Is California’s fire response up to the challenge?

I grew up in Spain, a country where summer wildfires are sadly quite common. I remember witnessing many of them during my childhood behind the window of my parent’s living room, which has a pretty privileged view of the surroundings. I can still see the wildfire’s glare lighting up the sky during the warm summer nights, and the red, hazy skies turning everything to orange.

And I also remember the noise of the helicopters and those super cool yellow air tankers from the Air Force, loading water from the bay and working tirelessly to help extinguish the wildfires. It was at the same time amazing and terrifying to watch.

A Spanish CL-215

I left Spain for California several years ago, but it appears wildfires are still very much a part of my life. And while forest fires are completely natural, the last few years have been particularly devastating, in part because of human intervention: Climate change, questionable management of the electrical infrastructure, and population pressure are contributing to exacerbate the issue.

As I write this, the so-called “CZU Lightning Complex” (one of the many wildfires currently active in California) burns just 20 miles away. And while the last week has felt like a shitstorm within a shitstorm, where I am we still feel pretty safe: we can just stay at home (now for two different reasons), close our windows, turn on the air purifier, and be okay.

But our heroic first responders and the 77,000 (so far) evacuated people can sure tell a different story.

Here in California, this is an all too familiar one.

A repeating story

This is not the first time I find myself stuck at home because half of California is burning. Somehow this has become a routine. Every year it begins in summer and goes on until November, when the first rains come help us.

As I said, I’m aware that I’m writing from a pretty privileged position here. For me this just means that a few weeks a year I have to stay at home, maybe rearrange my weekend plans, and maybe make some preparations in case we need to leave the area quickly. But people are dying out there, some of them trying to defend their houses from fire, others escaping from it, others while working hard to extinguish it. Lives get lost, property gets damaged, businesses suffer disruptions. The impact is huge. And it happens year after year after year.

Every time I’m close to a wildfire, like now, those summer nights in my hometown come back.

I notice the same smell and the same apocalyptic orange light. But there’s something missing. All of those planes and helicopters.

This is a screenshot from the last report about the CZU wildfire, the one closest to my home. It started last Sunday, it’s been one week since that and containment is still 8% (and I’m actually pretty happy because it was 0% for several days in a row).

At the time of writing, 77,000 people have been evacuated. Every update expresses that resources are focusing on other areas or just “limited” and that aircraft operations are challenging. But nothing really changes but the size of the wildfire and the number of buildings it has destroyed.

Don’t get me wrong, these guys are heroes. But I can’t help but wonder if heroes are the only thing that will stop these wildfires. Or do we also need more professionals, more resources, and a bigger budget?

Before moving here, I never saw a wildfire burning out of control for more than 5 days, with thousands of people being evacuated and the administration being pretty much like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Then I started wondering… did we really have more resources back in Spain or I was just a small, impressionable kid? Is the fire response actually insufficient in California? Should we reconsider it?

Bad metrics are better than no metrics

Wildfires in California operate on a whole different level. Not only are forests huge here, they’re often inaccessible. Plus fire is actually a part of the ecosystem, so fires can’t be completely avoided. However, they can’t be ignored either, especially when lives are at stake.

Wildfire prevention and forest management is a dark art which I know nothing about, so I can only judge at a very basic level. Effectiveness of the wildfire prevention policies seems pretty hard to measure to me, but there’s one thing I can measure — the amount of resources we are putting into this issue.

So I decided to do some quick research on firefighting resources in California, Spain, and France, as a bonus. I like these countries because they have similar populations, size, and climate compared to California, so they can be interesting examples.

California

California is home to 40 million people who live on 105 M acres (42M ha). According to CalFire’s website, their personnel is composed of:

  • 6,100 full-time fire professionals, foresters, and administrative employees
  • 2,600 seasonal firefighters
  • 2,750 local government volunteer firefighters
  • 600 volunteers In Prevention
  • 3,500 inmates, wards and Conservation Corp Members

This gives us around 15,000 firefighters during peak season. The number of professional firefighters, combining the seasonal ones, is a little over half of that.

If we only consider professionals and assume the number of administrative employees is negligible (which I doubt), California has 2.1 firefighters for every 1M people.

(While it’s a huge debate in and of itself, I don’t want to use this article to comment on California’s use of the incarcerated population to help extinguish fires, especially after learning that they don’t allow them to work as firefighters once they’re released from prison).

Where does this put us in comparison with Europe? To get an idea, I pulled some numbers from the European Service Worker’s Union (access to public data in Europe sucks, so it’s hard to find the actual figures. We could learn a few things from the US with respect to that).

Spain

Spain has 47 million people distributed on 125 M acres (50 M ha). The firefighting response is composed of:

  • 19,886 professionals
  • 3,437 volunteers

This gives us 4.2 professional firefighters per 1M people (twice as many as California).

Interestingly, Spain has faced a huge reduction in public expenditure in the last several years and I remember a heated public debate several years ago about the number of firefighters being not enough. However, the impact of wildfires there is not even close to California’s.

Were Spain’s resources too many? We have a name for wasting money on things like saving lives and stuff, so maybe we are the weird ones here. That’s why I decided to get the same figures for a similar country. So let’s take a look at France.

France

France has 67M people on its 136 M acres (55M ha), a lot of forests and also lots of volunteers. Their numbers:

  • 42,000 professionals
  • 200,000 volunteers

Which gives us 6.2 professional firefighters per 1M people (almost three times as many as California).

Without even looking at how many acres have burned in each country over the last decade, or how long the average fire lasts, or even how many lives are lost to wildfires each year, I find these numbers telling. Why doesn’t California, a state with an increasing occurrence of severe drought and wildfires, have more professional firefighters?

Is this enough?

Blindly blaming climate change is not going to fix anything, the same way that blaming China, or us “doing too many tests” is not going to end any pandemic.

Climate change is here to stay. We can’t control natural disasters but we can learn from our mistakes and be ready for the next time. We can’t act surprised four times in a row.

As we like to say, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”.

Let’s not be fooled twice. Or four times.

We can do better than this. We don’t need people to make the ultimate sacrifice, we need responsible leadership that bites the bullet and takes on the challenge of making things happen.

In no way do I mean any disrespect towards the hardworking men and women putting their lives on the line. My article is not meant to be a criticism of their work or a shot at their heroics. If anything, their work is made that much more heroic by what I feel is a sheer lack of resources in the face of an insurmountable crisis.

I’m hoping this will encourage people to think, to research the data more closely than I have, and to generate debate that will lead to real solutions.

I’ve been into software engineering for the most part of my life so I have thought long and hard about it. Now I‘m just writing it down.

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