According to some experts, the camp fire was less a surprise than a long feared nightmare scenario come to life.
When he started delving deeply into fire 20 years ago, PyroGeographer Zeke Lunder was told by a retiring CDF Captain that the ingredients needed for a blaze as catastrophic as the Camp Fire were easily assembled.
Annual drought and occasional dry north winds set the stage. Opportunistic sparking lit the fuse.
Technology has also played a role. Firefighting aircraft have proven exceptionally useful, but have also lent a false sense of confidence.
“There’s days when we can’t use them and those are the days when the fires really run. So we talk about that maybe we can put out 95 percent of the fires. And as there’s those five percent of the days in the year when there’s weather that just we can’t put them out.” Lunder said.
Urgent calls for air support were issued shortly after the Camp Fire was first reported, but conditions precluded their use.
“These large air tankers are fooling people into thinking that they can safely build in these really fire prone environments. Over the past 20 years I’ve worked on ten of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California history. The common denominator on all of those was that tankers were not effective. The valley fire burned 60,000 acres in an afternoon. Tankers weren’t doing any good.” he said.
Lunder said air support has limits.
“When you have the large fire that happens to cross the footprint of a major city, there’s just nothing we can do. And once it’s in that urban environment and burning from house to house, there’s nothing we can do.” he said.
That realization, could lead to a wholesale reexamination of development patterns and road networks in foothill communities, across California.