Are There Ways to Protect Against Catastrophic Fires?

Are There Ways to Protect Against Catastrophic Fires?

It would seem that there is no way to prevent the spread of a fire transported by 50 mph winds. There are many questions that will be raised after the fire is over, and hopefully answered before rebuilding begins, home by home. Nobody has discussed if there is a county or state or federal agency that has the duty or power to find what preventative steps could mitigate the fires. There also are the questions of equipping a much more effective warning and evacuation system in this digital and big data age. Then there are the question of which laws or regulations can be imposed on rebuilding, and on future projects. It really is a problem of organization or reorganization of how we respond to fires in a most intelligent and organized way.

As usual, I am not even educated in fire prevention, but I can make suggestions looking toward research and development projects.

Irrespective of the difficulties of redesigning present projects and houses, it is absolutely required to install a ubiquitous early warning system. We have discussed an early warning earthquake system that can give 20 second to a minute early warning of an earthquake. Why can’t there be a system that hits everyone’s TVs, cell phones, and land phones in the area. It can be part of the cable, cell phone, Internet, and land phone system. It could also be part of the earthquake warning system in California.

Before The fire strikes a particular neighborhood, warning for evacuation should include instructions, such as shutting off the gas, taking as many cars out as possible, posting signs on garages if you have ammunition in the house, or propane or kerosene cans in the garage. This is a case where gun ownership can cost you your house, as firemen will not enter a house with ammunition exploding in it.

The drone overflight of a totally burned Santa Rosa project showed a development with lot filling houses with very little separation. There also was no green space or park providing a fire break. This is undoubtedly a cost minimizing project, where developers had a free reign in designing to save costs. One has to plan for contiguous grade schools and middle schools. They need to have playground space as fire breaks, and school buses for evacuation parked nearby.

Some of the trees in the projects were pine trees, and it is known for their needles to come off and spread as embers, making forest fires difficult to suppress.

One method could be external rooftop sprinklers on all homes in a project.  But people do not like to have systems that could possibly never be used.

Cars left in the fire zone are going to explode and provide plenty of spreadable fuel to burn. Every effort should be made to take even old ones. Residents and firemen should be warned about this, and firemen should be provided with master keys to move cars.

The winds are called Diablo Winds, and blow from East to West. They come over mountains where they lose their moisture, and as they come over the mountains, they come down hill and speed up. The Santa Rosa fire came at 50 miles per hour. It’s heat melted aluminum in wheels at 1,221 degrees F, and glass in bottles at 2600-2900 degrees F.

California has now long had laws banning flammable roofs. It is now important to develop flame retardant stucco, drywall, insulation, and switch from wood to steel construction. They could also develop materials that do not burn with cinders and embers to be transported by the wind.  Certainly, these will cost more, but if insurance can accurately price their coverage based on the now known project vulnerability, the fire prevention costs can be ameliorated.

The fires as of Wednesday night has burned 3,500 houses or businesses, and they are still spreading. They may be the deadliest and worst fires in state history.

About Dennis SILVERMAN

I am a retired Professor of Physics and Astronomy at U C Irvine. For a decade I have been active in learning about energy and the environment, and in lecturing and attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UC Irvine.
This entry was posted in California Housing Fires. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply