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Living with Fire: The USGS Southern California Wildfire Risk Project

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“Living With Fire: The Southern California Wildfire Risk Scenario Project”

Eleven Minute Version - ALL VOICE, Interviews and Narrator - July 11, 2013

News Reel Narrator:

The people of Los Angeles County will long remember the hours of fire and ruin. Sixty mile an hour winds whipped flames through the area in the worst fire disaster in southern California’s history. 456 homes were destroyed. Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon douses the roof of his Brentwood home in an effort to save it from the holocaust. Firemen worked around the clock battling the raging flames. Damage estimates are as high as 24 million dollars. The half million dollar mansion of film star Burt Lancaster and the home of Zsa Zsa Gabor are destroyed along with those of Joe E. Brown, Joan Fontaine and Walter Wanger. Here and there a chimney still stands a small reminder of elegant mansions leveled by hungry flames.

Narrator:

The 1961 Bel Air Fire is among the most famous, but wildfires are nothing new in southern California.

Firefighter Radio Chatter:

Watch that structure and get ready to deploy there. Get the pumps fired up. You got it.

Narrator:

Southern California’s climate embodies all of the ingredients for disastrous wildfires: Little rainfall. Hot summers, and dry Santa Ana winds.

When a fire starts under these conditions, almost nothing can stop it.



Jon Keeley, USGS Fire Ecologist:

We have averaged something like 500 homes per year lost since the 1950’s. Now despite very effective fire suppression efforts the situation seems to have only gotten worse so that since the year 2000 we’ve averaged a loss of a thousand homes per year from wildfires.







Narrator:

Southern California’s fire ecology is unlike that of anywhere else in the United States. Fire control strategies developed for mountain forests don’t have the same results here. So can science help uncover new answers to help Southern California manage and live with wildfires?

The U.S. Geological Survey has recently embarked on a study known as the Southern California Wildfire Risk Scenario Project.

They’ve brought together an international team of scientists. This ongoing research supports agencies on the front lines of fire management. Through a scientific lens, valuable data and tools provide insight and answers ……..for living with fire.



Jon Keeley, USGS Fire Ecologist:

The goal of the fire risk scenario project is to reduce housing losses in the future and at the same time minimize wildlife habitat losses. The weather conditions that cause these fires occur every year, thus in southern California we need to change the way we look at fires. Nobody talks about trying to stop earthquakes. Wildfires require the same sort of approach.





Narrator:

Scientists want to understand the how fires are ignited, and which factors that cause homes to burn can be controlled.

For example, why do some communities burn and others don’t?



Narrator:

The project has already uncovered some important findings:

The scientists analyzed the locations of nearly 6,000 homes destroyed or damaged by wildfires since 2001.



Alexandra Syphard: Conservation Biology Institute, Research Ecologist:

What we’re finding really is that location is the most significant risk factor. And the most dangerous locations are those along ridge tops, in wind corridors, Santa Ana Wind corridors, as well as when there’s really low housing density or the homes are scattered in Isolated clusters of development. These homes not only are at more risk, but they’re also more difficult for firefighters to get to.



Narrator:

Some common assumptions about wildfires also have been challenged by new scientific findings. Chaparral is the predominant ecosystem in Southern California. These native shrublands are a unique dynamic community of plants and animals. Scientists have discovered that standard fire control techniques, such as prescribed fires, may not be suitable for southern California chaparral.



Marti Witter: National Park Service, Fire Ecologist

When I first started work at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in 2001 the park had had a 20 year program of prescribed burning. The objective of that burning was to provide wildfire safety to the local communities and also to promote the health of our shrubland ecosystems.



Narrator:

But according to the National park service, neither of these outcomes was achieved. Research has now revealed that prescribed burning has no effect on the fire pattern in chaparral.



Narrator:

Another complex issue is mastication and the removal of chaparral from the landscape. Mastication can be valuable for creating defensible space and fuel breaks to help firefighters protect homes, but scientists are trying to analyze its potential tradeoffs.





Alexandra Syphard: Conservation Biology Institute: Research Ecologist

The problem is that fuel breaks often don’t stop fires in progress particularly under really high wind conditions and when the fuel is really dry. Our research has put some numbers and statistics behind this and we’re showing that fuel breaks really don’t stop fires under these strong and severe weather conditions, they really only work when firefighters are present or under mild weather conditions.



Narrator:

There are other questions about the effectiveness of chaparral removal because non-native weeds move in - which are much more flammable. Combined with drier conditions due to climate change and more frequent fire ignitions due to people these weeds may lead to a longer fire season. At the same time, native wildlife habitat is eliminated. The scientists continue to study how to balance the impact of chaparral removal and the necessity of fuel treatments.



Narrator:

But vegetation on the landscape is only part of the equation.

More than 95% of all fires in southern California are caused by humans, not by natural sources like lightning strikes. Human factors have increased fire ignitions and fire frequency dramatically. Scientists are studying the options available for reducing human ignitions such as those that start along road ways or by arcing power lines during high wind conditions.



Narrator:

The scientists are also studying how homeowners can reduce their risk of home loss when a fire does start.



C.J. Fotheringham, USGS Research Ecologist

To be able to go look at how things were before the fire is phenomenal. This is a new thing that we’re able to do this.



Narrator:

They examined foot by foot,

Houses…

Yards around them….

Landscaping….

Accessory Structures

Even the landscapes slope

And then analyzed what burned and what did not.



Jon Keeley, USGS Fire Ecologist,

This research is leading us to reverse our thinking about wildfires. Instead of the traditional from the wildland in approach, research results are telling us we need to think from the house out.



Narrator:

Fire questions in Southern California are more complex than they seem, and project scientists have much more to investigate. Ultimately, they hope to integrate all of these wildfire factors into what is known as a decision model.



Ross Bradstock, Univ. of Wollongon, Australia, Ecologist

We’re building quite a complex model which is tremendously exciting in scientific terms. So, it’s ground breaking stuff.







Narrator:

The model will give resource managers a tool to understand which combination of strategies, from fuel treatments, to land use planning, to urban landscaping, will have the greatest potential for managing wildfire risk in southern California.

Firefighter Radio Chatter:

Yeah it’s established it’s going to be coming down that canyon. Yeah we’re getting embers flying into the structure to the left, any action….



Narrator:

Southern California experiences the greatest fire losses of any area in the U.S., and perhaps even the world.



Jon Keeley: USGS Fire Ecologist

In the future how can we balance fire hazard and reducing the risk of fire hazard for humans and at the same time maintain natural wildlands for their intrinsic value as resources?

Narrator:

Like earthquakes, southern California wildfires can’t be prevented.

But the risks they pose to our communities and landscapes can be managed.

Marti Witter: National Park Service, Fire Ecologist

So, it’s time to re-examine how we look at these problems to find out what is effective so that dollars we put into wildfire losses actually has a benefit that we actually see a reduction in those losses in the future. The really important part about having rigorous scientific data to back up the recommendations that we make is because they are counter-intuitive, because they run contrary to the way work has been done for thirty years.



Narrator:

Led by the USGS the team of scientists hopes to add to our understanding of wildfire factors.

The resulting research can assist managers and planners in finding solutions to reduce the risk of home and habitat loss...

... and help southern California -- truly learn -- to live with fire.



Firefighter Radio Chatter:

Yeah it’s going to come down that canyon. We got fire comin’ your way.







Details

Title: Living with Fire: The USGS Southern California Wildfire Risk Project

Description:

Southern California's fire ecology is unlike that of anywhere else in the United States. Fire control strategies developed for mountain forests don't have the same results here. So can science help uncover new answers to help Southern California communities manage and live with wildfires? This 11 minute film showcases ongoing USGS research supporting agencies on the frontlines of fire management. Like earthquakes, southern California wildfires can't be prevented -- but the risks they pose to our communities and landscapes can be managed. USGS scientists hope to increase our understanding of wildfire factors. The resulting research can assist managers and planners in finding solutions to reduce the risk of home and habitat loss -- and help southern California truly learn to live with fire. Note: News reel footage at open of program is licensed by the UCLA Film Archive for use by USGS in this specific production only. Inquiries about the footage should go to the UCLA Film Archive. Fire footage shown is owned by Photo One Productions, Bay 6 Productions and the Orange County Fire Authority.

Location: Southern California, CA, USA

Date Taken: 10/25/2012

Length: 11:23

Video Producer: Stephen M. Wessells , U.S. Geological Survey


Note: This video has been released into the public domain by the U.S. Geological Survey for use in its entirety. Some videos may contain pieces of copyrighted material. If you wish to use a portion of the video for any purpose, other than for resharing/reposting the video in its entirety, please contact the Video Producer/Videographer listed with this video. Please refer to the USGS Copyright section for how to credit this video.

Additional Video Credits:

Living with Fire: The USGS Southern California Wildfire Risk Project
USGS General Information Product 147

A Production of U.S. Geological Survey
Western Ecological Research Center,
Office of Communications and Publishing,
Office of Regional Director-Pacific Region

Produced & Directed by
Stephen M. Wessells

Executive Producer;
Steven Schwarzbach

Source:

Find the complete production credits listed at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center website.

Learn about the science behind this project at the USGS Southern California Wildfire Risk Scenario Project homepage.

File Details:

Suggest an update to the information/tags?


Tags: California ClimateChange Ecosystems FireRegimes FuelTreatments InvasiveSpecies LandUse LosAngeles NationalParkService NaturalHazards NonnativePlants PrescribedFire SanDiego SantaMonica SouthernCalifornia UrbanPlanning WUI WesternEcologicalResearchCenter biodiversity chaparral fires hazards housing vegetation wildfires wildlife

 

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