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◌  Future fire

10 February 2009


Yesterday on IRC I was going on about the fires in southeast Australia. Such is the speed of publication here in the future that we were already flipping though people’s Flickr photos, speculating about fire propagation and guessing at temperatures by seeing which metals melted. Now YouTube has striking, eerie, fascinating, and creepily pretty videos.

In the evening my brother asked where we used to live in California. He found the house where he was born with help from Dad. I was wrong – I told him it was the other burnt-out building in that canyon. Still in the future, we were on Google Maps, and I was a trifle unnerved when Street View showed pretty much the same scrubland that I’d just been watching burn.

One of the few things I remember about my years of toddling around there in Marshall Canyon is the helicopters. I am told I called them ockers. They were (as I remember them) S-64 Skycranes, filling up at the San Dimas Reservoir to dump on the fires that broke out, as a matter of course, in the chaparral. It scared me then and it scares me now.

The thing is, air is only getting more energetic, plants are only getting thicker, and cities are only growing. Here in the future, Victoria may be having merely a bad, not an exceptionally bad, fire season. We were warned. If you live in fire-suppressed flora, especially Mediterranean/sclerophyll brush, especially if it has imperfectly adapted exotics, especially if there are warm winds – that’s a wordy way of saying California – the new normal may be that it occasionally burns uncontrollably and much faster than it would if it were a little more open or a few degrees cooler.

Two days after the worst of the Victorian fires, a big point in overviews and eyewitness accounts is the speed. This is the main explanation of why this one was roughly 20× as deadly as similar-looking fires. The firefighting was good and people knew what to do, but when the front moves at jogging speed and embers jump it by kilometers, more burns than can be put out, and people get surprised. It’s suggested that Australia’s stay or go program – based on research showing that the main risk was last-minute panic, and that staying with your house with a good water supply and a sound plan was generally survivable, and a proven success until now – led to overconfidence against basically unsurvivable fire.


This is the third post on scary environmental stuff, and fierce optimists may disapprove. But optimism that that won’t hear about obstacles is short. Optimism that understands obstacles is long.