I’m like many people in the Fergus Falls area and throughout Otter Tail County who have relatives and friends close to the devastating fires in California.

My sister and nephew live in Ventura, northwest of Los Angeles, which became a smoke-filled community within 20 miles of a fire.

Up in Yuba City, north of Sacramento, a friend from my college days is only an hour’s drive from the town of Paradise which was hit hard with loss of life and destruction of homes.

Loss of dwellings in the 26,682-population town of Paradise is so tragic that many people are seriously wondering if they’ll ever go back.

“Smoke has reduced visibility so we cannot see the Sutter Buttes,” said my friend, “which are only 4 miles away.  The sun throughout a recent day was orange but now it’s more like its normal yellow.”

Why the devastation this year?

I asked a college friend, a retiree of the U.S. Forest Service, to give his opinion on the fires and devastation this year in California.

“To begin with, fires are natural in California’s landscape,” he said, “and I doubt if these fires were lightning generated. I suspect there was a human element involved. It could have been debris burning, a cigarette, a tree across a powerline, a barbecue, a spark from a chimney or one of a hundred other sources.”

He said the severity and extent of these California fires were wind-driven so the impacts were compounded.

“With the extreme winds that were present, a fire could sweep across the landscape. The fire control forces basically were helpless in controlling this fire once the fire started. Planes with fire retardant could not fly with the extreme winds.

“The firefighters were helpless because of rapid spread and unsafe conditions, etc. What is remarkable is the size and severity of these fires in such urban areas.”

How to prevent future fires of this nature 

The Forest Service retiree says there are actions that can reduce the severity and extent of such fires in urban areas, especially in California.

“For one thing, many of the homes that were consumed were wood homes or had wood siding. People like wooden shingles because of their aesthetic appeal, but all you need is one spark.

“Therefore, ordinances in fire-prone areas need to ban wooden shingles and even wooden siding. Fireplaces can be an ignition source if there is no adequate baffle or screen.”

He says many of those areas have piles of lumber or other flammables adjacent to homes.

“Certain areas of California have steep topography,” he said. “Houses are built everywhere and are often separated by dry gullies with heavy brush and other vegetation. They act like a chimney if they catch fire, spreading cinders that ignite other areas and homes with wooden siding/roofs or other flammables.”

He believes there needs to be strict and enforced laws regarding home construction and even yard maintenance.

“The bottom line is that the magnitude of these fires was wind-driven, and there was little that fire control personnel could do to stop them.

“There are actions that can be taken to reduce the impacts and effects of fires. You can never stress public education enough. We need seminars for homeowners and neighborhood associations.

“We further need to ensure spark arrestors on cars and chimneys as well as enforcement of existing laws regarding home construction and yard maintenance.”

He said that, while states do receive federal funds for fire prevention and control,  the dollars are a drop in the bucket for thinning of dead vegetation and reducing fuel ladders of tall grasses, shrubs and tree branches.

“But the bottom line, with the current devastating California fires, still are the extreme wind conditions. At times like this there’s not much that can be done no matter how many dollars and fire personnel are involved.”

Tom Hintgen is a longtime Daily Journal columnist. His column appears Saturdays.

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