After the massive Panorama Fire in southern California in 1980, a young fire researcher named Jack Cohen went in to investigate the houses that were destroyed. One of the first things that Cohen did was to listen to emergency dispatch tapes from the day of the fire. And as he listened, he began to notice a pattern. People were calling in about houses on fire long before the fire front ever reached their neighborhoods.The houses were not burning because a wall of flames was racing through the community, destroying them. It was something else: embers. This started Cohen on a crusade to get people to rethink how we fight wildfires.
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
This is. Ninety nine percent, invisible, I'm roman Mars Over the past few days, Californians have watched as the car wildfire has rage through the northern part of the state, the first a little more than a week ago, fuelled by dry brush high temperature There's an strong shifting winds, fire has moved from a national recreation area into the new. My city of writing. As this recording six people have died. Nineteen people are reported missing in thousands have evacuated, the fire is only twenty percent contained, while fires aren't new in California, but with climate change, our fire seasons are becoming longer and fire. Are becoming bigger and harder to fight. Over the next two weeks. We're going to look at the issue, wildfire some design solutions and just how complex
they can be to implement the Santa Anna Winds of Southern California, are sometimes called the devil wins they pick up. Late summer and early fall You came down from the mountains and across the coast there hot dry and known for creating dangerous fire conditions in November of nineteen eighty, as the Santa Anna Blue in at up to ninety miles an hour, an unknown arsonist light a fire near panorama, point in the San Bernardino mountains. That's reporter Stephanie Joyce by the wind, the fire grew and quickly spread down the mountain towards the city of San Bernardino. Is this is then fire chief talking to her a porter again. We have extremely strong winds humidity with some, where about ten another
oh go via chief said they called in all available resources, and still It wasn't enough, there was no stopping the fire conditions, were just right, air for way commonly referred to as a firestorm ingest. A few hours, the panorama fire destroyed, hundreds of homes and killed. Four people was one of them worst wildfire disasters in California history. At the time it was all the fire that would make a young researcher question or entire approach to wildfires and conclude that we might, able to design our way out of the devastation they cause. Jack Cohen was a few years out of graduate school in a recent transplant to California at the time the fire. He was working as a research scientists for the forest service, studying fire behaviour and he was interested in how the panorama fire had destroyed so many homes, especially
Lee when there is such an overwhelming fire fighting response, a strike team of engines is five engines and they had twenty strike teams coming right away. There would be a whole block the house is on fire and they could not deliver enough water. So were calling in more moorhouse and moving a block down two blocks down and losing out and then moving further and losing that so extorted listening to the emergency, dispatched tapes from the day of the fire Jack is a matter of fact kind of guy. A scientist round no not emotional, but almost forty years later, still chokes up when he talks about the desperation he heard the firefighters voices, the tapes, he heard understand, but you can Here the emotion
it's pretty emotional, particularly listening to the radio traffic, because an how just a kurdish they couldn't find it for those of us who mostly see wildfires on tv or in pictures in the paper it's easy to imagine that a wildfire is like a soon army of flames spread across the landscape and destroy everything in its path but jack It wasn't that simple, when he set out to piece together how the disaster had unfolded and so on The things that I did was to look at when the first call came in to dispatch for a fire in this community where was that call from,
and where was the wildfire. At that time, the coming MA am I going to get out of here. Is Jack was listening to the tapes. He started to notice a pattern whereby people were calling about houses on fire long before the fire front ever reached their neighborhoods, the wildfire, was still actually on the other side of the ridge, about it half a mile away burning up the hill. These houses, burning, because a wall of fire was racing through the community. They were burning because There's something else: the embers as wildfires bird head of embers main body of downwind ahead of the in body of the fire in Jack. Real
as most of the houses that burned had one extremely problematic feature in common, It turns out. Every house had flam would roof the embers we're accumulating in the crevices around the dry would shingles and setting fire to the house's from above across the street, and I don't know without, would roofs most of the houses and survived and while that might not seem like a huge epiphany that houses with wood, roofs, burned and houses without would roofs didn't for Jack. It was that detail. They made him rethink the entire wildfire problem, because we, listen to other people talk about the fire, they more focus on the wood rooms. They were talking about fire fighting neighbours. And nothing could have been done like this captain, San Bernardino Fire Department? If we, what I had as many as five hundred euro spent along, hillside there to protect those homes. I don't
but we could have stopped that fire any better than we did on his conditions that we have. The only thing that I feel is that what could have saved those homes would have only been an act of God. Didn't think that was right. The problem wasn't the fire fighting response, the problem the houses were built to burn and when Jack shifted his focus from the fire to the design of the homes? Suddenly, He found himself wondering if we were framing the whole point of wild fire in the wrong way. He wasn't the first to have that thought, but he was the first to do extensive research into exactly how our homes, Berne and wildfires some of that work put at odds with some of the main fire fighting agencies. In the? U S, nearly a hundred years of fire policy and tradition. And even though his ideas are simple and compelling they still caught on in the way that he hoped they would maybe because
Fighting fires is as much a social and political problem as it is a technical one. Do you feel frustrated most the time most of the time for most of this country's history. Our approach to wildfire has been driven by the sentiment fire Is bad or colonization. Many native american tribes set fires intentionally to regenerate wild plants and to create grasslands and habitat for game. When Europeans arrived, they brought fear of fire with them for a time in much of the country. Not only did we do away with the practice of setting fires, we actually started to extinguish naturally occurring fires to nineteen eleven that became an official responsibility of the newly created for a service and in nineteen thirty five. That policy even got a name. The ten Amro into the forest service should put
every new fire and public land they ten, a m the following day Roosevelt's civilian conservation Corps was on the front lines of implementing that policy. We Bobo's bar and dates. Lots of days, patient spring, you could see smokes at the end of the war, the belief was with enough water and manpower. Firefighters could put out any wildfire in a huge industry rose up around that idea, a group employed tens of thousands of people with honey, it's a millions of dollars a year being spent on planes and helicopters and fire crews, and for a while that brute force seem to work, but those early Firefighters had an advantage for millennia, before the rise and modern fires and russian wildfires had and regularly through America's forests they would eat up.
The fuel. So when there were fires, they are often low intensity and stayed on the forest for as Firefox There's began aggressively fighting fires that balance started to change with fewer fires, burning for a start getting more and more dance them when the forest did catch on fire there is more material to burn the fires burnt, hotter and bigger. If I do, by suppressing natural fires, we created dumping that turned out to be much much worse. Here's Mark Finny he's a fire. I ain't, as with the foreign service, fighting fire, really hasn unintended consequences that may be even worse than the fire self and often are. Since the very wasn't of our fire suppression policies. There into been. For arguing that it wasn't a good idea to put out every fire. They took until nineteen eighty four that idea to really take hold by them It is also becoming increasingly clear that we couldn't put out every fire especial
as they got bigger and bigger were not. Actually stopping them were just delaying them, others this a fire put out the fire put off, but even ass the publican. Nineteen eighty is started to accept the idea that fire was natural and necessary and fighting it had unintended consequences. Not fighting. It didn't seem like a viable option outside of remote wilderness areas, because How could you stop fighting fires when they threatened people's homes, which brings us back to Jog Cohen The panorama fire once he started to focus on the home as the problem, not the wildfire. He wanted to know what made some houses more susceptible than others, The question that I had in my mind a curiosity question. What I'm trying to do is to establish a relationship between wildfire and home destruction, I want to know what the linkages. How does this happen?
in the panorama fire. It has clearly been the wood roofs, but in other fires there were plenty of homes without would roofs that burn to sit. Accept about learning all of the house's potential weaknesses the wildfire had to be to a house for to ignite simply Then he wanted to know was how close the flames of a wildfire had to be to a house virtue. Ignites we from the radiant heat. That question he did a series of experiments, including one in the late nineteenth nineties in northern Canada, where he sat and actual forest on fire. Do you I should I cut plots into a for the boreal forest and then just on fire, yes, and blushed and burn yes. What Jack found in the experiment was that an entire forest could be on fire thirty feet away from the house and nothing
it was fine but of course, JAG knew that the flames and the radiant heat or the only threats to the house there were also the embers he frequently found it. Of standing next to houses, reduced to ash and next to them green trees. The tell tale sign the fire front, never even reached the home, but the embers did Jack a slide show he likes to share with photos, affirmed houses and, if, like the optical illusion with a vague and faces, at first, you look at the aftermath of a wild fire, and all you see is the destruction, and you can see this, but after a few slide and almost feel a transition in you're in your eyesight sudden the green trees shift in the focus, and it's easy to see that the home is often the Anything that's burned, do when using when you see it, it's like a miracle. You let go well so one of them
things that I always try to point out, because everybody that look sad news, footage and pictures can read I observe no trees on fire and the structure burning. So he did experiments to see exactly how the embers were setting house is on fire, We discovered, embers like to collect in lots of places the corners of wood, decks and gutters of pine it also in an annex with open Vance. Since a lot of you evacuate turn wildfire. There's no one around to doubt the embers they smoulder and set fire to the entire house and more jack. Out about it the more he came to believe that most ember fires could be stopped with, since simple design solutions. I mean you, don't have to live in a bunker. You don't have to cut all you're too these down jacket. And to develop guidelines for designing and landscaping homes to withstand wildfire
by drawing a buffer based on a conservative interpretation of those canadian fire experiments. He called it ignition zone. The home ignition zone is limited to the house in its immediate surroundings, out to about a hundred feet between a hundred feet and thirty, feet from the house the goals to space trees, to the fire, can't jump between them and has forced the ground between thirty feet and five b The goal is to landscape and design the ground. Fire lose esteem by removing fuels Tal grasses and would piles within five feet of the house the goals, Stop the fire dead in its tracks with things like rock beds and well irrigated grass. What I found is you don't have to be very exotic about their design and materials in order to make Europe the houses very resistant to ignition jack. Also, came up with a long list of suggestions for preventing ember fires on the house itself,
a big and obvious ones like replacing your flammable would roof to the smaller, less obvious, like weakened. Your garage door, has a tight, see, what the concrete and removing decorative juniper trees, which are extremely flammable. Some of these ideas were pretty intuitive. And had been floating around for a long time. In many fireproof me these homeowners had long been encouraged to clear, flammable vegetation from their properties and to maintain their homes in ways that would reduce their chances of catching fire. The jack's experiments lad to put hard numbers to people's intuitions to develop specific evidence act. Recommendations for the changes homeowner should make an jugs expert. It's also showed that when those changes were made, a house was much less likely to burn. In fact, he showed with the main factor in whether a house was going to burn it. Wasn't about
the intensity of the fire or its size. It was really about what was happening within one hundred feet of your home and that led him to a further are more radical conclusion You can have extreme wildfire behaviour now control that and yet still how survive We may not even need to fight fires as long as buildings near fire prone areas are designed. To withstand them. It wasn't that there were other reasons too fires. The jack said there was no need to fight a fire if the only goal was to save house houses not ruled out fighting a lot of forest fires, so we have opportunity to separate the wildfire It is from the home destruction issues we can separate does
comment: we could lead to more forest fires, burn naturally and finally break out of the vicious cycle of fire suppression that leads to the largest and foreigners jack. That he had come up with a way to save houses and let fires burn. Naturally, he but it was a win win, so one thousand nine hundred and ninety nine. He presented a paper about his findings at a fire conference in San Diego. So I give this paper front of a group of mostly agency people, people before a service and state fire agencies. People in a position to change policy and Jack says they are told Billy Uninterested, like no questions jack is up there saying that it's really only what happens within a hundred feet of a home that determines whether it burn and no one seems to care, except this one guy from an environmental group
and as I'm walking out, he says, do you have a copy of that paper and Jack's like churn here's a copy, it is later a newspaper report or cause asking about Jack's talk. Jack gives them an interview. The article comes out in a local paper, and I don't exactly remember the headline, but it was Thing like for a service has its head up to us. That wasn't the actual title of the article, but the store we did imply that basically, everything about how the foreign service dealt with wildfires was wrong because The ten a dot had left us with this huge firefighting infrastructure. The forest, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on planes and fire crews was proving massive logging projects on the grounds that thinning out the forest would help reduce the intensity of wild. Fires and save homes,
I was saying actually it would be way more effective if you just encouraged homeowners to maintain and retrofit their properties, nine o clock in the morning I get a phone call from region fact for a service, the fire director of regions six What do you think you're doing Jack New immediately that he was in trouble? The way He remembers the conversation the director Twont Jack. He was putting those big logging projects in jeopardy and that put the director in a sticky political, situ, but in the middle of getting chewed out by the director Jack just double down, he says he knew who, with the data said he knew the science wasn't wrong, He told the director the logging projects weren't going to do much to save homes, and I said well. You might have a problem because the research I've done. Just
indicate that that's going to be very effective atmosphere the phone call Praetor, She to begin. Of adversity for the next. For years at least I don't know I wasn't a level to know whether was resistant. This is shown Allah Garza she's we, the national director of Fire and aviation management, the forest service back when Jack was first from bring his ideas, she wasn't in management, and so she wouldn't comment on the push back. The jack says he faced. She does say that over her thirty year career in the forest service, she seen more and more emphasis placed on strategies like defensible space, which means clearing your property, my mobile materials and she's happy about that. I believe that people
I'm taking ownership in their home and have indefensible spaces is number one, but there's always so much. The foreign service can do to encourage people to make changes alive. Of that work falls on local governments and individual homeowners. Even today. Not ever is convinced that it's important to invest in the kinds of preparations that Jack recommends. Yeah, you know so it's kind of scattered across country arm some communities dump liver far will ever happen. Whether at it'll never happened to me and I'll never, after evacuated, and so I went to keep my trees and shrubs right by my house in and, unfortunately, time is telling us are showing us that it does happen. Fire has no boundaries and no preference for four. Where burned and, in the meantime, the forest service as a congressional mandated duty to fight fighters. Last year, the federal government's
more than two billion dollars. Fighting fires, just a small fraction of that on prevention and mitigation efforts or cultural views, fire primarily in emergency response activity. But if you treat fire only as an emergency response under emergency circumstances, you're missing out and all the preventative carry could do. This is Mark Finny again, you remember, He also works for the forest service more. He was on. Bored with Jack's ideas. He also understood that there were huge challenges to implementing them. There were reasons why they didn't catch first, we can't just throw a bunch of scientific papers on the table Nobody read them out cheese thanks That's what I needed now. We have a different view. How things work too There's too much history behind the idea that we ve got to do something about fire, whether its effect Give or not. We, the public.
Expect to see dramatic shots of aeroplanes flying over raging fires. I've been water on them. But when communities put the principles Jack articulated into practice, they work, There are several communities in southern California, built with wildfires in mind that have survived when nearby homes didn't, but does arms are mostly custom, designs and gated communities. If homeowners associations that enforced strict rules about vegetation clearing and home design may in changes elsewhere is more complicated for start. Many homeowners may not even have a hundred feet of space to clear and fireproof its expensive to replace your roof. Four renters they may not have the authority to make changes to their homes. And in many cases there aren't incentives for people to invest many homeowners, just kind of instinctively get that the odds are being in a wildfire or extremely low. There are more
forty million homes and wildfire prone areas, and only a few days burn every year without One compelling them to do it. Homeowners, might decide, is just not worth spending time and money to change their properties. So, even though job Ideas are pretty simple. There not simple to actually implement in the real world. Jack tells the story about a fresh of his who said that modifying homes to make them fire resistant isn't rocket science. I said term now this is much harder, this, a social science His comment is oh geez, we're screwed Jack's ideas have become more mainstream overtime. Far agencies like the forests service, now talk a lot. About defensible space, there's, more emphasis placed on homeowner responsibility, JAG off
who helped start the prominent organization fire wise, which promotes fire preparedness channel. Or is the forest service fire director says that the enormously destructive fires at the last few years have also forced people to think about. How to make their homes and properties more fire resistant and, I think, gum every year. There's gonna be more awareness about, while on fire fighting in another. Accusations and do have defensible space or not. Just because The trans every year we saw last year was the largest and most devastating fire ear and we have this year, which is larger and more devastating, then human fatalities, firefighter fatalities and with climate change. The fire season is only getting longer when I asked the girl if she could imagine a future like the one Jack proposes with a forest service, would get out of the fire fighting business.
So I think we are a long way from that. You know so I mean we're all board for a fire, adapted communities and resilient landscapes and, for you know, folks, have defensible spy, around around their structures and more healthy, resilient national forces. Some slander were a long way from that. We are a long way from that. The forest service, is currently fighting several dozen fires across the western United States. When you're at busy running around putting out fires. Literally, it's hard to focus on how to bend them from being so destructive in the first place, Jack retired, from forest service a few years ago, feeling like His research hasn't made much of a difference in the end, When he's watching the news, especially coverage of the past few destructive fires, seasons in California, he's noticed there isn't a lot of talk about making homes more fire resistant or clearing sensible space. Instead, What about fire fighting swim,
the battle with apocalyptic fury overnight, the battle against the giant inferno intensify, overwhelm firefighters did what they could Where was low and there's not much, you can do it. There's no there's no way, you could start a fire like tat. The fire is now scores boy. One of the very frustrating things that I had experienced this past summer, Portugal, from the California fires is the Ten sense of fatalism, oh well, there's nothing that could be done well the bottom line is that we can do something. It just doesn't have anything to do with controlling the wildfire. This fire is now forty five percent contained a mandatory evacuation. Orders are watching me. Footage from this California fires. Something stands out, especially You ve spent a lot of time with Jack once you, over the shock of seeing neighborhoods reduced to ashes the drama firefighters tie
about how there was nothing they can do to stop the flames. Your eyes shift to something else: the green trees judged by fire, surround the burned out homes, we are really get it. With nature, nature is more powerful than we're about. Eleven thousand minors are battling, the fires, putting it shit, Next week we will be continuing to explore the issue of welfare and just how hard jack coins ideas can be to implement in the real world. Look at one community in southern California, which is. Threatened again and again by fire River you of that story. Coming up right after this,
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to Santa Barbara and death. Cable has lived there since the MID sixties, it's a lovely place and its where I grew up in its very comforting to to be in place. That is so. Familiar the hillsides are covered with chaparral scrubby brush with yellow flowers and the neighbour, it's our line with eucalyptus months. He, those beautiful landscape, is also what makes the community particularly vulnerable to wildfire the chaparral An eucalyptus both provide excellent fire fuel, the canyon that said below the hills and want to see two a cosy little spaces where fire can easily take hold and the town so called, Son donor winds blow hot, air from the desert up over the and through the canyons spreading that fire for this landscape fire is predictable. And it is inevitable coupled with a multi year, drought, it is becoming unmanageable. We had
no idea that fires were going to increase in size and frequency like they have. Maybe it's like the frog in the slowly come into a boil. It's just. Getting worse slowly,. For decades, the residents and want to seek out exhibited a kind of stubborn pioneer street that characterizes lotta californians outer fire. They'd rebuild and continue on with their lives, but that kind optimism is getting harder to sustain, as fires become more frequent and more intense and as the community is forced to I can with rebuilding, again and again and again we are entering a new time when, because of the weather and the impacts of climate change and long term, extended drought that fires have reached a new level of intensity that that's causing us to have to
some cases change our tactics, strategies and, to start to know, we were re evaluating our going to deal with this. More on that story next week, Many represent invisible was produced this by Stephanie Joyce in our senior editor Delaney Home Mix into production by Sharif piece of based on real kitty mingle is our senior producer. Kirkwall step is the digital director. The recipe is a breach of element to and the child. The only turn mother and me woman, Mars special thanks the you, oh W and Tom Collagen for research assistants, we're project. Ninety one point: seven K, L W in San Francisco and produced but he arose in beautiful, downtown Oakland, California,
Ninety nine percent, invisible as a member of Radio Tokyo from pure acts of fiercely independent, collective of the most innovative shows in all upon casting environment, radio, Tokyo, donor, family. You can find the show enjoying discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweeted me at Roman moors and the show at ninety nine p, Org run Instagram, tumblr and ready to, but I invite you to buy, let's everything: ninety nine percent invisible and money p. I dot org. Radio do.
Transcript generated on 2020-02-14.