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Berger writes: "A rapidly spreading wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes and other buildings as it roared through the northern California village of Middletown and several nearby communities, chasing thousands of residents from their homes, fire officials said on Sunday."

Burned out remains of a vehicle and swing set scorched by the Valley Fire line Jefferson St. in Middletown. (photo: Noah Berger/Reuters)
Burned out remains of a vehicle and swing set scorched by the Valley Fire line Jefferson St. in Middletown. (photo: Noah Berger/Reuters)


'Unheard of Fire Behavior' Devastates West, Entire Towns Gone

By Noah Berger, Reuters

14 September 15

 

rapidly spreading wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes and other buildings as it roared through the northern California village of Middletown and several nearby communities, chasing thousands of residents from their homes, fire officials said on Sunday.

The so-called Valley Fire, now ranking as the most destructive among scores of blazes that have raged across the drought-stricken Western United States this summer, came amid what California fire officials described as "unheard of fire behavior" this season.

Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in areas ravaged by the blaze, and officials expanded mandatory evacuations as shifting winds sent flames and ash toward a number of towns in the hills north of Napa Valley wine country.

The Valley Fire has consumed more than 50,000 acres since erupting Saturday afternoon in rural Lake County, California, about 50 miles west of Sacramento, the state capital, fire officials said on Sunday.

Thousands of evacuees from Middletown, Cobb, Hidden Valley Lake and the Harbin Hot Springs resort gathered in shelters, restaurants and friends' houses in nearby Kelseyville and Calistoga waiting to hear about their homes, horses and dogs.

Middletown and the town of Cobb, just to the north, were reported to be hardest hit by the flames, with large swaths of Middletown left in ruins, according to officials, eyewitnesses and local media reports.

Video footage from Middletown showed a smoking, devastated landscape of blackened, burned-out vehicles and the charred foundations of buildings that had been reduced to ash.

"While crews have not had a chance to do a full damage assessment ... we know 100s of structures have been destroyed," Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in a Twitter post.

"This has been a very destructive fire. It has destroyed countless homes and other buildings," he said in a video news briefing released a short time later. "Evacuations are widespread in the area."

He said a combination of prolonged drought and a heat wave baking the region in triple-digit temperatures last week had left vegetation tinder dry and highly combustible, setting the stage for a conflagration that thwarted the best efforts of firefighters to contain it.

"Every time they made progress, the fire would burn right past them," he said, adding that stiff winds were carrying hot embers beyond the leading edge of the flames, sparking additional blazes that quickly enlarged the fire zone.

Four firefighters were hospitalized with second-degree burns after they were dropped off by helicopter to battle the fire, authorities said.

Laura Streblow, 27, an evacuee who fled the nearby town of Hidden Valley with her boyfriend on Saturday night and has been tracking developments on social media and through friends, told Reuters she had heard that "Middletown is basically gone."

Recounting her own evacuation ordeal, Streblow said, "I saw flames all around. Because we weren't moving in traffic, you sat for 30, 40 minutes, flames on both sides of me. The wind was insane. I have never been so scared."

Mark Donpineo, 54, a project manager, said he and two friends were trapped by the fire for four hours Saturday evening at a golf course in the Hidden Valley Lake gated community, taking cover in a culvert.

"We got some towels, wetted down them down, and basically saw the fire coming. You could hear explosions of propane tanks, the ridge was totally on fire, trees were blowing up," he said.

The fire eventually moved on, and Donpineo, a resident of Harbin Hot Springs, drove through falling ash to Kelseyville.


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+5 # Street Level 2015-09-14 10:40
We woke up to a light coating of ash on our cars in Silicon Valley. The water's gotten scarce and the rest is poisoned. The fire's been harder to contain and they can't explain the behavior they're encountering.
 
 
+3 # Glen 2015-09-14 12:03
I saw three fires while living in California. The last was in the Mattole Valley. There aren't many folks living in the valley, even today. Nevertheless, when that fire came over the hill a ways behind my house after the sun went down, panic set in for real. Trees were exploding and the dry grass had flames almost as high as some of the trees.

Another fire was in Southern California and then a grass fire behind the houses where we first lived. A kid playing with matches started that fire and the entire neighborhood was out in force with hoses and finally got it stopped.

If folks have not seen a major fire they have no idea of the resulting devastation to towns and environment. Like you are experiencing, the results often are long distance. The heat of these fires is enough to incinerate a person at close range.

I'm hoping you will not experience any more than just the ash. Humidity is coming, and maybe rain.
 
 
+3 # NAVYVET 2015-09-14 12:05
Don't miss reading one of the great prophetic novels of all time, Octavia Butler's Hugo & Nebula winning PARABLE OF THE SOWER, and its sequel, PARABLE OF THE TALENTS. Ms. Butler, who died a few years ago, wrote SOWER in the 1990s as soon as she became aware of global climate change. As a Californian, an African American and a woman, she brought a special sensitivity to social and economic issued, although she missed the American penchant for military imperialism and endless war. No sci-fi can be 100% predictive, but read this book and you will be amazed. Wildfires were easier to predict than the socioeconomic upheavals that follow a multiethnic band of refugees fleeing north to escape California. Ms. Butler died before she could even begin the third book which would have rounded out a trilogy.
 
 
+5 # Radscal 2015-09-14 14:08
The smell of smoke is heavy in the air where my wife and I live in the Foothills. My best friend was evacuated from his home. And "fire season" still has two or three months left before the expected "El Nino" rains finally return.

I don't know what this author or the unnamed sources mean by "unheard of fire behavior."

We are still experiencing the worst drought on record, along with cuts to crucial social services including fire fighting and mitigation. So, we have drier fuel and, though resources have been shifted to fight these fires, years of neglect might still be worsening the fire hazard. But I don't see these fires behaving any different than others.

We had moved out of a home in the Oakland Hills in 1991, just weeks before a fire there destroyed some 5,000 homes, killing 20 people. Since we still had that address on our drivers licenses, the police let us go up to see our old home, and we literally could not find where it had been.

Locally, CalFire and local departments are now responding quickly and efficiently to the many small fires ignited weekly, so we all hope these deadly and damaging fires will be contained and extinguished soon.
 
 
+3 # CelticNavigator 2015-09-14 14:33
Best of luck, my friend!
 
 
+1 # skylinefirepest 2015-09-14 15:53
Rads, well said and one of the major problems that you didn't state was that Californians just love to build in the forest, never do controlled burns, won't cut a fire break, etc. It's a two way street folks, you've got to be proactive on the fire side. And also you've got to remember that the brush and foliage in Cal. is made to burn...high oil content and when it dries out it literally explodes.
 
 
0 # Glen 2015-09-14 16:10
Where can folks live where there isn't the possibility of disaster? Fire, tornadoes, floods, blizzards, hurricanes, earthquakes, you name it. There are areas where people want to live in the midst of pine trees and similar. Where would you suggest folks live where there is no possibility of disaster?

A lot of these issues in the west are due to extreme drought, which is going to affect areas other than the west. So - where do we go from there? All of us move to the desert?
 
 
+2 # Radscal 2015-09-14 16:33
I was born and raised in Tornado Alley.

Then I lived for 40 years within a couple miles of the Hayward Fault and the freeway that collapsed last time the San Andreas burped.

Now I live in forest fire land.

But my favorite place on earth is the Caribbean, between St. Lucia and Grenada. Paradise on earth, that has hurricanes, earthquakes AND volcanoes.

Ya pays your money, ya takes your chances.
 
 
+1 # Glen 2015-09-15 05:55
That's right, Radscal. Only rarely will you find an area without potential disasters.

Interesting that you lived close to the Hayward Fault. I did too, and went to school there and at Berkeley. Lots of bumping and tremors. Lots of movement along the street up to the school, as the ground changed position.

Now we live close to the New Madrid fault, where the potential for major disaster could come again. Ah well.

And yes, your choice in the Caribbean is excellent!
 
 
0 # Radscal 2015-09-14 16:31
It's absolutely true that the policy of both the Federal and State for decades had been to snuff out every natural fire and neglect controlled burns.

While true that not all residents follow the laws, we are required to keep fire hazards like brush near residences at bay. In my neck of the woods (and yes, we do live in what can be called a forest), folks are pretty fastidious about it.

Behind our fence was an growth of Scotch Broom, which as you note, literally explodes in flames when ignited. The property owner didn't just cut it down, he dug it up by the roots.
 
 
0 # futhark 2015-09-14 14:28
There was wood ash on my car parked outside in Santa Rosa yesterday. I live in Lake County, but on the northwestern part. When I returned home in the afternoon the whole basin was filled with smoke. The biggest natural lake entirely within the state of California lies between my place and the Rocky, Jerusalem, and now the Valley Fires that have ravaged the southeastern part of the county this summer. I'm upwind, to boot!

For several consecutive years Lake County has been designated by the American Lung Association as having the cleanest air in the United States, exceeding even that of the Hawaiian Islands. It is the only locale in the state of California in which automobiles are not required to have periodic exhaust emissions checkups. However, all these fires aren't helping the air quality.

There are still letters to the editor in the local Lake County Record-Bee newspaper from people who dismiss the role humans are playing in climate change. Recent events are demonstrating that climate change is real. It is in the best interests of everyone to take action to minimize our impact.
 
 
0 # Jump Off Joe 2015-09-14 17:58
Two issues, in addition to all the other points made here.

1. Firefighters in the west have abandoned their earlier mantra of "Every Fire Out by 10:00", meaning that we used to hit fires hard and soon, with the expectation that they'd be out by 10:00 the morning after they were spotted. Nowadays this is not done a lot of the time. There are, apparently, two reasons (there may be others, I can't say)
First, land managers are interested in letting fires burn, because it's "natural". This is ok, I suppose, but judgement is lacking. You don't let fires get out of control in early summer, when they can go nuts for MONTHS, especially in drought years!
Second reason: fortunes are made fighting big fires. My state senator, for only one example, told me he made over $1 million by renting his equipment to the Forest Circus for the several months it took to extinguish the 500,000 acre Biscuit Fire (incidentally, this fire was deliberately NOT attacked until it got too big to handle). Amazingly, contractors like my senator were paid FULL OPERATING COSTS for their equipment 24/7 all summer EVEN WHEN THEY SAT IDLE-which was most the time, thanks to poor organizational skills by the Circus.

2. Australians focus on the process called "Shelter in place", or SIP.
They are incredulous at how Americans are kept ignorant of SIP, how passive we are, and how unprepared we are to save ourselves, and our possessions, relying almost completely on government.

continued, below
 
 
+2 # Jump Off Joe 2015-09-14 18:06
The data show that, when homeowners do the requisite site prep,and become educated in SIP, they have a much higher survival rate protecting their homes than those who wait until the last minute to evacuate, since the latter are prone to getting burned up on their driveways or on public roads engulfed in flames.

FINALLY, there are beginning to be "Shelter in Place" subdivisions being built in Southern California. So far, they seem to be living up to expectations.

One clue: Folks, if you don't want to lose you home, the two biggest issues are NO WOOD SHINGLES OR SHAKES, and LEARN HOW TO SHELTER IN PLACE.

Caveat: do NOT shelter in place if you don't know how!
 
 
+1 # Radscal 2015-09-14 22:30
Interesting, Joe.

I mentioned above not being able to locate my burned down former home in Oakland. Well, right across the street was an untouched neighbor's home.

I don't know what training he had, but he did have a swimming pool, and he hooked a hose to the pump and got up on the roof. When the firefighters arrived, they told him to evacuate, that they were setting up their fire line further down the mountain. But he refused, and so the firefighters decided to make that the line, and no home behind his was burned, even though right across the street I couldn't even find the foundation of ours.
 
 
+1 # Jump Off Joe 2015-09-15 04:19
I've seen that happen time and time again. I think it's terrible that the state actually forces people to abandon their homes with mandatory evacuation.

Since the neighbor guy was up on his roof, I assume he had a flammable roof. I also suspect most the burned homes did, and/or had not done the requisite brush control around their homes. According to a Forest Circus presentation I attended, over 90% of homes that DO have proper preparation survive wildfire even without anyone fighting the fire, as difficult as that is to believe.
 
 
+1 # Radscal 2015-09-15 11:42
Thanks, Joe. I'm digging up info on SIP standards. Any site you'd recommend?

The Oakland fire was a true "Fire Storm," so not much survived inside the burn zone. I saw autos with their mag/alloy wheels melted.
 
 
0 # Jump Off Joe 2015-09-16 08:10
Radscal, I've been unable to find any resources online that give thorough SIP recommendations , and no printed literature available in USA. However, there's this excellent article, and on page 14 it recommends some Australian books on the subject.
http://www.usfa.fema.gov/pdf/efop/efo38568.pdf

Here's from that page, and I've found some books by going to the references page. I only found sources in Australia, though.

"The Australian fire services take public education very seriously, and endeavor to promote quality research into the field of public knowledge and response to wildfire. With this information, public education programs are further enhanced and refined (Boura, 1998; NSWRFS, 2001, 2002; Odgers & Rhodes, 2002).
In summary, the results of this literature review have identified critical information on what concepts must be addressed when considering a SIP program implementation for residents living in the WUI. It has also provided insight into the history of civilian rights in light of a mandatory evacuation order. Overall, the literature review has provided the author with a new found respect for the complexities involved in SIP program development. The process of citizen education, empowerment, and involvement is the foundation of the SIP program"
 

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