Latest Fires Provide Lessons in Prevention, Control As firefighters continue to rein in the many blazes that ravaged Southern California last week, officials take a cold, hard look at lessons learned from the disaster.
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Latest Fires Provide Lessons in Prevention, Control

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Latest Fires Provide Lessons in Prevention, Control

Latest Fires Provide Lessons in Prevention, Control

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

From the governor's office down to the local firehouse, Californians are looking at what went right and what went wrong in last week's wildfires.

Max Moritz is a fire ecologist at the University of California at Berkeley. And he says this latest round fires could help change the way many experts think about fire and firefighting. He says controlled burning and vegetation management are good fire prevention tools, but they're just not enough anymore.

Dr. MAX MORITZ (Fire Ecologist, University of California Berkeley): What we see now is that extreme fire weather, the Santa Ana winds, is able to push fires through young, medium and old-aged fields alike. And in this case, that appears anyway to have affected the tens of thousands of acres of the landscape of relatively young fields.

BLOCK: You know, this is such a hotly - pardon the pun, hotly debated area. And a lot of people do think that prescribed burn is a solution. Is it possible that it's not the vegetation that's at fault? It's just that there are so many more houses in these areas. That that's what's feeding the fire and the vegetation has nothing to do with it?

Dr. MORITZ: Hmm. Well, I think the reason we get big fires and the reason we lose a lot of homes are separate. They're related, but they're separate. Relying on vegetation management and prescribed burns to solve the problem - I think we're seeing there's an emerging consensus, but that's really not the case. The other issue, though, that you bring up, which is the homes themselves is very important.

For example, after the fires, the Angora Fire up in Tahoe, one of the lessons that came out of that was that many of the homes that burned there burned because they were being affected by embers from neighboring burning homes. And so the homes themselves, where we have built them and what we've built them out of is a big part of this. And in some ways, I think we're learning that we're only as safe as our neighbors.

BLOCK: So when people talk about building, designing homes that are more fire resistant, you hear about a number of things - venting, deck design. What are the sorts of things that are most effective?

Dr. MORITZ: Well, the most effective thing to consider is the wooden roof aspect, to rule that out. And we're not seeing that as much on a new construction. The other is the venting. A lot of the new vent design looks more or less like a typical vent, but it has actually a screen over it to keep embers from getting in. Windows - double-pane windows, for example, the siding on homes and so on, these are all aspects of fire-resistant construction that need to be considered.

BLOCK: Is one takeaway lesson from this do you think that, inevitably, people are building on this wild land urban interface, in places where they really shouldn't be building, and that the numbers of homes in these areas is so much higher than it was before that destruction like this is inevitable?

Dr. MORITZ: Well, I don't know if it's inevitable, but I think you're right about opening ourselves up to some pretty high risks by having built where we've built and how we've built. But I do think that the lessons that we're learning about home construction, home siting, and starting to look at other natural hazards on the landscape, like flooding or earthquakes.

Other natural hazards we accommodate them. We build appropriately in terms of how we build and how we engineer solutions in and how we avoid certain hazard-prone parts of the landscape. And we haven't quite done that with wildfire yet. And we need to think about wildfire. We need to coexist with fire and accommodate some of these extreme events, so that we don't have as many losses as we're seeing.

BLOCK: If I'm a homeowner in one of these areas that was totally wiped out, my home is gone, are you saying, don't even think about rebuilding there?

Dr. MORITZ: No, not necessarily. I think that what you need to do then is to rebuild with the lessons, hopefully, in mind from losing the home in the first place, which would be - is there something about where your home was or how the landscaping was or the home construction itself, that you can do better.

BLOCK: And again, if your neighbor's house is not so good, then maybe you're still out of luck.

Dr. MORITZ: Well, you're still at risk, right? If we're all - if it's a community-level issue, if we're only as safe more or less as our neighbors, then it's going to take a grassroots effort. It's going to take community awareness and that level of activity to do it right.

BLOCK: Well, Max Moritz, thanks very much for talking with us.

Dr. MORITZ: I really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.

BLOCK: Max Moritz is a fire ecologist at the University of California at Berkeley.

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