Paradise was a city of about 26,000 people until November 9 when the vast majority of the city was destroyed by fire.
The conventional wisdom from many fire officials has been to discourage buildings in areas covered with brush or woods that can burn, but the “urban conflagration” that swept the city of Paradise went from building to building:
Major cities have burned in the past. Chicago and San Francisco burned down. Tokyo burned after the 1923 earthquake and after the 1945 bombing from the US Air Force. Once a fire reaches a large enough size, it can create conditions that allow it to spread explosively.
Is there a serious risk of a major US city being destroyed by a fire?
Do fire codes need to be updated to reduce the risk of another urban conflagration?
Dr. Andy Miller, Butte County Health Officer, has issued a hazard advisory strongly suggesting no habitation of destroyed property until property is declared clear of hazardous waste and structural ash and debris by Butte County Environmental Health. There is evidence from recent fires in California that homes and property destroyed by fire contain high and concerning levels of heavy metals, lead, mercury, dioxin, arsenic, and other carcinogens. Some property may have the presence of radio-active materials. Exposure to hazardous substances may lead to acute and chronic health effects, and may cause long-term public health and environmental impacts.
As areas affected by the fire with destroyed homes and property are opened to residents, residents will have limited access to visit property to collect recognizable belongings and mementoes that may have survived the fire. Residents should review the Health and Safety Precaution for Re-entry packet, which will be distributed at controlled re-entry checkpoints.
The County is working with State and Federal partners who will assess each property for hazardous waste and remove those materials from each property. This process will take time. There is no estimate as to how long it will take to assess and remove hazardous materials from each property at this time. After the property has been cleared of hazardous waste, the property owner can sign-up for a State debris removal program at no cost to the property owner.
The average living room carpet has enough pesticides and chemical contamination to qualify as hazardous waste in an industrial location. Most smoke detectors contain small amounts of radioactive material.
Gasoline contains carcinogens and is highly flammable. Handling similar materials in a factory requires training, respirators, goggles, gloves, etc.
Authorities can find reasons to make clean up expensive and difficult.
Your typical asphault shingle roof is somewhat fire resistant (unless it’s well into it’s life span). most siding sold for homes is also fire resistant.
Do we go to only concreate walled homes? Ceramic tile roofs? Outlaw rain gutters were leaves and debris accumulate?
Best alternative is to have better practices in the forrests. Let contracts for loggers to go in clear dead trees (they can still be used for lumber and other products). Use money from that to go in and clear the dead and downed tree’s into slash piles that can be burned safely.
I agree that clearing undergrowth and brush could be a step in the right direction.
Many fires in California have come from power lines, and there some evidence that powerlines started this one as well. Improving powerlines and easements is important too:
According the LA Times article in the OP, some home owners survived the fires by clearing needles from their gutters and soaking their roofs with a garden hose and riding out the fire inside their homes. Better roofs could be a step in the right direction as well.
A bigger issue is how to prevent fire from engulfing another city. The last major US city to be destroyed in a fire was San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. A California city could be destroyed again if a major earthquake occurred during dry, windy conditions.
Big portion of the problem in Cali is the environmentalists. According to this article from last summer, it was only recently they decided they had to clear more area from around power lines. In my opinion, even leaving the redwoods as close as they do to major power lines will be an issue in the future:
7,100 miles of power lines they need to clear brush and that from under and the had only gotten through a couple hundred miles as of last summer. It will be years before they clear it all. Here in Utah – I’m use to seeing clearing under major power lines for like 20 feet either side of the lines through area’s.
Way back eon’s ago (aka early 1980’s). A very large wooden building (5 stories and base took up a half block in my hometown) caught fire. My house was a little over a block away. The police had us get our hose and start putting water on our roof – doing so we could see steam coming off it. All the homeowners were out doing that.
There are things that can be done to help lessen the chances of more catastrophic fires. But getting the environmentalists in California to sign off on them will be very hard.