Illuminating wildfire vulnerability through environmental history

The following is a discussion of how environmental history recently has broadened my understanding of wildfire vulnerability. It is based on my reflections from the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) conference in San Francisco, which together with the Association of American Geographers (AAG) conference in Tampa bracketed my recent trip to USA. The purpose of attending both conferences was to share key lessons on gendered dimensions of wildfire vulnerability and resilience as presented in my new book. Yet, the format of my input to each conference was distinctively different.

I have written in detail about the AAG 2014 author-meets-critics session in another blog post. In contrast, my contribution to ASEH 2014 formed part of a panel titled ‘Learning to live with fire: environmental history of wildfire in the arid West and Australia’. The session was chaired by fire historian Stephen Pyne and included presentations and discussion by Lincoln Bramwell from the USDA Forest Service, Katherine Sturdevant from Pikes Peak Community College, Rick Sturdevant from the Air Force Space Command, and Michelle Steen-Adams from University of New England. Together the panel covered recent as well as historic fires in California, Oregon, Colorado and southeast Australia.

The gist of my presentation drew on the increasing recognition in scholarly research internationally that women and men are exposed to risk in different ways because of, for example, the everyday gender divisions of labour, the distribution of power (and thus decision-making processes) domestically, locally and officially; and the gendered norms that underpin intended and actual patterns of disaster preparedness and response. While gendered dimensions of wildfire on the surface often appear to reinforce women’s vulnerability to wildfire more so than for men, the findings in my book highlight the increased vulnerability of both women and men because of the activities they tend to perform before, during and after wildfires.

Poignant statistics that drive home this message are those of the activities performed by women and men at time of death during wildfires historically (Haynes et al. 2010; Handmer et al. 2010; Blanchi et al. 2014). By comparing gender trends in wildfire fatalities over time with the intentions and actions of women and men in Australia today (see slide), my presentation highlighted how covert and less visible as well as overt gender roles and traditions are important factors in understanding gendered vulnerability to wildfire. Many women deprioritize wildfire preparation in the context of other pressing issues in everyday life, while societal pressure sees men attempt to perform protective roles when the fire threatens that many have neither the knowledge nor ability to fulfil safely (Eriksen 2014).


The day after the panel session, Pyne and Bramwell organised a fire history fieldtrip to the Oakland Hills – the site of the catastrophic 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm. Also know as the Tunnel Fire, it remains the most destructive and expensive fire in California’s history with over 3000 homes destroyed, 25 people killed and more than 150 others seriously injured during a 24 hour period (CALFIRE 2014). The extremity of the weather and fire on the day are indisputable: in the first hour alone 750 homes were lost, while only four were saved. CALFIRE Battalion Chief Martin explained how under these extreme conditions fire fighters were reduced to fire observers. The narratives shared on the fieldtrip by representatives of both local and state fire agencies were simultaneously insightful and terrifying.

I felt right at home amongst the swaying eucalyptus trees, which despite much controversy still stand tall in the Oakland Hills. Yet, unlike the ‘Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early’ mantra that is associated with living in eucalyptus dominated (i.e. fire-prone) landscapes in Australia, it was the continuing absence of an official policy on how to better prepare residents for future wildfires in the Oakland Hill that loomed large for me during the fieldtrip. What should residents do if evacuation is not a feasible option in the future? How can residents prepare so a similar disaster is prevented? These questions linger like ghosts at every twist and turn of the narrow, winding mountain roads where smoke, embers and flames resulted in accidents and panic that fatally trapped residents in 1991.

Oakland Hills, CA

Oakland Hills, CA

This ghostly presence clearly has not escaped the attention of the local Oakland Fire Department. In addition to official projects, the Department is now “unofficially” advising residents on what they can do to increase their chances of survival. Preparing properties in the Oakland Hills, however, is easier said than done. The recommended ten-metre clearance around residential homes is unrealistic in most of these neighbourhoods dominated by quarter acre blocks. A representative from the Oakland Hills Wildfire Prevention program pointed out that when these two-dimensional blocks are considered three-dimensionally, thus taking into consideration the considerable hill slope, these blocks become one-acre properties in need of defence. He furthermore spoke to the frustration of local building-, planning- and fire-codes not supporting each other. The statutory law of developing a given property, for example, sits within a planning code that does not necessarily follow local fire safety recommendations. This is coupled with state fire departments having more power than local fire departments to ‘engage’ residents in fuel mitigation efforts due to the respective powers granted by state vs. local laws.

Yet, advising residents on how to “hunker down” ‘safely’ seems to fall short of the level of information all residents should have to make informed decisions during a wildfire. During the past four years of comparative research between the US west coast and southeast Australia, my conviction has steadily grown of the relevance of Australia’s community focused Prepare.Act.Survive policy (see also the NSW RFS’s Bushfire Survival Plan) to wildland-urban interface communities in California. While officials and policy-makers in California are reluctant to embrace this idea, local action by many community members verifies its need. Our 2011 California-wide online survey found that 44% of respondents intended to stay and defend their property, while a further 9% planned to shelter in place. As I argue in my book (pp.26-29), this points to a significant gap in policy, as current legislation and official agency practices do little to ensure that residents at least have the skills and knowledge to make informed decisions when a wildfire looms on the horizon.

The marked presence of towering eucalyptus trees was a source of much debate during the fieldtrip, and evidently also on a daily basis amongst local residents, land managers and fire fighting agencies. The flammability of the species is indisputable. The controversy rather seems to focus on the degree to which eucalypts are considered to belong in this landscape, having been an aesthetically valued part of the Oakland Hills since the species was introduced in the late nineteenth century. Photos from the ashen wake of the 1991 firestorm show that eucalypts were not the main source of fuel for the fire front. While they undoubtedly added to the inferno, the survival of many trees where homes did not survive indicates that houses were the main source of fuel that carried the fire from one building to the next in these densely built suburbs.

Whether eucalypts ‘belong’ or not, instrumentalist uses of tree cover together with the cross-purposes of regulations and the density of high-end homes in the Oakland Hills is a recipe for disaster. This is a lesson that environmental history tells particularly well. By examining early resource extraction, property speculation, suburban homeowner politics and tax restructuring policies, Gregory Simon (2012, p.33; see also Simon and Dooling 2013) eloquently explains the production of wildfire vulnerability in the Oakland Hills as a series of cascading effects closely linked to the region’s environmental history:

Eucalyptus are shown to be both agents of effect introduced to fulfill economic interests through the construction of desirable neighborhoods, and also agents of affect capable of being desired through a process that cultivates aesthetic and emotional connections for surrounding community members. This bi-modal condition is similar to road infrastructure originally constructed for its positive effect on resource extraction activities, while later being a technology of affect that attracted real estate developers to the area. It is through this landscape transition – from effectual to affectual – that vulnerability gains momentum, accumulates and actively inscribes onto the hillside.

Examining wildfire vulnerability through an environmental history lens, at the ASEH 2014 conference and in the writing of environmental historians, was an eye opener for me on this trip – both for the insights provided and for the compelling tie-ins with the social geographical findings of my own research. It is a stimulus I hope to build on as I readjust to life back in ‘the Gong’.

Christine has written several other posts for this blog, including Known unknowns in New Orleans, Reflections from the fire front and research in its ashen wake, and Landscapes of uncertainty in California. You can follow @DrCEriksen on Twitter.

7 thoughts on “Illuminating wildfire vulnerability through environmental history

  1. Hi Christine,

    You might want to take a look at my new book “The Fire Smart Home Handbook: Preparing for and Surviving the Threat of Wildfire.” It just came out a few weeks ago here in the States, nor sure if it’s available down there. My book is for homeowners in all fire regimes, with an emphasis on California and Colorado, and it goes into far more detail than anything available. Among the topics I covered are active suppression technology, fire bunkers (almost unheard of in the US), and “mandatory evacuation” laws. Pretty sure this is the first book to really delve into these topics.


  2. Excellent post Christine
    Understanding environmental history is critical, and something we have not embraced at all well in the australian context. We need to learn from history and convert this into wisdom that is handed from generation to generation. How we do that, when people’s lives are crowded, I am not sure!.

    • Thanks John. It’s not easy, I agree, but not impossible either. There is some great local knowledge out there for a starter. Tying in that knowledge with in-depth studies, such as those referred to in my post, goes a long way.

  3. What I miss in all these well inteded contributions and discussions is the question: What if a wildfie is detected at a very early stage after it started?
    The dynamics of the fire are still tied to a small area and did not yet develop. The efforts to successfully extinguish such a fire are definitely smaller than if you fight a fully blown up wildland fire. If we agree on this, the next question would be: Is Early Detection of a Wildland Fire possible and how early? You may make use of “Lookouts”, 24/7, with known results. On the other hand you may rely on sensitive optical sensor Technology with which vast geographical areas are scanned 24/7 looking for smoke (not sniffing). Today’s sensor technology can optically detect smoke in the environment when the human eye still doesn’t notice anything and doing this in distances of 10km, 20km, 30km and more. Detecting and precisely localizing such an early fire source is one thing – it’s possible today – the other thing is to put into action the Rapid Attack Force that shall appear at the precisely located fire source very early after detection. General knowledge recommends 10 to latest 20 minutes after detection waterbombers, helicopters and ground forces have to become active on site.
    Early Detection Infrastructure as described above sets forth the existence of a Rapid Attack Strategy.
    The last question might be: Is this new? No – it is in Operation, well structured and developed into strategical operational tool which helped reduce the burned surface by more than 60% per each fire event. No large devastating fire did develop since the new Rapid Attack Strategy was developed and institutionalized. So, what’s new then?
    1. Invest in Automated Early Detection Installations which then are scattered accross the landscape and control the area 24/. They are linked to a Control Center at the HQ of the regional Fire Brigade.
    2. organize out of the existing fire fighting capacity the Rapid Attack Force with a specific command structure.
    3. The sensor installations will send Alerts with data packages to the HQ where an Operator does analyze within few seconds the data . It’s him who decides whether it’s a fire or not and it’s him who sends out the Alarm package.
    Therefore having the incoming Alert on the Screen at the Operator’s desk at T0, he can dispatch the Alarm within 15 – 20 seconds to the Rapid Attack Force which in turn receives a package of data that includes map, location with precise coordinates, Images and time Information. The RAF will have enough time to kickstart it’s Operation and be in the air above the fire Scene within 10 to 20 minutes after detection of the fire source.
    The Rapid Attack Strategy relies on Automated Early Detection Technology that is successfully in Operation for several years.
    Is this new to you?

    • Thanks for the contribution to the conversation Werner. No, this is not new to me. It is a step in the right direction but not a silver bullet. The acres burnt and lives lost the last 12 months alone leaves little doubt that catastrophic wildfires still happen.

      • Yes, for sure I’m with you, the beast when in rage always turns deadly.
        The wildland-urban Interface communities are the ones that are most exposed and it’s there where the Rapid Attack Strategy with Early Detection Infrastructure can do the most.
        Having this strategy’s time frame of 20 minutes after detection latest to attack the fire source and compare that with the standards lectured and followed in practice you will undoubtedly notice the time discrepancy between the Rapid Attack Strategy and today’s fire fighting strategy. One doesn’t replace but rather complements the other.
        No one would disagree with the Statement – the earlier a fire is attacked the higher the chances of success and the lesser the costs. Now, if you dare imagine that the most promising period of time to prevent a fire from developing into a furious tragedy simply is at the very beginning. That’s where the highly sensitive optical sensors with the Early Detection Attribute will take the lead. So, it’s worth while having small fires in our focus rather than following the big ones. And, one last Point, the Technology does exists and the strategy is successfully in operation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *