Fires in California: How to Stop the Destruction and Create Better Neighborhoods, According to One Scientist

Fires raged Northern California this week, killing 11 people so far and injuring many more, cumulatively among the most deadly blazes in California’s history.

California has wildfires—thousands every year. They are part of the natural cycle of life in such a hot, dry and grassy environment like the state’s. In fact, research says that suppressing wildfires can simply lead to a buildup of flammable things in nature, like leaf litter and branches, and when fires do occur, the trees will be taller and spread the fire more. Stopping all wildfires in their tracks just makes future wildfires worse.

Burning_Structure_Wildfire_Napa_California Firefighters assess the scene as a house burns in the Napa wine region of California, on October 9. Multiple wind-driven fires continue to ravage the area, destroying structures and causing widespread evacuations. JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

But do wildfires always need to be so devastating to human life and property? Albert Simeoni, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, says that we can minimize the damage through science.

Simeoni was once a firefighter and assistant fire chief in Corsica, France, and had been caught in a dangerous wildfire. Now he researches fire protection engineering, which is the study of how to protect people, property, and the environment from unwanted fire damage. 

Part of the problem is with how houses have been built. Simeoni could see that the areas of California that were burned were not built in an ideal way for preventing fire damage. “If you look at the photos, you see that the houses are very close to each other and basically there is a domino effect where if one house is burning it spreads to another,” he said.

To build in a way that reduces fire damage, you should build houses farther apart, Simeoni said. Keeping vegetation from touching a house, pruning dry leaves and considering the flammability of housing materials like ductwork can all reduce the damage. 

Other factors can help predict the flammability of an area. The topography, dominant winds and plant life can all determine the chances of an area facing “extreme fire behavior,” which is when flames advance faster than you can control them.

California is a fairly risky place for fires, and increasingly so. Fire season used to start at the end of the summer and extend through autumn. But it has expanded in recent years: Once, Los Angeles firefighters had to put out a palm tree fire on Christmas morning. But recently, says Simeoni, “fire seasons are becoming longer and longer.” The change of weather and climate are making it even worse in California.

However, the state doesn’t even have the most extensive fires right now. Simeoni says that Brazil and Canada have more intense blazes occurring, but there is less at stake in those inflamed areas: fewer people and less property.

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