. Stuck in place for now…

    That’s why we get so many stories of people getting trapped and structures getting annihilated. These are older folks on fixed incomes and fire management just can’t stop these fires once then get going. And while PG&E is vile…Can you really image what it would take to “fix” or replace all of the aging electrical grid in California? Trillions of dollars and 20 years is a good guess, I’d say.

    1. JBird4049

      And while PG&E is vile…Can you really image what it would take to “fix” or replace all of the aging electrical grid in California? Trillions of dollars and 20 years is a good guess, I’d say.

      All true andand PG&E has spent decades not spending the money needed to maintain that electrical grid and don’t the occasional exploding neighborhoods caused by the same lack of maintenance. The state gives them extra money to pay for the work and are willing to allow increasing rates but actually doing the work seems to be not as important as executive pay and dividend payments.

      1. tegnost

        related:Sunrise powerlink
        “SDG&E, which will receive a guaranteed profit of over $1.4 billion from the construction of the line, claims that the power line is necessary to support future growth of the San Diego region, and its economic benefits to the region will measure on the order of $100 million ”
        ok, you give me 1.4 billion and I will gladly give you a nebulous future 100 million any day of the week…
        “Key Regulatory Findings
        The project has generated much controversy since its conception, primarily due to questions concerning whether the line is necessary. However, it has been approved by all three major regulatory agencies that have jurisdiction over the project: the CPUC, BLM and USFS. In its final decision, the CPUC voted 4-1 on Dec. 18, 2008 to approve that the Sunrise Powerlink.[10] Both the CPUC administrative law judge and the presiding commissioner assigned to the proceeding recommended against approval.[11] The federal Bureau of Land Management approved the project on January 20, 2009.[1″

        Although the stated goal is to bring renewables to sd on the line…

        SDG&E is not legally obligated to carry any renewable energy on the line

        oh look and a cost of doing business fine, but only one of the 1,400 million guaranteed money will be required to pay the fine…
        SDG&E notified the CPUC and that the southern route was feasible.[29] In October 2008, the CPUC fined SDG&E over $1.1 million for misleading the CPUC about the feasibility of the southern route

        of course there’s more but I haven’t the stomach for it…
        bottom line, these transmission lines are profit and the cost of dealing with the sordid underbelly? Well that’s on you californians to bear, poor poor shareholders and all, because as linked in the post…

        1. JBird4049

          Ah, all that sweet, sweet profits created by the Invisible Hand Free Market Capitalism™️ of graft, kickbacks, and bribery. If we didn’t “own” these “public” utilities I would hate to see what bad things might happen!

  12. Expat2uruguay

    The author is incorrectly naming the fires. The fire in the northern part of California is the campfire. The fires in the southern part of California are the Woolsey and the Hill fire. It’s such a short article I think it’s important to not mix the facts up.

  13. oaf

    Every able bodied person in a situation where disaster might strike would do well to have not only a *go-bag*(B.O.B.), but also such items as appropriate to enhance one’s chance of survival if the obvious way to safety gets blocked. Those who are prepared have a better chance of being able to assist those less fortunate if/when the time comes. Every region has unique circumstances. Don’t wait till the time comes to think out a course of action. Have a plan, and a backup plan, and a contingency plan; continuously monitor whether the plan is working; because the time to adjust strategy is while there is still time to trend towards a positive outcome. It is not letting down your fellow citizens to survive and be there to help them. Train, practice, teach.

  14. How is it legal

    Some needed changes, at first scan:

    Last week, there were three (major) California wildfires in the news: The Hill Fire Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in Northern California, and the Camp Hill and Woolsey fires in Southern California,. which are still burning, not entirely contained. ….

    Don’t know about the smaller, Southern California Hill Fire, but the Southern California Woolsey Fire, and the Northern California Camp Fire are far from being contained.

    The currently reported Woolsey Fire status:

    The Woolsey fire has charred 91,572 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and was 20% contained as of Monday morning, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials.

    A lack of wind over the weekend allowed firefighters to gain significant ground and put containment lines into place. However, officials are expecting Santa Ana winds to kick up Monday and gain strength through Tuesday, which could lead to extreme fire behavior, said Cal Fire Division Chief Chris Anthony.

    The currently reported Camp Fire status, Updated 1:32 pm PST, Monday, November 12, 2018:

    Camp Fire: Oroville Dam officials keep close watch on approaching blaze

    OROVILLE, Butte County — The Camp Fire’s relentless push to the south overnight had California officials preparing for the worst Monday at the nation’s tallest dam.

    Employees of the state Department of Water Resources, with the help of firefighting crews, were cutting brush and watering down landscapes around Lake Oroville to prevent the 113,000-acre blaze from damaging the reservoir’s infrastructure, including the 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam.

    Already, flames had licked a finger on the north side of the giant lake, and construction crews finishing the rebuilding of the reservoir’s spillways after last year’s near-catastrophic fracturing were sent home.

    State water officials feared that strong winds from the northeast could blow the fire south to the reservoir’s power plants and water-supply facilities, still some 10 miles away from the blaze.

    “We’ve put contingencies in place,” said Erin Mellon, spokeswoman for the Department of Water Resources. “The department will continue to maintain sufficient staffing to monitor the incident around the clock.”

    The scare at the lake comes a year and a half after the reservoir’s two major spillways began to erode amid winter storms, causing a precautionary evacuation downstream of nearly 200,000 people.


    The community of Oroville, south of the lake, has not been evacuated, though communities north of the reservoir have been ordered out.

    The second change::

    And here is a shot of the Woolsey Camp Fire from space:

  15. Lee

    Great post, Lambert.

    Drove 100 miles today along the SF bay shoreline today. Toxic brownish “fog” everywhere.

    In 1994 a PG&E natural gas pressure regulator serving half our town failed. The increased pressure caused gas leaks in the houses, dozens of small house fires, and about two dozen serious ones. Our place was one of the serious ones. The house was gutted and most of belongings destroyed. We barely got out but our cat didn’t. We were in shell shock for quite awhile afterwards.

    Fortunately, family and friends stepped up, and we had money in the bank, good credit, so did we not suffer physical privations. Also important was that PG&E began helping us immediately with cash support, a helpful and competent adjuster, and an expressed enthusiasm for doing right by us. We got a lot of personal attention from them probably because there were relatively few claimants and we obviously had every intention and the means to sue their asses off. It is reasonable to assume that PG&E is incapable of providing such doting care to tens of thousands.

    Once again there is muttering about public ownership of the utility. Once again I expect it to come to nothing. Not that the state would necessarily do better. State government is all gung-ho on moar groaf, forcing higher density construction in municipalities that don’t want it. In our case they are building on shoreline landfill only a couple of feet above sea level. I always thought these areas, vacant for decades, should have been restored as wetlands. And I’m certain they will be in the not too distant future, if not by fire, then by earthquake or flood.

  16. Enquiring Mind

    Evacuee from Woolsey fire here. One aspect of the firefighting effort that deserves highlighting is the incredible air support across multiple agencies. Traffic helicopters have broadcast a lot of great shots of tankers and copters in very tough conditions (for example, visualize the turbulence from all the fires, maneuvering in canyons, in a modified DC-10!!) and dropping retardant and water with great accuracy. Watching that air show, both in person and on TV, was inspiring and a silver lining in all those clouds of smoke.

    1. Mark Ó Dochartaigh

      It is inspiring and awesome to see the rescuers charging over the hill. When I evacuated before Irma I saw lines of dozens of ambulances escorted by the police all lights ablaze in the night, and hundreds of power company trucks from a dozen states. But no one should forget another key hero in a natural disaster, the people who evacuate as soon as they are told that conditions will not be safe.

  17. Molly

    Oakland resident, writing from the smoky haze of the East Bay. The air quality has been terrible since Thursday, and way too many people aren’t wearing masks. Some of that is ignorance, but some of it is also scarcity. By 5pm Friday my nearest 3 drugstores and hardware stores were out of masks. The money-grubbing monsters at CVS had pulled all the boxes behind the counter and we’re selling single disposable masks at $2 a piece. A box of 100 goes for $10 on Amazon.

    One thing this post doesn’t mention is the impact on the homeless population in the Bay. These folks have no where to go to escape the smoke, and no resources for masks. There’s a couple good organizing efforts happening to distribute masks and water to the various encampments, I will look for links when I get home.

    Not quite Jackpot, but getting close. If you live in CA, buy a good reusable respirator, and extra disposable masks for those in need. Pack that go-bag. A lot of people are not going to be prepared, and they will be needing help.

    1. Fiery Hunt

      Sorry, Molly, but those “disposable masks” are completely useless. Does nothing for smoke, not one bit. I appreciate your concerns but it’s all myth…those single strap CVS masks are not doing anything.

      1. skippy


        Nuisance masks do not have a facial seal or are surgical masks suited for the task. You would need something like the emergency services use or like I have – Scott Safety Promask full face with appropriate filters.

        Around and about in smoke from far away a surgical mask things nicer, but the nuisance masks are no better than a dry rag over the mouth and nose.

      2. Molly

        My understanding is that the double-strap disposable masks you can get from construction and hardware stores do help, although not if you have a full beard, and not for kids too small for them to fit snugly. I agree the single-strap masks, and the surgical style masks that loop over your ears, are useless for smoke.

        I’ve bought myself a very fashion-forward N95 respirator, and a couple boxes of 3M N95 disposable masks to hand out. There were people sitting outside the local coffee shop at the sidewalk tables Saturday morning, drinking their coffee and reading the local paper like nothing was happening, and I had to restrain myself from a full-blown gibbering rant.

        1. Wukchumni

          N95 & N97 are toys, spend some dough as in a couple hundred clams per and get these one time use smoke hoods for your noggin in your get out of dodge ensemble. They have a 6 year shelf life and we keep them in the car when we’re driving, or at either of our fire prone places.


          We can dodge fire we figure, it’s the smoke you can’t.

          Talking smoke, drove up to Mineral King with friends today, and it was so thick we couldn’t see the fire causing it until the winds shifted eastward on the drive down, and the fire approaching the Eden Creek grove of Sequoias is in 3 canyons now, and larger, but not in any big way, maybe it’s 400 acres, and of no danger to anything, and beneficial to the brobdingnagians.

          …a rare win-win wildfire

          1. Molly

            I was looking at those smoke hoods for the go bag. Seems like a good investment, given the current givens.

            The N95 is for living my day-to-day life during the now-regular smoke season. I chose the “dragon flame” color scheme (oh the irony), but they have 6 different designs to choose from. Maybe the Kardashians can do some #sponcon for them.

  18. orange cats

    I am a former Butte County resident. Since this is happening to a place I love and people I know I flinch at the tut-tuting about lack of preparation. This fire was FAST–how can any preparation help you? Also relevant is that Butte County is one of the poorest in California. I know for a fact many people in Paradise and Chico don’t even have the money to keep a prep bag around. I don’t joke. They are poor. You buy or rent a house in Paradise because it’s cheaper than Chico and yes, the pine trees are lovely. And EVERY house is surrounded by them. Many victims were living in tents or their cars in isolated pockets of the town. Many are old and frail and can’t drive even if they could afford a car. One man described how his house was saved because he put in a lawn–because he was under-insured for fire. Because he doesn’t have the money. But lawns cost money too.

    1. How is it legal

      I flinch at the tut-tuting about lack of preparation. This fire was FAST–how can any preparation help you? Also relevant is that Butte County is one of the poorest in California. I know for a fact many people in Paradise and Chico don’t even have the money to keep a prep bag around. I don’t joke. They are poor.

      I flinch at it also. It’s very disturbing, especially given the casualty count, which clearly indicates the impossibility of preparing for such a disaster. I really miss the saying: walk a mile in another person’s shoes [before judging them] (though I always despised the saying: sticks and stones will break my bones, but names [and other verbal onslaughts] will never hurt).

      I’m guessing that many close to the New Oroville Damn™ [Trigger Alert re this link] (a Damn with it’s own Horrid Pay to Play Public Servant™, et al, Malfeasance Disaster in February 2017, less than two years ago), are in similar impoverished situations, because stunningly – and sickeningly – barely a thing about the current Camp Fire evacuation North of that new Oroville Damn showed up when I did a search for the current status of the deadly Camp Fire. See Camp Fire: Oroville Dam officials keep close watch on approaching blaze:

      The community of Oroville, south of the lake, has not been evacuated, though communities north of the reservoir have been ordered out.

      I’m so very sorry about what has happened to those you love in Butte County.

      1. orange cats

        Thank you Legal, you made me tear up a little. Been doing a lot of that. I have been driving up the Skyway to Paradise all my adult life..it’s one of the most beautiful drives in the state. To see those people trying to get down that road in flames will haunt me for a long time.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > many people in Paradise and Chico don’t even have the money to keep a prep bag around. I don’t joke. They are poor.

      This reminds me of the Finnish baby box:

      For 75 years, Finland’s expectant mothers have been given a box by the state. It’s like a starter kit of clothes, sheets and toys that can even be used as a bed. And some say it helped Finland achieve one of the world’s lowest infant mortality rates.

      It’s a tradition that dates back to the 1930s and it’s designed to give all children in Finland, no matter what background they’re from, an equal start in life.

      The maternity package – a gift from the government – is available to all expectant mothers.

      It contains bodysuits, a sleeping bag, outdoor gear, bathing products for the baby, as well as nappies, bedding and a small mattress.

      You’d think the very liberal state of California, or even the DHS in a weak moment, could standardize on a go-bag and just… give it to people. Maybe one function of government could be giving people an equal chance to escape fire?

      1. Carla

        “Maybe one function of government could be giving people an equal chance to escape fire?”

        Well, we can dream…

        But in “America”, the answer will always be: how you gonna pay for that?

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          If indeed : how you gonna pay for that? will ALWAYS be THE answer in “America”, then the people and movement-loads of people who want to do any one-or-another particular something will HAVE TO be ABLE to SAY: HERE is how we gonna PAY for that.

          And then exPLAIN the exact how and why of the mechanism of how we gonna pay for that.

      2. John Wright

        I don’t know that “the very liberal state of California” is an apt description..

        Perhaps “very neo-liberal” is more appropriate as one views the politicians that the state elects such as Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris, Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi

        And CA has a Central Valley that is quite conservative.

        We’ve got a large prison population here (three strikes law helped with this) and great wealth inequality in CA.

        One former Democratic Governor, Gray Davis, was careful to curry favor with the prison guards union.

        At least the drug laws are being liberalized.

  19. tokyodamage

    I’m in Sonoma.
    I usually enjoy NC’s unrelenting steely-eyed coverage, but in this case I wish I hadn’t read the article.
    This is the most depressing thing I’ve read on here.
    My wife has a bugout bag with random stuff in it; I have a bag full of legal BS documents which I packed during last year’s fire, and haven’t gotten around to unpacking.
    I can’t move because this is where my elderly parents are.
    I guess when they die we can move to Montana or something.
    It’s insane that anyone would move to CA, but the only way MY family can afford to move to safety is if some sucker buys our land. Weird. . .

    1. How is it legal

      I can’t move because this is where my elderly parents are.

      It is so sickening that taking care of loved ones is never acknowledged (and if so, not in the manner it should be acknowledged) as to one of the many major reasons so many can’t move.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > taking care of loved ones is never acknowledged … as to one of the many major reasons so many can’t move.

        The everyday heroism of dull normals isn’t a story. Get with the program. Now let’s talk about all the movie sets that burned up in Malibu.

        1. JBird4049

          The more neoliberal we become the less is mentioned about one’s family. It’s almost as if that’s the point; people are interchangeable and even disposable.

  20. The Rev Kev

    Coupla links to do with bushfire preparation that might be of use. They are for Oz but fires are universal-



    Even then things can get real bad due to bad practices. We had the Black Saturday fires (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Saturday_bushfires) in Oz a few years ago and about 180 people died. One town that had a lot of people that died was completely surrounded by forest with only one narrow road in and out of the place so you can guess what happened. That last fire was due to power lines and the power company failing to fit a $10 protective device on the power line to stop this sort of thing happening. Sound familiar?

    1. Oregoncharles

      Again: the original Permaculture books, by Mollison and (I forget), written from Australia, have a lot on brushfire protection – things like putting water features and roads upwind, and which plants suppress fires. And be prepared to soak your roof and vicinity, while you have power to run your well.

  21. John Zelnicker

    @Lambert – Your first paragraph and the labels on the map are inconsistent. You say the Hill fire is in Northern California, but the map label says it’s the Camp fire.

  22. MichaelSF

    I was interested to see in one article that Paradise used to have the nickname “Poverty Ridge”.

    My wife’s even-more elderly (than us), poor and infirm aunt who lives in Paradise is among the missing. It appears remains are just now beginning to be identified, hopefully she’s sheltering with someone and out of touch.

    Catastrophe seems likely to be the new normal.

  23. anon

    Thanks for writing this very informative post. Only skimmed it, have it bookmarked for later.

    Couple of things: Winds: this time of year (and other times, too), santa ana winds blow in southern California. These are hot dry winds out of the east, north-east.


    There’s quite a lot of poverty in the towns/counties in the foothills of the western Sierras:

    That is probably the part of California that most supported Trump.


  24. Mark Ó Dochartaigh

    Also it is a good idea to keep a separate crate for each pet with enough canned food for a couple of days. And water in gallon jugs, lots of water if there will be more than 100,000 evacuees. Every shelf in every Walmart along the way will be stripped of water, even if you are evacuating 500 miles.

    1. Whoa Molly!

      Also add to ‘go bag’ preparations.
      – paper map of the state. Useful when cell towers burn and google maps goes away.
      – keep car gas tank at 2/3 full at all times. Gas stations will be choked with cars and some stations will run dry.
      – inexpensive, fully charged backup battery for cell phones and ipads.

      We live in Northern California. Have been evacuated for fires 4 times last three years.

      Just about everyone we met during evacuations was trying to help others. The first instinct seems to be to pitch in and help.

      In a major ‘Camp Fire’ situation, best to assume that all nearby walmarts, grocery stores, and gas stations will have empty shelves and jammed parking lots.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > Just about everyone we met during evacuations was trying to help others. The first instinct seems to be to pitch in and help.

        Rebecca Solnit wrote A Paradise Built in Hell on the San Francisco earthquake and fire, which makes exactly that point. (Vehement Clintonite, sadly, but the book is very good). Here is Solnit on “How to Survive a Disaster” [Literary Hub]:

        In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research on behavior in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and storms across the continent and around the world, have demonstrated this. But belief lags behind, and often the worst behavior in the wake of a calamity is on the part of those who believe that others will behave savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism. From 1906 San Francisco to 2005 New Orleans, innocents have been killed by people who believed that their victims were the criminals and they themselves were the protectors of the shaken order. Belief matters.

  25. Wukchumni

    Got a swimming pool?

    Don’t be a jamoke and do a bucket brigade, dude.

    You’ve got the equivalent of 30 pumper-fire tanker engines worth of firefighting water you can utilize…

    An $800 kit that includes gas powered water pump that delivers 200 gallons per minute via a 100 foot long 1 1/2 inch hose that can drench a distance of nearly a couple hundred feet, is what you need to get.


  26. Tomonthebeach

    Yet residents are often unaware of the risks inherent in living there, and the need to mitigate those risks accordingly – their lives may depend upon it.

    It does, but they don’t. We see this scenario repeated disaster after disaster – always in areas of high risk of flood, wind, earthquakes, landslides, and storms.

    While Trump was wrong about blaming his political enemy, California, for mismanagement of its forests, there is something wrong with a state that does not manage its infrastructure better. Building codes should be strengthened (e.g., nearly all the houses lost were woodframe), as Lambert pointed out there are few limits on what can be built where, as well as no requirement that all power wires be buried underground. It is not the 1840s anymore.

  27. Prairie Bear

    A fascinating and informative post and comment thread; I learned much more here in half an hour than from any number of “news” sources, big surprise there! not. The loss of people’s family and friends, the panic and uncertainty, the destruction of so many home is heartbreaking.

    I have been wondering the past few years about whether the probability of really big wildfires is increasing in midwest farm country (I am in Des Moines). We have always had occasional fire watch warnings from the NWB in the late summer into autumn and there will be reports of small to medium “grass” fires that may scorch a few acres but are usually contained pretty quickly. The last few years, we have had warnings in March. That has been in the past a wet, cold month, still with snow or in warmer years rain. Now, it is not unheard of to have temps hit the 90s F. It seems to be getting a lot windier, too. I’m thinking that a more or less normal early part of the growing season with decent rainfall, followed by a dry spell starting in mid-July or thereabouts and stretching into September could result in millions of acres of tinder-dry corn stover. I have heard the figure of four tons per acre of dry matter, not nearly the 40 tons per acre someone mentioned upthread for CA woodlands, but still quite a bit of combustible material. Millions of acres additional of less tonnage per acre with soybeans. Add the right spark during a really high wind in the fall and it could be bad. I don’t think we would be remotely prepared here for that to happen.

    1. lambert strether

      > I learned much more here in half an hour than from any number of “news” sources, big surprise there! not.

      The NC commentariat is the best commentariat.

      No, we are not prepared for an enormous prairie fire Poking around the intertubes, here is a vivid description of “The Great Prairie Fire of October 12, 1878.” I was looking for the largest historical prairie fire, but couldn’t find anything useful. (Controlled burns are also a piece of the puzzle.)

      1. rd

        Prairie fires were very common before European settlement, partly because the Plains Indians would deliberately light them for a variety of reasons. The “Succession in the absence of fire” subsection of this article on bur oaks is particularly interesting on how the make-up of the “natural” prairie has changed over the past couple of hundred years, even leaving out the industrial farming. https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/quemac/all.html#SuccessionInTheAbsenceOfFire

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Permaculturist Mark Shephard has noted that Ice Age America was chock-full of elephants. Several different species of elephants. Possibly several million elephants.

          And they did the same mass-habitat change and remediation here that they still do in Africa. They kept this continent in a state of Savannah Woodland. When the Modern Indians got going after their ancestors survived the Death of the Elephants, they turned to fire as a landscape clearance tool. Shephard thinks they may have overused fire some in order to keep the prairie treeless and not permit the re-establishment of scattered savannahform trees.

          1. rd

            It is likely that honeylocusts, black locusts and other trees with large thorns evolved those thorns to protect against mammoth munching similar to the acacia trees in the African savannah with thorns protecting against elephants.

  28. David in Santa Cruz

    You can have all the dry vegetation and high winds on the planet, and they won’t burn without an ignition source. Over and over that ignition source is an improperly maintained PG&E power line. Climate change is a vector, but not the culprit. Grift and graft are.

    PG&E executives are gifted millions in compensation, stock, and dividends for laying off maintenance workers in droves. The management are content to start the fires and then make government fight them. They are acting with full knowledge of the risks. PG&E executives are murderers.

    I’ve written my legislators in opposition, but they voted to shift the costs of billions in damage suits to ratepayers. This is the pervasive corruption in our so-called democracy. I can imagine how horrible it must be to burn to death, but these morons can’t seem to generate a shred of empathy for the suffering.

    1. Jen

      “PG&E executives are murderers.”

      Yes, they are, and should be treated as such – sent to rot in prison for the rest of their natural lives and in hell for all thereafter.

      PS – You spelled “sociopaths” incorrectly in your last sentence.

  29. Bryan A

    Way back in 1993 I met a guy who was one of California’s convict fireman. He couldn’t stop talking about how great it was. It was voluntary, It got him out of San Quentin and it reduced his sentence.

  30. Lambert Strether Post author

    Thinking laterally, is a “go bag” even the right move, given the likelihood of gridlock?

    Why not dig a cellar and stock it appropriately, with oxygen, if need be?

  31. Procopius

    Here I always thought “Jackpot” was referring to Heinlein’s short story from 1952, The Year of the Jackpot. I never heard of William Gibson until this article. In Heinlein’s story every statistical cycle forecast reaches zero on the same day. The protagonist doesn’t fully grasp what this implied until he sees an enormous sunspot and off in the distance the mushroom clouds rising over cities. I have to say The Peripheral sounds more plausible, if less dramatic.

  32. TheCatSaid

    Info relevant to the starting of the Camp Fire contained in a post here. The key point:

    . . . there can be localized accelerations in vulnerable locations, such as the one where the fire stared

    The post discusses the topography of the immediate area of the PG&E post that failed, and discusses how the algorithm used by the company to calculate when/whether to power down part of the grid was not appropriate due to the site specifics. Remedies are proposed.

  33. Wukchumni

    The utilities have been turning off power in the midst of these wildfires breaking out, and it’s a new normal that comes with consequences, such as gas stations not being able to deliver distillate into your car, stoplights out, which snarls traffic, and probably quite a few other things, nobody really gave much thought to, when the powers that be @ the utility decided on doing this.

  34. rd

    As an engineer, I get a bit frustrated at how we keep positioning so much on dangerous ground. Floodplains flood (that is why they are called flood plains) but we keep building houses and industry there and complaining when they flood.

    Western vegetation in dry regions burns regularly (@20-50 year cycles). The vegetation is well-adapted to fire and even relies on it to regenerate. A classic example is the lodgepole pine forest where the mature trees burning opens up the resin-coated pine cones which then pop out the seeds for new trees https://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/lodgepole-pine-trees-love-forest-fires/

    Fireweed is a fabulous native plant common in the west and it is called fireweed because it rapidly colonizes burned areas and helps prevent erosion while the shrubs and trees are regrowing. https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/chamerion_angustifolium.shtml

    The sequoias survive so long because they have thick bark that resists fire, so they don’t get killed in the short duration of the active fire around them. this is also why large timber frames (not 2×6 studs, but 8″x8″+ hardwood columns and beams) can survive fires as the outside chars but doesn’t allow oxygen to the center of the wood and the wood insulates the core so that it doesn’t lose strength in the heat, unlike steel. Unfortunately, creosote treating these timbers to prevent rot will make them more flammable.

    Much of the California vegetation (even non-native eucalyptus) coats the leaves and bark in oils to reduce water loss because it is essentially a desert or semi-desert. Unfortunately, that means that they become blow torches in wildfires.These areas will burn like clockwork about every 20-50 years.

    So building housing in this firescape is just providing future fuel unless designed not to burn, even when assaulted with high heat, with unvegetated ground in a protection zone around the structure, which takes away much of the aesthetic of why they want to live there in the first place.

    1. Wukchumni

      Sequoia wood makes for really crappy firewood, it’ll go up if you add it to a raging fire, but is quite hesitant to burn otherwise.

      It’s best use in the days before composite roof tiles, was shingles.

  35. chico kid

    I’m smoked in, I live between Chico and Sac. in the valley.
    I wen’t to CSUChico, a couple years in a friend rented a house in Paradise. On my first visit I told him this town is a fire trap… Beautiful town, but the beautiful trees on the right side of the road touched the trees on the left side of the road, making many roads ‘tunnel like’.
    Also, when CSUC was built, many people left chico for paradise to escape kidz like me… most kept their chico homes and became successful slumlords to the incoming students… They all got fat, rich, and OLD. The town has LOTS of slow old people. The town also only has a few escape routes, as you can see from the vids. these became very choked very fast.
    -I called and woke a friend up in Magalia (above Paradise) at about 9am, when I called him back 1/2 hour later the cell towers had gone down and no way to contact him (he is fine) He lost all power and all ways of communication…
    MANY people woke at their normal time … JUST IN TIME, If this fire had started 1-2 hours earlier the fire would not have taken 250 lives (soon #) but 2500+.

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