Fire in the western United States

Posted on October 22, 2007


For anyone concerned about the fires burning in San Diego county (by far the most serious of the southern California fires), here are two more links: the Union-Tribune’s breaking news site at Blogspot and the official San Diego County emergency site.

In the western United States, fire is a major threat to life and property, as we’re seeing today in southern California. the climate is pretty much optimized to create massive fires. The winter rains provide the moisture that the plants need to grow, and as with most arid climate plants, they grow and mature fast when there’s water around – if they didn’t, the plants might not reproduce before the next season’s rains. Once they’ve matured, the hot and water-less summer dries out the large, mature plants and creates perfect kindling for massive fires. Finally, right before the winter rains come again, a massive high pressure system forms over the high desert, a low pressure system forms over the nearby Pacific, and the combination of the two drives the Santa Ana winds. The Santa Anas bring down blistering hot and near hurricane force winds that will (not “may”) stoke any spark (like a discarded cigarette or a blown-down power line) into a fire. (Other fire links: San Diego Union-Tribune, KPBS, NBC-San Diego)

At one point, though, we didn’t much care. But that was before millionaires started building massive homes atop hillsides covered in dried out brush. And it was before the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego grew to their current populations of 10 million and 3 million people respectively. But now the development of both cities has pushed people further east and up into the hills that used to burn somewhat freely, putting more people and property at risk.

While fire is a major threat to southern California, all of the west is at risk from fire. Similar conditions can occur in my own state of Colorado and throughout the Basin and Range province, and because people love living surrounded by beautiful forests and overlooking fire-prone hillsides and valleys, the losses of property and lives continue to increase throughout the west. Many insurance companies won’t even insure mountain homes in Colorado anymore, and those few that do are both expensive and require yearly inspections by the insurance company to prove that the required firebreaks of trees and brush around buildings are properly maintained.

For an excellent and more detailed look at how fire works in the U.S. west, check out this article from the BBC.

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