It had all the elements of a catastrophe: A truck hit an electrical pole in the bone-dry canyons outside LA, exploding a transformer. Winds were brisk with temperatures above 32C. Despite that, the 500-acre blaze that looked particularly scary has only damaged three structures, reportedly because local residents had take the right precautions to protect themselves from bushfire. Battling the Old Fire in Calabasas, California. (Image: @LASHDQ)
What’s being called the Old Fire (named because it’s near Old Topanga Canyon road) is currently burning in the city of Calabasas, about 48km northwest of downtown LA. About 5000 people were evacuated in the last 24 hours, many of them celebrities (which is why you might have noticed the fire on social media). Super steep hillsides and lack of vehicular access are making things tough for firefighters, three of whom have been injured. Right now, the fire is about 80 per cent contained, and the weather is much cooler today so firefighters should have an easier time.
The exceptionally poor fire preparation by suburban communities in California is exactly the topic of an unsettling report last year, which isolated these wildland-urban interface areas (WUIs) on the edges of big cities as most at-risk for devastating fires. Calabasas is probably the best example of one of these WUIs and this type of fire could have been a major disaster.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the reason the fire wasn’t worse was because Calabasas had taken the proper precautionary measures to protect its dry landscapes from fire — firefighters specifically praised residents for being vigilant about brush-clearing, or what the forest service calls “fuel reduction”. Fire is, of course, nature’s way of clearing brush, which isn’t as feasible when there are McMansions around.
While a few fires per season are fairly normal for the region, the drought has left hillsides even drier with more dead vegetation than normal, which makes experts incredibly nervous about what will happen this summer in the US. Fires like this are getting worse, not only because of climate change, but also because humans are increasingly moving into homes that encroach more and more upon the scrubby chaparral hillsides. The homes that are in that transitionary area between backcountry and suburbia are often the first homes to go when fires spark. This is going to happen more often — the bushfire season is already about 20 per cent longer than it was just 35 years ago. This also paves the way for more megafires like the still-burning Fort McMurray wildfire.
Hopefully other exurban communities are looking at the Old Fire as a cautionary tale, and preparing themselves for what is going to be a long, long fire season.