July 2007 Fires Across the Western U.S.
Figure 1: Santa Clarita, CA

Why did these fires occur and why did they cause such widespread damage?

With the constant heat and droughts running throughout 2007, United States experienced a countless amount of widespread fires. Major wildfires sparked during June and drastically increased in July on the dry terrains of Western United States. These wildfires moved and spread quickly, blazing throughout Washington to California to Arizona. Large portions of the intermountain region were affected by these fires. Lake Tahoe, in Central California, and the Northern Rockies had the most number of fires. These fires continued to burn even to the end of December. The total loss for the year counted to over 85,000 wildland fires and 9.3 million acres that had burnt during the year of 2007. Mainly, long-term moisture deficits and severe drought conditions started up the fires, but Santa Ana winds added heat throughout its downwind direction and speed, causing the fires to not only spread but also continue to burn strongly.

The July 2007 fires in California are one of the worst cases of fires seen in the United States. The devastation was horrific and resulted in large amounts of damage. Many thought that by looking at what caused these fires would help us prevent wildfires in the future. Unfortunately, in November 2008, similar fires occurred in Southern California, Oregon, Idaho and Colorado. The fires in California struck more close to home as many structures were destroyed. Hopefully, more research can be done about what exactly causes these fires and how to successfully prevent them from happening again.

Background Information

When: In 2007, fires across California began in June, but escalated in July. According to the NOAA Satellite and Information Service, the worst fires took place in the Northern Rockies during the months of July and August.

Figure 2: Aftermath of San Diego Fires

The fires burned in Northern and Southern California, including “58 square miles of the Inyo National Forest…6500 acres of the Los Padres National forest in Santa Barbara County as well as 250 square miles in Nevada and parts of Utah." (Grossi) The county most affected was San Diego, where more than 1500 homes were destroyed. (See Figure 2)

Figure 3: NASA Satellite Photo

What: Fires are created with a combination of fuel, oxygen and heat. Wildfires tend to move downwind and uphill. Chances of a fire spreading are increased by "the vegetation...wind, geography and topography, climate and weather and fire suppression tactics" as stated by interfire.org. According to PBS online, the fires were so extensive because of a threatening combination of drought, dried out forests and grasslands as well as searing heat. Many think that the Santa Ana winds are to blame, as shown in Figure 3, however some may believe that these fires were due to global warming as well. Fire moves in the same direction as the wind, which in turn makes its movement unpredictable. Because the Santa Ana winds are so strong and move so fast, this could make the fire spread easily. The fact that the wind changes are so sudden, makes it even harder for firefighters to control the flames. As long as the fires have fuel to burn, they will continue.

About the actual fires...

Figure 4: 2007 Wildfire season
What were the consequences?

The fires not only caused the destruction of over a thousand homes, but in total, there were 85 injuries, 61 of which were firefighters and nine people perished because of these fires. These fires caused one of the largest evacuations in California history. As a result, the University of California, San Diego began collecting data on the atmosphere, respiratory systems, environmental politics and to figure out new ways to alert residents if a future disaster should occur. Mitigation includes brush clearing, metal roofing or including fire retardant plants in your landscape.
Figure 4 shows the areas devastated by the wildfires. It was estimated that in San Diego there was at least $1 billion in damage. 500,000 people were evacuated from their homes and 85,000 fires burned over 9.3 million acres all across California. The total monetary loss in California was an estimated $2.5 billion on insured losses and $1.8 billion was spent on fighting the fires. The main fire was the Angora fire in Lake Tahoe, California, which was caused by humans because of an unattended campfire. It destroyed 3,100 acres of land and lasted for approximately 3 days because of the surrounding forest, which provided more than enough fuel.

What caused the fires and why were they so widespread?

The Santa Ana winds are what caused the fires to become so widespread. They lasted for four days, which showed its effects all the way to the Del Mar coast. Even though some structures were saved because of fire retardant rooftops, many were lost because of the spread of embers and firebrands, which are the result of "fires burning other structures" (Grossi). Also, there was an increased risk of structures burning if they were close to dry vegetation, or close to other structures at risk. This is ultimately the answer to the question of why the fires became so widespread. The combination of Santa Ana winds fueling the fires, and blowing embers into nearby areas spread out the fire and increased overall devastation. Because of these fires, more research has been done to determine how to avoid fires like these in the future. Researchers have determined that “burnt structures tend to fall into one of two categories”(Grossi), there are structures that are in the direct path of the wildfire and there are those that are more flammable, perhaps due to the historical-type construction. Researchers have also determined that more land is likely to be burned in today’s day and age because of the climate change.

Compared to the November 2008 Fires

Although there weren't nearly as many
fatalities as the 2007 fires, there was a huge loss of homes. An entire mobile home park was destroyed, as well as several homes and part of a school in Brea. The causes seemed to be the same; the Santa Ana winds kicked in, and the brush was still dry because of drought in the Southern California area. According to wsws.org, "the fires were aggravated by a combination of low humidity, high winds, and high temperatures in Southern California" and the temperatures in the Los Angeles area were abnormally hi
Figure 5: Firefighter in Yorba Linda: LA Times
gh for the month of November. 484 homes were lost in the Oakridge mobile home park alone, and thousands were evacuated from their homes in multiple counties. Perhaps the evacuations that occurred were able to save more lives, but more needs to be done to save structures as well. Governor Schwarzenegger wondered why the mobile homes were not up to standard with fire protection. Thus far, Governor Schwarzenegger has been confronted with an increased hazard for wildfires, which is why he has taken the initiative to further prepare California for a "Year Round Fire Season." Due to the long existing drought in California as well as the climate, it has been more likely than ever for wildfires to break out all year round. Therefore, he has taken action to prevent any further devastation caused by these fires. He has consulted 40 other states for help with this issue and has increased the funding for fire prevention every year since he has been in office. Schwarzenegger is hoping that by taking action to prepare early and year round, the fires will be less devastating. Perhaps something will be done to fully prevent devastation because of wildfires in the future; either by creating new building codes in areas. That are more likely to be hit by wildfires, or spending extra money on brush clearing in hazardous areas and there is always the option for residents to include fire retardant plants in their yards. So much can be done to help ensure that wildfires do not cause as much devastation as seen in these past two years, and one can only hope that more will be done in the future to better protect everyone from wildfires.

(1)Grossi, Patricia. The 2007 Wildfire Season: Lessons Learned from Southern California. RMS, Image Cat Inc.

(2) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/weather/july-dec07/fire_07-09.html
(3) http://www.cbsnews.com/elements/2007/07/09/in_depth_nature/photoessay3031058.shtml
(4) http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2007/s2908.htm
(5) http://simondonner.blogspot.com/2007/07/fires-rage-across-western-us.html
(6) http://www.triplepundit.com/pages/cost-of-souther.php
(7) http://www.interfire.org/features/wildfires.asp
(8) http://www.wsws.org/articles/2008/nov2008/fire-n18.shtml
(9) http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-ocfireweb-2008nov16,0,4261049.story
(10) http://www.calfires.com/
(11) “Climate of 2007: Wildfire Season Summary.” <http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/2007/fire07.html>
(12) “Fires Across the Western United States.” <http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=7851>