A 17,000 feet tall column of flame, rotating at the speed of 143 MPH, towered over Redding, California in 2018. With the power of an EF3 level Tornado, it was uprooting trees and sucking in material to burn. from every direction on the compass. As it grew higher, it was also spitting out burning firebrands in every direction and creating fast-expanding perimeter of fire. This in all its frightening fury, was a Firenado.
This was the Carr fire; but this was not the largest fire of 2018. There were other fires such as the Mendocino Complex fire which by itself destroyed 460,000 acres. These were a part of the record-setting fire damage year of 2018, which destroyed 1,600,000 Acres. But the record was completely shattered in 2020 in just a duration of four weeks – and that too in the non-fire season.
Native Americans managed the fires by setting periodic fires, which was actually larger in acres consumed than current years but was far less destructive. Regular fires burns up minor levels of fuel before it can accumulate too much. The Forest Service from its inception in 1905 did not follow that path. Instead they had a policy of fighting the fires as they happened. And CalFire which has a responsibility to fight the fires, had no ability to manage the fuel for the fires. But by the time they realized their error, forest-based businesses and people worried about air quality, had come to the idea that no fire is a good fire. The accumulation of surface fuels (without frequent fires to burn them off), and the settlement of wilderness areas have set the stage far greater damage from these fires
This cover article by Daniel Duane of Wired Magazine portrays a large portion of the Western United States undergoing a sea-change in its disaster outlook for the future. The fires are so large, fast and unusual that the existing models of fire prediction and response are all breaking down. The accumulation of surface fuels due to Forest Service policy, recurring dry years in the American West, the Bark Beetle invasion that killed more than a 100 Million trees, all have set the condition for devastating fires, that are being compared to a nuclear explosion in its impact on affected society.
The names are getting etched in people’s memory – Carr, Mendocino Complex, Camp fire, Paradise, Woolsey fire, CZU Lightning Complex, Creek fire and so on. The Carr fire alone caused 1.6 Billion Dollars in damage. The Camp Fire in Paradise killed 85 people and destroyed 18,000 structures. So far, the 2020-year fire damage estimate is already 10 Billion Dollars. People are losing their houses. Many are losing their jobs and livelihoods. Insurance companies are stopping coverage of houses in areas they feel are at risk – which very quickly will be a large portion of California. The outlook is grave for the people and the economy.
Non-profit entities like Pyregence are doing serious research to come up with solutions and tools to manage this new reality. California Governor Gavin Newsom has made it a priority to invest in fire management for California. There are businesses that are involved in products to fight and manage fires. But venture capital, which is particularly suited for innovative, large-scale ideas, is largely absent at the table.
A non-profit has hacked together cell phones, solar arrays and free software to identify where poaching or illegal logging takes place, in real-time. What if a device that incorporates these basic abilities but sensed the sounds and temperature of fire could be produced and placed by drones on tops of trees every few miles? We can triangulate when a fire starts almost immediately and respond before the fires become uncontrollable.
Lifeboat Ventures, is thinking about this and a few more ideas to fund in its quest to mitigate disaster impact on society.
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