California Fires, 2017

The good news is that only a small fraction of California is on fire or incinerated.

The bad news is that this year’s California wildfires have been big, destructive, and aren’t over yet.

I’ll be talking about a few of the fires, why I think troubles aren’t over for folks living in California, a little about wildfires in general. Also how I see disasters, God, nature and beliefs: sensible and otherwise.


Rain and Fires


(From Phoenix7777, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Top: 2017 Northern California wildfires from January 1 to October 11. Bottom left: California wildfires in October 2017; bottom right: California wildfires, December 2017.)

It’s been a bad year for wildfires in California. Oddly enough, getting adequate rain early on helped — if that’s the right word — keep the fires going.

More than the usual year’s growth of grass dried up later in the year. Sparks from poorly-maintained power lines or other tech we weren’t using wisely probably weren’t the only causes.

Lightning, volcanic eruptions, or other natural events start fires, too. With acres of tinder-dry grass, it wouldn’t take much.

Nature Preserves in Perspective


(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The wildfire has devastated acres of land in Ventura and Santa Paula”
(BBC News))

I had a chance to talk with someone who lives in California at a holiday family get-together.

Their house is well away from any fires, which is good. Air in their part of the state, however, is foul.

Smoke from a small wildfire can dissipate pretty rapidly. Months of smoke from a whole lot of huge fires is another matter. I’m quite sure life on Earth will endure, but effluvia from those fires is a real problem. I’ll get back to that.

I gather that a significant number of the fires have started because the State of California hasn’t been taking care of the state’s infrastructure.

I haven’t researched the assertion, but it seems plausible. Not getting around to spending money on routine maintenance happens.

Back in 2007, an Interstate bridge here in Minnesota collapsed. Apparently the official explanation is that the problem was a design flaw.

That’s likely enough a factor, but at the time there was a fuss being raised over not-entirely-adequate maintenance. On the ‘up’ side, the bridge held for four decades before breaking. Death toll was 13, with 145 injured. It could have been worse.

Controlled Burns

Wildfires can be a real problem for us. But they’re not all bad.

We’ve learned quite a bit since my school days. Between Smoky the Bear’s “only you can prevent forest fires” and a growing desire to not ‘spoil’ nature, most folks figured fires were always bad news.

Then some folks noticed that vegetation grows back after a fire.

Scientists and conservationists had records from before we started suppressing fires.

Just as important, we’d been preventing most fires in nature preserves for years, decades. Most fires, that is. A few started and spread a bit anyway. That let us compare places with no fires and comparable spots that had burned and recovered.

The recovered forests and grasslands looked more like they had when we started keeping records. Lesson learned. Now controlled burns are part of routine maintenance in many nature preserves.

Controlled burns are just that: controlled. They’re carefully set, watched, and kept from spreading into areas that we want to keep. Most of the time. That’s when they get in the news, more often than not.

Wildfires: They’re Not New

A bit upwards of 200,000,000 years back, something killed a whole lot of critters.

It happened in what we’ve been calling the Petrified Forest Formation of the Chinle Group, in north-central New Mexico.

Some scientists recently looked at fossils from the area. From the condition of the fossilized bones and wood, they figure that most likely they died in a wildfire.

The point of that paleontological digression is that wildfires didn’t start when we started making power lines and barbecue grills. They’ve been part of life here for a very long time.1

That doesn’t make California wildfires less of a problem. But I think remembering that humans don’t cause everything makes sense.


Southern California


(From NASA/ESA, used w/o permission.)
(False-color image of the Ventura County burn scar on December 5, 2017, using data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite. Active fires are orange, the burn scar is brown. Unburned vegetation is green, developed areas are gray.)

California’s Thomas Fire scorches area larger than New York City
BBC News (December 11, 2017)

The most destructive wildfire raging in southern California has expanded significantly, scorching an area larger than New York City.

“The Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has consumed 230,000 acres (930 sq km) in the past week.

“Fanned by strong winds, it has become the fifth largest wildfire in recorded state history after it grew by more than 50,000 acres in a day.

“Residents in coastal beach communities have been ordered to leave….”

I’m not going to add up how big this year’s fires are — not this week. That’s partly because the numbers keep changing.

A recent total was around 245,000 acres. That’s 990 square kilometers, 382.24 square miles.

If they’d all been in one place, the area would be around 19 and a half miles on a side.

The fires have destroyed about $9,400,000,000 of insured property so far. Insurance can’t cover everything, though. I think it’ll take years for businesses and people to recover from time spent cleaning up and rebuilding. Those able to rebuild, that is.


California Wildfires: Comparisons and Health


(From The New York Times, used w/o permission.)
(Wildfires near Los Angeles, around December 7, 2017)

Where the Fires Are Spreading in Southern California”
K.K. Rebecca Lai, Derek Watkins, Tim Wallace; The New York Times (December 8, 2017)

“Several wildfires continued to blaze in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas on Friday, burning more than 100,000 acres and forcing nearly 200,000 people to evacuate….”

The good news is that the Los Angeles metropolitan area didn’t catch fire. Just parts of it.

The bad news is that fires are still burning.

News services based in America’s east coast comparing the burned and burning areas to New York City, BBC compared them to London’s footprint. Either way, these are big fires.

After the Fires: What I Expect

Losing your home is bad, but stuff can be replaced. Except for family photos and other one-of-a kind things.

I haven’t seen numbers, but I’m guessing that many folks don’t have a place to work now. Losing a job or business hurts, too; although it can be less personal than losing a house.

But like I said, stuff can be replaced. People can’t.

At least 44 folks have died so far, 192 or more others have been injured. My guess is that the toll in lives and health will keep growing over the next few decades.

There are probably smoke-free spots in California, but a whole lot of folks who aren’t anywhere near a wildfire are downwind of one.

Breathing wood and grass smoke isn’t particularly healthy. When more-or-less-new buildings burn, things get complicated. And toxic.

There are good reasons for using PVC pipes, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers make pretty good fire retardant. But sometimes structures burn anyway. Smoke from today’s building fires has some distinctly-unhealthy stuff in it.2

My guess is that folks in many parts of California today will have more than their share of health problems over the next several decades.


To Sleep, Perchance to Think

One of these days I’ll probably talk about St. Francis of Assisi. But not today.

Last night I enjoyed a full night’s sleep — for the first time in about a week. That’s made focusing — my mind, eyes, or pretty much anything else — more challenging than usual.

We need sleep, and it’s better if we do it while the sun is down.

Taking care of my health, within reason, is a good idea.

I don’t know why Medieval and Victorian pop religious literature made such a big deal of swooning Saints. But stories about them sold quite a few books over the centuries. I’ve talked about Saints and ham sandwiches before. (July 2, 2017)

Some Saints, and certainly not all, really did do very unhealthy things to themselves. But it’s not why they’re Saints. And that’s another topic.

Dominion and Doing Our Job

My culture had a badly-distorted notion of our “dominion” over this world for entirely too long.

More of us started realizing that nature was beautiful, important, and not immune to stupid behavior while I was in my teens.

I think the change in attitude made sense. Today’s notion that a core Christian value is destroying nature is distorted: putting it very mildly.

As I keep saying, the part of God’s creation we can see is “very good.” We do have “dominion” here, but we don’t own the universe. It’s God’s property. Taking care of the place is part of our job. (Genesis 1:128, 2:15; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 216, 373)

Our job description includes making reasoned use of its resources for ourselves and future generations, and keeping our home in good working order. (Catechism, 24022406, 2415)

Faith and Getting a Grip

That reminded me of the durable notion that using post-pharaonic Egyptian medical tech isn’t ‘Christian.’

I think trusting God makes sense. But taking care of ourselves is a good idea, too. Again, within reason. (October 8, 2017)

I still run across folks who don’t ‘believe in’ vaccinations. I figure they really believe that God doesn’t like vaccines because they’re not mentioned in the Bible.

I read and study the Bible. It’s part of being Catholic, or should be. (Catechism, 101133)

But movable type isn’t in the Bible either. Even so, I’ve never run into an ‘it’s not in the Bible’ enthusiast who will only read hand-copied Bibles. And that’s yet another topic.

Getting and staying healthy is a good idea. Within reason. Prayer is important too, and so is science. (Catechism, 15061510, 2288, 2289, 2292)

The notion that there’s virtue in being sick isn’t going away any time soon. Neither is assuming that folks get sick because God is smiting them. I don’t think either makes sense. (July 21, 2017; August 21, 2016)

The same goes for disasters. Assuming that God smites sinners and rewards ‘good people’ may be comforting to healthy folks who still have their homes. That doesn’t make it true.

“‘Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?'”
(Luke 13:4)

More of what I think about faith, health, disasters and making sense:


1 More than you may want to know about wildfires:

2 New materials and health:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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2 Responses to California Fires, 2017

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Number agreement and maybe a missing article: “using wisely probably weren’t only cause.”

    Only mentioning the lack of Oxford comma here because you use and Oxford comma later in the article: “Also how I see disasters, God, nature and beliefs:”

    Missing word: “folks who aren’t anywhere near a wildfire downwind of one.”

    Missing space: “We do have”dominion” here, but”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!