IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ecologist explains the workings of a wildfire

/ Source:

As the wildfires continue to rage in California, many are starting to wonder why the fires start and how much of a threat they will continue to be to communities in California.

On Thursday's 'Scarborough Country,' Host Joe Scarborough spoke with Rich Halsey, a fire ecologist about the evolution of these events and the potential dangers for future fires. 

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, ‘SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY’:  Tell us what’s going on right now and why this fire can be so dangerous. 

RICK HALSEY, FIRE ECOLOGIST:  Well, I have heard a couple of callers earlier talk about the vegetation and the amount of rainfall and whatnot. 

What is really important to understand is, one of the primary factors in these fires and when they ignite are the weeds that have grown up along roadsides and in areas that have burned repeatedly over the years.  So, what’s happened is, the native vegetation, which is, at some point, relatively resistant to igniting like weeds are, now you got have got weeds into the system.  And, all someone has to do is throw a cigarette out there, and those things ignite immediately. 

SCARBOROUGH:  The season goes nine months long, but this is the first day that the Santa Ana winds came in, from what we have been hearing.  How unusual is it that you have this type of reaction to the Santa Ana winds coming in? 

HALSEY:  Well, it happens pretty quick.  And once the winds start blowing, the flames really start to roll. 

And something that the public really needs to understand, and what fire officials can’t say, is, the firefighters do the best they can, but, until the wind and the weather stops, there’s not a heck of a lot they can do.  All they can do is just run in front of the fire and try to get people out of the way as fast as they can, without getting burned up themselves.

And so, the most important thing in firefighting is for people to take individual responsibility, you know, and get their homes fire-safe, so, firefighters don’t risk their lives saving homes that are potentially not savable, and instead can go actually fight the fire, because, as you see, homes that aren’t defensible, in the sense of being fire-safe, they force firefighters to defend those structures, instead of fighting the fire. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, Rick, it sounds like the situation here is just as volatile as a hurricane that comes in.  Once it hits on shore, you really can’t do anything.  You have got to go in your bunkers and wait. 

Of course, the firefighters, you say, are going out there, trying to contain the fire.  But it sounds like you are telling us tonight that, for the most part, they really are.  They’re at the mercy of the winds. 

HALSEY:  Right. And this is something people need to understand.  There was a lot of finger-pointing after the Cedar Fire down in San Diego, and I heard somebody call earlier that they withdrew a retardant drop earlier in the fire.  The Forest Service did a study on that.  It was actually a helicopter, a sheriff’s helicopter that had a water bucket, and it would have taken 20 to 30 helicopter drops with perfect drops to even put a dent on that thing.

And, even then, there’s never been a fire put out by water or retardant alone.  It’s the guys and the women on the line down there that actually have to put out the embers, because these things start spotting, because the fire blows ahead of itself.  And you just can’t put those fires out with aircraft alone.  You have got to have the people on the ground. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, Rick, there always seems to be debate.  Environmentalists come out and start debating what needs to be done to have a fire strategy to stop these types of fires. 

Do they make good points?  Is there anything that you can do, that anybody could have done two, three, four months ago to prevent this type of fire from taking place? 

HALSEY:  The simple, uncomplicated answer to that is no.  We live in a fire-prone environment in California. 

These huge, big fires are not unnatural.  They are normal events.  And what people have to do, they have to understand that.  They got to connect with the landscape.  And they have got to be a little more familiar with the natural environment, like hopefully the people back east are with hurricanes. 

We generally buy these homes in this beautiful weather, and we have our refrigerators and our lawns, and we forget everything else.  And what we have to keep an eye to, just like the firefighters do when the Santa Ana's come, the hair on the back of their necks fly up, we have got to feel the same way and make sure our structures, number one, are fire-safe, number two, we have proper vegetation clearance around homes, not radical. 

Some of the fire departments want people to go out with bulldozers and clear it down to bare soil.  What you have got to do is, you want to keep the weeds out of there.  And that’s what that clearance does.  So, you want to cooperate with the fire department and have them help you figure out what is the best way to thin the vegetation around your home.