Fire? Let’s survive and thrive!
Living With Fire is a group dedicated to adapting current houses and neighborhoods here to live and thrive with fire.
We are using SPECTOBASE - a University of California sponsored experimental website that aggregates data to analyze risk of plants in our neighborhood. Drop “pins” in the “map” to evaluate risk factors of particular vegetation in your area and your neighbors areas then, let’s discuss how to address these risks together.
SIGN UP HERE to begin
The aesthetic of our gardens needs to change. Currently things are mostly in a modernist Japanese garden and English garden inspired mode. Of course, we love this lush look; Alan used to help run a program in landscape and urban design in Myoshinji monastery in Kyoto. However here in California this creates a ticking time bomb of fire risk. So let’s create a new aesthetic together while celebrating traditional Native Californian stewardship and cuisine.
LIVING WITH FIRE and Spectobase are an interethnic, intertribal coalition that seeks to revitalize our communities by learning to live with fire safely and in the long run. With the best science of fire risk assessment and with your participation in advisory councils and ongoing stewardship, we can reduce risks together and have a future here in California.
Since 2015 California has seen mega fires that threaten to destroy every hillside neighborhood. 2021 is already one of severest droughts on record and is leading to an extremely high risk fire season. Over decades, dead brush has accumulated throughout forests, and forests have been planted and homes have been built where there were once closely managed orchards and fields.
We will be using SPECTOBASE as a means of noting and discussing areas of risk:
(Note example image is blurred for confidentiality)
We can work together to reduce risk:
How did we get here?
In 1850 at the very beginning of California statehood, one of the first orders of the new government was the criminalization of traditional civic and social management of our shared communal and private spaces. This Act for Government and Protection of Indians made any open fire illegal.
“10. If any person or persons shall set the prairie on fire, or refuse to use proper exertions to extinguish the fire when the prairies are burning, such person or persons shall be subject to fine or punishment as a Court may adjudge proper.”
(passed April 22 1850, California state legislature, Chap 133 An Act For The Government and Protection of Indians, written by Elam Brown of Lafayette CA).
Uncoincidentally, this criminalized traditional horticulture. In fact, even in the Mediterranean (akin to California in some ways), the burning of fields and underbrush is an essential part of traditional horticulture.
However, the new American governors did not know or understand traditional horticulture for a region like this one, nor were they interested in learning. The governors prioritized subjugation of California’s hundreds of thousands of Natives, over long term safety, care, or stewardship. This very Act for the Government and Protection of Indians not only criminalized traditional horticulture; it also provided the grounds for imprisonment and enslavement of large groups of Californians on the basis of race and culture. Cases of enslavement due to this act are estimated in the tens of thousands.
The effects of the Act have grown with each passing generation, as the criminalization of civic and social care of the landscape has compounded the risk of catastrophic fires.
We have reached a moment of existential crisis: change our ways and collectively begin to manage the land around our homes in a meaningful and sustainable way that reduces risk of catastrophic fire - or lose our entire neighborhoods to firestorms that leave only ashes behind.
The goal of our interethnic, intertribal agency is to create an incremental, scientific way forward towards sustainable long term stewardship of our neighborhoods.
RED FLAG vs EXTREME FIRE WEATHER days, Berkeley Ca
DIABLO WINDS: Moist weather for much of the year, accumulating lush vegetation, followed by extremely dry Diablo Winds means the East Bay Hills are very risky.
HIGHER RISK HOUSE
(puts everyone at risk)
LOWER RISK HOUSE
(lowers collective risk)
ADVANCING FIRE: description of flame height, flame depth, flame length - visualization of fire movement
HAULING CHART: the darker red area, is areas in the proceeding edge of an advancing fire, moving - HOT AND FAST - this prevailing edge of the firestorm cannot be stopped head on.
Much of this risk is due to warm south western facing slopes swept bone dry September, October, November by Diablo Winds, and accumulation of vegetation due to wetter weather from December to August
The Role of Power Companies
The electric grid in California has been implicated in some of the largest fires in CA state history since 2015. The vulnerabilities of the electric grid are responsible for the loss of at least 25,000+ structures, as well as destruction of hundreds of thousands of acres of land, and the deaths of over 100 people(fire.ca.gov 2020). Smart systems, combined with aging infrastructure and flammable contextual conditions, form a cyber-physical edge condition vulnerable to simple negligence, attack, and bad luck - the system is increasingly open to attack or to continued loss due to negligence(NIST.IR.7628r1)(Bunn and Sagan 2014). The fires of 2017 and 2018 including the Camp Fire in Paradise were shown to be due to PGE negligence - lawyers asked the company to cover $54 billion in costs. Bankruptcy of PGE has capped costs at an $13.5 billion settlement in 2019(nytimes 2019) - but the fires keep coming. Settlements going forward might contribute to strategies to prevent massive risk at the cyber-physical edge, including feedback based deep learning systems in locations of risk, like Spectobase, that aim to pinpoint hotspots of risk and reduce those risks with residents.
Nearly every household and building is hooked to the grid, and individual users’ smart systems can easily become proxy vulnerabilities. The Tubbs fire in 2017, destroying 5,636 structures, originated close to a power-pole at a winery. PGE claimed this implicated the winery, not the power company, but footage later showed sparks coming from the power pole (NBC Bay Area 2019). The electric grid also involves contextual factors. Accumulated dry brush, untended forest area, neglected fields(Schwilk et al 2009), diminished ecological systems of feedback(McIver et al 2011), prevention of prescribed burning, and changing food systems (Daniel et al 2009) affect the chances of catastrophic fire due to electric grid vulnerabilities.
Harvard public health scientist Nancy Krieger’s ecosocial theory discusses how comorbidities and ecological factors layer such that certain places and populations are much higher bearers of risk (Krieger 2014). By mapping out risk, we can begin to understand where cybersystems are embodied most profoundly and create effective prevention methodologies within the cyber-physical network.
This high risk edge condition we call a “briar patch” because it is perennially troubled with thorny and intractable “wicked problems” that cannot be solved; rather, it maintains a position of apparent stability within a chaotic and contentious context. Within the “briar patch” what can go wrong, will go wrong. If there is something that can burn, it will burn. With this as the reality, fire suppression is not an answer, and instead, numerous small burns and numerous small contentious attempts at hacking and sparking the system persist.
In the “briar patch,” Spectobase allows for completely confidential discussions in locations of risk, among those who have the potential to reduce that risk. By using Spectobase, we will be building our collective ability to adapt within locations of risk among residents and increasingly work to secure points of vulnerability with the grid. Here within the neighborhood group, we are working within a framework and environment for a cyber-physical ecosystem in which sensing systems and dynamic feedback competitively refines and renews the smart grid. The “briar patch” acts as a methodology, as a patch, to reduce the risk and vulnerability of the electric grid as a whole.