Throwing Up the Red Flag

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In California, we don’t get Hurricanes.  We don’t get Supercell Thunderstorms, Nor’easters, or Polar Vortexes.  The Pineapple Express stays to the north, the Chinooks are inland, and El Nino is something that the rest of the country deals with.  Yeah, we get Earthquakes, but that just ‘happens’.  When it comes to actual weather, the only real threat that comes along happens this time of year.

Southern California is now in what is called a “Red Flag Warning”.  Essentially, this means that the threat is high for dangerous brush fires, but of course, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Red Flag Warnings are actually weather-related alerts put out by the National Weather Service (the same people who put out your other storm warnings).  That alone should tell you that this is a weather-related condition.  It starts with actually the opposite of what you think – wet weather.  In the spring and early summer, rains and marine coastal moisture allow fast-growing plants to prosper.  The faster a plant grows, however, the faster it dries out.  When you enter a period of drought, whether over years like California saw the first part of the 2010s or short-term like we have seen since August of this year, all that vegetation lays like kindling awaiting the right conditions.

This is where the ‘Red Flag Warning’ conditions come into play.  Today and tomorrow, there is an expected major pressure change that will push air from the desert to the sea.  This is so typically that it has a fairly popular name:  Santa Ana Winds.  These winds stay low, going through valleys and canyons, which makes them move quicker – usually with gusts between 40 to 70 mph.  Also,  because they came from the desert they are hot and dry.

So – We have dry vegetation that can easily burn.  We have hot dry air blowing at fast rates.  Essentially, all you need is an ignition source, and you have a swift-moving, dangerous fire.

That’s why we get the warning.  Good reason right?

Then of course … this is California, so we have to completely lose our “collective stuff” over something like this.  We are on Day Four of ‘Red Flag Warning” countdown.  It’s like Red Flag Armageddon is on us.  A Red Flag Warning that will last for a little over 36 hours mind you (much of it has started with misty, moist morning air).  Schools are closing in ‘high-risk areas’.  Even the local power company has warned of possible power outages where power will be cut rather than threaten a spark to light a fire.  As someone who works in a field where Risk Mitigation is a top priority, I am all for this discussion — but you first need to identify where the risk is.

I’m telling you, La Crescenta where I live is not where the risk is.

Some key things about wildfires in California are, as dangerous and destructive as they are, they typically don’t occur where there are people.  Much like the myth about tornadoes in Kansas, most fires occur or burn across areas vegetation can grow without human interaction.  Sometimes there are homes or ranches in the way, but not communities of hundreds of thousands of people.

Second, these burns are a necessary order of life.  Plants grow, plants die, plants dry out.  For new plants to grow, the old ones need to go away.  Fires are how this happened since fire was first created.

More than anything, firefighters, smoke jumpers, fire crews — they are incredibly strategic and incredibly strong at what they do.  I mean, we all know they are brave and noble, but they know what they are doing.  Many times when a brush fire is going, they may come back and say the fire is XX contained (like 30% or 50%).  What they really mean is they are blocking the fire from doing what they don’t want to do and letting it burn what they will let it do.  Fires are usually the most dangerous when they are first lit because they are the most unpredictable.  Yet once the lines start to get cut, the tankers start laying down retardant, and troops arrive … they got this.  They got this good!

More than anything, the threat of fire, especially to those of us in the concrete jungle, is incredibly low.  A couple of years ago, I was here for the La Tuna Fire, one of the biggest in Los Angeles County that burned over the Verdugo mountains.  This was a fire that burned on a mountain stuck right in the middle of a massive population and burned 7200 acres of land.  It lit up and “threatened” most of the San Fernando Valley – which includes 1,770,000 people.  The fire was widespread, very consuming, and remained a ‘low containment’ for nearly a week.  In the end, 5 homes were destroyed and about 1000 people had to be evacuated.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s sad for those homeowners and those evacuees, but this ‘mostly uncontained fire’ only was an actual threat to 0.06% of that area.  I was in an area that we were recommended to watch for updates, but still a couple blocks from a ‘voluntary evacuation’; and while I could see smoke for days, only saw a single glimpse of a fire once.

So, maybe it is bravado, but I am looking forward to this “Red Flag Warning” as a nothing experience.  The real Red Flag Warning, LA should have been ready for was the Dodgers going down to the Nationals last night, but that’s a wound too fresh to push at.  Instead, I’ll just say I’m expecting the smell of a campfire, the dry wheezing of smoke in my lungs, and an occasional need to watch the news.

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