FireWise: Lessons Drawn from California Megafires

Tom McMackin

Last Summer and Fall were hosts to a tremendous amount of national news coverage focused on California. There were 2 wildfires that dominated the reporting cycles. The Carr Fire (229,651 acres/59 square miles—7th largest in CA history—1,604 structures [1,077 homes] destroyed) and the Camp Fire (62,053 acres/240 sq. miles—deadliest and most destructive fire in CA history—18,804 structures destroyed [the town of Paradise, CA] and 85 people killed + 3 still missing/unaccounted for at this writing) were the stories that transfixed us all in America’s rural communities. 

A tremendous amount of soul searching and review took place following these incidents. Analysis was directed at investigating causes, costs, long term effects, and preventative measure efforts. It looked at pre-event conditions, the realities of fire suppression, and the recovery or other projected future determinations for the communities caught in the ‘eye of the maelstrom’ of each of these fires. The results have been a mixed bag of comment and critique. Like most things these days in our social media world there are many commentators, but few have the knowledge, experience and understanding of the nature of fire and of human interaction with nature in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI—a fancy way of labeling the places where people live in rural, natural settings). 

The Camp and Carr fires were catastrophic, ‘tsunami’ grade, weather and condition driven fire-storms. These are events so intense and massive that little can be done in the midst of the holocaust to stop them. The best and only decision is to choose life safety and evacuate the areas already threatened or in the progressive line of fire—literally! Many internet opinions were that nothing could have been done or would have made a difference. 

However, there were properties saved in areas of devastation surrounding them. This interview shows that prior thought and preparation can indeed change the outcome:  (Doug & Kathy Houston, Butte County —Camp Fire)

Deciding to learn about FireWise concepts and then applying the principles to your home and property can make a significant difference with the types of wildland fires we generally see in our area of the Gorge. Creating ‘defensible space’ around properties improves chances that a fire will have little impact on those treated areas, or makes it possible for firefighters to protect properties, manage the impacts of a fire and guide the flame front around the protected perimeter.

Our firefighters, as part of their continuing training and annual wildland fire refresher courses, learn about the 4 traditional ‘fuel’ types in the wildfire setting: 1 hour (grasses), 10 hour (twigs to shrubs), 100 hour (trees) and 1000 hour (big trees) ‘fuels’ models. Now, in the ‘WUI,’ humans have introduced a new fuel type—referred to as type ‘T-111’, after the grooved sheet-plywood siding typically seen in rural area construction projects. It’s an interesting angle to step back and look at a structure as fuel for a wildfire! 

Considering that concept more thoroughly, you can see that all man-made things in or around a building are factors in the fuels equation. All those flammable elements collected together, plus the proximity of structure to structure, present insurmountable challenges to firefighters because of the resulting intensity and fire volume expansion. We have seen fire events destroy housing blocks and neighborhoods over the past decade. These have been examples of the ‘T-111’ fuels model in real-time events. Often, surrounding wildland is relatively untouched by the complete devastation on the human WUI side of the equation.

FireWise is about fuel(s) management and preparation for action, so that when—not if, in our WUI—a fire or other emergency comes our way !  We can be active participants within our High Prairie WUIs around each individual home property. We can understand how we fit into the natural processes that come our way—snow would be a good example—along with how we can participate in those events to enjoy the experience and/or mitigate the challenges. The ‘FireWise’ & ‘Ready, Set, Go!!!’ programs are good resources, both for learning from the materials they can provide and for tapping into the resource of friends and neighbors who can help “put context to concept” and…possibly lend a bit of morale and muscle support!

Things to do on a timeline for this Summer: 

Remember, in 2018 the first wildfire in KCFD 14 was at the end of April.

  • Thinking & planning for the period from today to mid-June
  • Close FireWise work done around the place by April/May. From the peak of your roof to the ground plus 5’ all the way around property and structures.
  • NOW is the time to gather up any pine tree pruning limbs and set them aside for burning or other disposal in the coming weeks. 

Also, now is the time for a longer considerations of: 

  • Ongoing work to be done by May/June out to 30’ and further to 100’ in preparation for the fire season.
  • Review of work accomplished!
  • Planning and preparations for   evacuations, if our event becomes a tsunami FireStorm! 

Contact me, Tom McMackin, if you’d like more information on the ‘FireWise’ and ‘Ready, Set, Go!’ programs; have comments or suggestions; would like to be more involved with the High Prairie FireWise effort; or want to get connected with the resources we have available as a recognized FireWise Community. Email me at  or leave a phone message at 509-365-2786.

Online FireWise resources: 

FireWise –  or 

Ready, Set, Go! – or

Useful strategy for listing time and priority tasks for evacuation action:

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