Chimney Sweep

The Terrifying Selections Created by Wildfires

We drove back to her house, near the beach, in the city of Santa Cruz, and Stasiewicz mused on the contrast between our settled way of life and the habits of Indigenous tribes. Native Americans had once moved around seasonally while stewarding their forests by means of controlled burns. Today, perhaps, wildfires and their evacuations are forcing people to return to a semi-nomadic existence. Stasiewicz has friends with respiratory ailments who can’t tolerate the wildfire smoke that now routinely blankets the West Coast; their new seasonal routine is to move to the East Coast during the hottest months.

Some people would say it’s a younger generational mind-set, she said, parking the car. But, she went on, “it’s a way of being resilient. You’re highly adaptable during fire season.” In her trunk, she has an emergency kit with a hand axe, a hard hat, and a seven-day supply of contact lenses. She plans to purchase a chainsaw. “I’m always thinking worst-case scenario,” she said.

In April of 1991, Indigenous people living on the slopes of Mount Pinatubo, in the Philippines, noticed a sulfurous smell in the air. It was emerging, along with gusts of steam, from a giant crack that had opened in the mountainside. Scientists set up a monitoring system and concluded that an eruption was likely. Around a million people lived near the mountain, and most of them didn’t know it was a volcano; the government rushed out a public-awareness campaign and created evacuation maps and a five-level system of volcanic-activity alerts. On June 15th, the volcano erupted, unleashing a seventeen-mile-high mushroom-like cloud that sparked lightning. A typhoon happened to be moving through, and pounding rains mixed with fiery, superheated avalanches of gas, ash, and molten rock. The decision-making had been fraught and full of uncertainties; the death toll should have been huge. And yet, by the time of eruption, more than sixty thousand people had departed from the zones of greatest peril, many transported by government-arranged buses and trucks. The main eruptions killed around three hundred and fifty people. The evacuation is now a classic study in the field of disaster-response management.

Ideally, as in the case of Pinatubo, evacuations follow a script. Emergency responders recognize a threat, identify at-risk areas, and call for evacuations using warning systems that function well; residents are notified zone by zone and, after making mental and logistical preparations, escape. But, especially in the case of catastrophic wildfires, the script may be easier described than executed. The problem isn’t mass panic of the sort featured in Hollywood movies—research has shown that such panic at moments of disaster is a myth. Instead, systems can stumble for lack of coördination or testing. Even well-laid plans can’t anticipate how a raging fire will interact with the specifics of landscape, weather, and human behavior. In California and the West, many county emergency managers have therefore opted not to create robust wildfire-evacuation plans, arguing that they can’t address the particulars of a blaze until it’s unfolding before them; they don’t want to be locked into designating certain evacuation routes, for example, in case those get breached by flames. But Cova and other evacuation experts argue that doing as much detailed groundwork as possible in advance is worth it, because the process can reveal problems that weren’t otherwise obvious. There is a tao of evacuation planning: you must spend time developing a detailed plan while acknowledging its limitations, so that you can be better poised to improvise as circumstances demand.

To look at any single wildfire catastrophe is to grasp the huge number of factors that planners and residents must confront both beforehand and in the moment. A prime example is what happened in the town of Paradise, California, in 2018. The town’s managers had had the foresight to craft a wildfire-evacuation plan, identifying egress routes and conducting, in 2016, a community drill. But participation was low, and a few years prior the town had unwisely decided to narrow part of the primary evacuation thoroughfare from four lanes to two. No one anticipated an apocalypse that would overpower all their systems. In November of 2018, state fire officials learned of a fire ignition near the town; within ninety minutes, they’d told the county sheriff to issue evacuation orders for a limited number of areas. But the fire, driven by howling winds, spread at a speed beyond their experience, and they were slow to issue further orders.

As the journalist Lizzie Johnson has reported, in “Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire,” a wider evacuation commenced only after an emergency dispatcher for Cal Fire, alarmed by calls from residents, jumped the chain of command to have the sheriff evacuate the entire town. By then, it was too late. Flames engulfed most of the main escape roads, and gridlock ensued as thousands of cars jammed the primary evacuation route, surrounded by flames. Eighty-five people, many elderly and trapped at home, died in what has become known as the Camp Fire—the deadliest inferno in California history.

The Camp Fire was a shocking lesson in threat evaluation. It showed fire officials that they needed to call for evacuations far sooner in extreme wildfires rather than waiting for a more complete picture of the threat. At the same time, it underscored the limits of alerting technology. Officials in Paradise had relied upon an opt-in emergency-messaging system called CodeRED, but only a small proportion of residents register for such systems. Many evacuation experts recommend using a federal Amber Alert-style system, which automatically pings every cell phone in a disaster area, but significant cell-phone infrastructure was soon overloaded or destroyed during the disaster.

Even if people get orders to evacuate, not everyone will quickly follow through. McCaffrey, the U.S. Forest Service researcher, has studied people’s wildfire-evacuation preferences. She and her colleagues have found that in communities in South Carolina, Texas, and Washington State that have experienced wildfires, only one in four people is inclined to leave immediately upon receiving an official evacuation order; two-thirds favor a wait-and-see approach—it’s common, research finds, for people to scan outside for smoke or flames, or check with neighbors or other trusted sources—and roughly one in ten figures that he will stay and fight. Some homeowners, McCaffrey noted, simply feel that they can’t afford to lose their abodes. An intention to leave promptly may founder on last-minute complexities. What if an evacuation order comes when families are scattered at work and school? Does an elderly aunt have to be picked up along the way?

First responders in the C.Z.U. Fire knew about Paradise, and were able to avert a catastrophic loss of lives. Still, on the night the conflagration blew up in Santa Cruz County, they were caught off guard, and some orders were issued too late. “That fire was growing so rapidly, we didn’t know exactly where it was,” Nate Armstrong, who at the time of the disaster was a deputy chief in Cal Fire’s C.Z.U. unit, told me. Heavy smoke made it impossible to get fire-location intel from fire-mapping aircraft. Other factors—poor cell signals, overloaded telecommunications networks, power outages, burned infrastructure—created some alert-system failures. In the off-the-grid community of Last Chance, some people received reverse-911 landline calls after dark—but by then houses were aflame, and one man perished. Other residents, such as the Firebaughs, didn’t see or receive alerts disseminated via social media, CodeRed, or the Amber Alert system in time.

Amid the communications chaos, some people decided to clear out without waiting for word from the authorities. Meanwhile, roughly two dozen sheriff’s deputies started driving around, knocking on doors to tell people to get out; the cops moved systematically from north to south along the San Lorenzo Valley so as to avoid unleashing a simultaneous emptying of the entire area. (By the next day, two hundred officers were engaged in the effort.) Residents also consulted a new online map from a San Francisco-based tech startup called Zonehaven, which allowed the public to track evacuation warnings and orders in real time, without waiting for notifications. Zonehaven’s software is targeted primarily at fire, police, and emergency-services departments, which have traditionally used paper maps to decide on evacuation zones even as fires spread (a process that can take hours); its algorithm analyzes data on geography, population, and housing density, among other factors, and looks at traffic flow, to suggest pre-planned evacuation zones. In the C.Z.U. fire, its début, the Zonehaven platform provided the emergency agencies with what’s known as a common operating picture, helping them manage the evacuation of seventy-seven thousand people over five days. Some thirty counties in California now use Zonehaven, and it was deployed last year in thirty-seven wildfires.

Other new technology tools, such as sensors for detecting fires early, promise to optimize the emergency response and evacuation process further. And yet there are limits to how much a wildfire evacuation can be standardized or perfected. Aggressive, rapidly spreading conflagrations leave little margin for hesitation or error, and uncertainty on the ground is unavoidable. Every person’s evacuation experience is different. This summer, Jo Romaniello, a therapist who set up a Facebook page during the C.Z.U. fire where people could share their experiences, co-authored “The People Not the Fire: Stories of Resilience,” a book containing thirty diverse narratives of the disaster in Boulder Creek, a town in the northern San Lorenzo Valley. Although many people received alerts and had relatively orderly evacuations, some describe learning of the emergency from helicopters flying overhead, broadcasting orders to get out. Others, in areas that burned first, barely escaped the flames: one couple, finding their driveway blocked by fire, made it out in their cars at midnight with nothing but their dogs, the clothes they wore, a purse, and a violin. Romaniello and her husband weren’t registered for CodeRED, and never received a reverse-911 call; they heard about the danger when a friend called them. Unsure when to leave, they packed and evacuated late, at 2:30 A.M., after a deputy drove through their area with a bullhorn. By then, they could hear the roar of the fire. Nearby propane tanks were exploding, and the night sky was blazing red. They drove out into a blizzard of falling ash.

Knowing that Cal Fire was short-staffed and underequipped, a small cadre of people in the Santa Cruz mountains, some with firefighting experience, decided that their best bet was to stay and fight for their homes themselves. (A few had already evacuated with their spouses, children, and animals, but then chose to go back, alone, to their homes.) They used chainsaws, tractors, bulldozers, and other equipment to remove trees and understory, clearing fuel breaks around their property. On Westdale Drive, a private road with thirty-seven houses just south of the Firebaughs’ in Bonny Doon, seven households used makeshift water trucks and fire hoses to extinguish spot fires created by falling embers. The neighborhood later credited the crew with saving it: had the ignitions escalated, flames could have overrun many homes.

Inexperienced wildfire-fighting attempts by civilians can put them in grave danger, and first responders sometimes end up diverted from firefighting as they try to persuade residents to leave. Armstrong, from Cal Fire, told me that fire crews got several property owners out at the last minute, “with the fire right on their heels.” But Stasiewicz believes that people should be provided with guidance on surviving, as a last resort, in their homes or at refuge points, such as local baseball fields or store parking lots. Some ranching communities in the intermountain West have organized their own volunteer firefighting services, in coöperation with state and federal agencies that provide training and radios.

LizAnne Jensen, a former treasurer of the Fire Safe Council of Santa Cruz County, a nonprofit group that helps homeowners with wildfire protection, lives with her husband, Ken, on Westdale Drive, in a beige stucco house next to a studio where they craft and sell copper weathervanes. They have invested more than sixty thousand dollars in home-hardening and fuel-reduction improvements, going so far as to pay for work on neighboring property. On a bright summer day, LizAnne gave me a tour of their home. Wooden gates and fences, she said, can “carry fire right up to your house”; they’d replaced the timber gates leading to their back patio with ones made of polished corrugated steel. Their woodshed had been shielded with metal screen panels to keep out embers, and their doormats were made of metal grating. Their roof, which was covered in brown fire-resistant shingles and trimmed with green-painted metal flashing, was also rigged with sprinklers; a homemade misting system hidden under the eaves was capable of soaking the surrounding ground in minutes. Multiple fire hoses snaked across the small, parched meadow that separated their house and studio from the nearby woods, ready to draw from two tanks holding more than ten thousand gallons of water, or from their fourteen-thousand-gallon swimming pool.

As part of her work with the Fire Safe Council, LizAnne had helped draw up fire-readiness checklists. Whenever it’s red-flag-warning fire weather, she and her husband start working through a four-page series of tasks: agree on a meeting place if they get separated, secure the cats, charge and wear their walkie-talkies, move patio-furniture cushions indoors, sweep the roof and gutters, fuel the generator, and so on. The C.Z.U. fire, she said, had been their third evacuation in a dozen years. She had packed for thirteen hours, then left the house in her S.U.V. at 3:30 A.M. The Jensens hadn’t received an evacuation alert, but it was smoky, and burning embers were falling around them. Ken planned to follow, but first went to pick up an out-of-town neighbor’s cat and bird; at the last minute, he decided to hunker down at home, and teamed up with the other Westdale homeowners to defend their turf.

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