Tag Archives: WUI

Earth, Wind, and Fire

We think of earth, wind and fire as elements. Or we used to. For the possibility of separating them is called into question in the Bay Area, as wind sweeps the smoke of five to seven fires, or fire complexes, across the skies, we are increasingly likely to see them as layers, which interact in a puzzle we have trouble figuring out. Indeed, the weirdly haunting
map of air quality to map the atmospheric presence of particulate matter by isochrones brought late summer blues to the Bay Area.

Fire season began by remapping the town in terrifying red that registered “unhealthful,” but almost verging on the “hazardous” level of brown, based on local sensors monitoring of ozone, but is also registering a deeper history defined by an absence of rain, the lack of groundwater, the hotter temperatures of the region and the dry air. The map is both existential, and ephemeral, but also the substrate of deep climate trends.

AQI Chart on Saturday, August 22, 2020/AirNow (EPA)

Is fire an element we had never before tracked so attentively in maps? We did not think it could travel, or had feet. But wildfire smoke had blanketed the region, in ways that were not nearly as visible as it would be, but that the real-time map registers at the sort of pace we have become accustomed in real-time fire maps that we consult with regularity to track the containment and perimeters of fires that are now spreading faster and faster than they ever have in previous years. And soon after we worried increasingly about risks of airborne transmission of COVID-19, this fire season the intensity of particulate pollutants in the atmosphere contributed intense panic to the tangibility of mapping the pyrocumulus plumes that made their way over the Bay Area in late August. As the danger of droplets four micrometers in diameter remaining airborne seemed a factor of large-scale clusters, the waves of black carbon mapped in the Bay Area became a second sort of airborne pathogen made acutely material in layers of real-time Air Quality charts.

The boundaries of fire risk charts and indeed fire perimeters seemed suddenly far more fluid than we had been accustomed. When we make our fire maps with clear edges, however, it is striking that almost we stop registering the built environment, or inhabited world. As if by the magic of cartographical selectivity, we bracket the city–the sprawling agglomeration of the Bay Area–from the maps tracking the destructiveness and progress we call advancing wildfires, and from the isochronal variations of air quality that we can watch reflecting wind patterns and air movements in accelerated animated maps, showing the bad air that migrates and pool over the area I life. The even more ephemeral nature of these maps–they record but one instant, but are outdated as they are produced, in ways that fit the ecoystem of the Internet if also the extremes of the new ecosystem of global warming–the isochrones seem somewhat fatalistic, as they are both removed from human agency–as we found out in the weeks after the Lightning Siege of 2020–if they are the result of the extra urban expansion that has pushed houses to the borders of forests we haven’t ever faced the problem of maintaining and clearing in weather this dry: as a result, we are now burning underbrush that has lain like kindling, on the boundaries of the raging fire complexes, hoping to create fire lines and new perimeters able to forestall the advance of major fires, even as the smoke escapes from them and travels across the nation, far beyond the Bay Area.

While watching the movement of fires that them in inhabited areas like shifting jigsaw pieces that destroy the landscape across which they move. These marked the start of megafires, that spread across state boundaries and counties, but tried to be parsed by state authorities and jurisdictions, even if, as Jay Inslee noted, this is a multi-state crisis of climate change that has rendered the forests as fuel by 2017–for combined drought and higher temperatures set “bombs, waiting to go off” in our forests, in ways unable to be measured by fire risk that continues to be assessed in pointillist terms by “fuel load” and past history of fires known as the “fire rotation frequency.” When these bombs go off, it is hard to say what state boundary lines mean.

Fire Threat Risk Assessment Map, 2007

If San Francisco famously lies close to natural beauty, the Bay Area, where I live, lies amidst of a high risk zone, where daily updates on fire risk is displayed prominent and with regularity in all regional parks. These maps made over a decade ago setfire standards for building construction in a time of massive extra-urban expansion. But risk has recently been something we struggled to calculate as we followed the real-time updates of the spread of fires, smoke, and ash on tenterhooks and with readiness and high sense of contingency, anxiety already elevated by rates of coronaviurs that depended on good numbers: fire risk was seen as an objective calculation fifteen years ago, but was now not easy to determine or two rank so crisply by three different shades.

Fire Risk Map, 2007

When thunderstorms from mid-August brought the meteorological curiosity of nearly 12,000 dry lightening dry strikes from mid to late August 2020, they hit desiccated forests with a shock. The strikes became as siege as they set over three hundred and fifty-seven fires across the state, that rapidly were communicated into expansive “complexes” of brush fires.

We map these fires by state jurisdictions, and have cast them as such in policy, by borders or the perimeters we hope to contain barely grasp the consequences of how three quarters of a million acres burned up suddenly, and smoke from the cluster of fires rose in columns that spread across state boundary lines as far as Nebraska, and how fire complexes that spread across three million acres that would soon create a layer of soot across the west, eerily materialized in layers of GIS ESRI maps of environmental pollutants, while toxic particulate mater released in plumes of black carbon by the fires cover the state, rendering the sun opaque where I live, in the Bay Area, now Pompeii by the Bay as smoke at toxic levels blanketed much of the state.

They even more serious map, to be sure, was of fire spread: but the maps of air quality set the entire western seaboard apart from the nation, as if threatening to have it fall into the ocean and split off from the United States,–even if the burning of its open lands was more of a portent of things to come, they were a historical anomaly, lying outside the record of fire burns or air quality, if the poor air quality traced the origin of black carbon columns of smoke that would rise into the nation’s atmosphere.

Wilfire Today, AQI Map/Sept-15, 2020
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Filed under Active Fire Mapping, American West, Climate Change, data visualization, fires

Loopy Maps to Rationalize Random Shut-Offs?

The announcement in California of the arrival of random power shut-offs this fire season sent everyone scrambling to maps. In order to stop fires spread of fires, the impending public safety power shut-offs crashed websites as folks scrambled to get updates in real time, frustrated by the relative opacity of maps in a hub of high tech mapping and public data, as the impending possibility of power shut-offs wreaked neurological chaos on peoples’ bearings. From mapping fires, we transitioned to the uncertainty of mapping regions where consumers would lose power in an attempt to prevent fires from spreading due to strikes on live wires of broken limbs, branches, or failed transmission structures whose immanent collapse were feared to trigger apocalyptic fires of the scale of those witnessed last fires season, as the largest fire in California history raged for days, destroying property and flattening towns, burning victims who followed GPS lacking real-time information about fires’ spread.

In an eery mirroring of looking to maps to monitor the real-time spread of fires, which we sensed in much of California by smoke’s acrid air, the expectancies to which we had been habituated to consult real-time updates was transferred to the availability of electricity, in a sort of mirror image unsurprising as the outages were intended to stop fires’ spread. The decision to continue public power safety shut-offs as a part of the new landscape of controlling fires’ spread in future years–perhaps needs to be accepted for up to a decade, although this was walked back to but five years in recent years.

Expanded power shut-offs justified by needs for public safety suggest how much climate change has changed the expanded nature of fire risk. But in an era when the vast majority of televised segments that aired on network television– ABC, CBS, and NBC combined–despite an abundance of powerful image and video footage the 243 segments on destructive wildfires raging across northern and southern California, a type of public disinformation seems to have been practiced by most news outlets that served only to disorient viewers from gaining any purchase on the fires, colored by the shifting validity of climate change denial as a position among their viewing public: only eight of the news media mentions of the fires, or 3.3%, mentioned climate change as a factor in the fires’s spread, from October 21 to November 1, as the spread of fires in northern California grew that precipitated public power shut-offs. If new cycles shy away from citing climate change as a factor on the spread of fires, most of the mentions came from specific weather reporters, from NBC’s Al Roker to CBS’ Jeff Berardelli, extending the range of fire seasons and area of burn, the silo-ization of such explanations were rarely digested in mainline reporting. And if FOX ran 179 segments on the fires, more than other cable networks, climate change was mentioned in 1.7%, with most segments mocking the contribution of climate change.

If we are poorly served by the news media in reporting the fires and downplaying climate change–or indeed criticizing California for poorly maintaining its forests’ safety, as President Trump, the eery landscapes provided by PG&E raise questions about the messages they communicate.

But the electric green maps of a startlingly unnatural aquamarine, yellow, and orange suggested a strange distantiation of the landscape in the age of Climate Change. The electrified hues of the maps, which monitored the possibility of customers loosing electricity in many districts, reveals a level of poor management and lack of any coherent strategy for climate change as much as the huge area that is served by PG&E, and the man-made infrastructure of electricity and transmission towers, which courts have rightly decided the privately-owned power agency that serves state residents is responsible for.

While we follow the news, even among the most die-hard news addicts, the prospect of “public safety” power shut-offs seemed unannounced and irresponsible, and a premonition of a new landscape of risk. For the shut-offs that were announced as impending by PG&E reflect a deep insecurity of fires, climate change and perhaps what we feared was a collective unpreparedness to deal with a new set of implications of climate crisis we have not even been able to acknowledge or even fully recognize, but which seemed spinning out of control–even in the nature of maps that were made of it–and to betray a lack of imagination, creativity, and foresight, abandoning the long-term view.

The sense of emergency electrifies a landscape whose woodland-urban interface is electrified by aging power structures and transmission lines, carrying increased current to extra-urban areas. And there is a fear that the long-term view is lacking, as we continue to turn to maps, even months after the first shut-offs were announced to forestall fears of a raging fire season. As we map the expanding sense of risk to respond to both demand for currently updated real-time maps for fires, and the calamitous images of apocalyptic fires raging that dominate the news cycle and make us fear the near future, or have a sense of living with a deferred sense of emergency at our doorsteps. And so when we received a text message of impending loss of electricity, we turned en masse to maps to learn about outages at risk, alerted to the need to ready ourselves as best we could by our local government-

Extreme fire prevention funding, precarious in the Trump Era, stands to be abolished as the Dept. of Interior retreats from federal fire programs: the Wildland Fire Office, funded at $13 million in 2012, if slated to be abolished in the Trump era, in an agenda denying climate change, lacks funding, undermining close scientific examination of a new topography of fires, even as climate change has increased the costliness of fires and the ferocity of their spreads. If the costs of the Camp Fire of 2018 grow beyond $10 billion–or over six times as much as the Oakland Firestorm of 1991–those costs and the cost of insurance liabilities only stand to grow. As we confront poor planning of climate readiness, as we lack real images of extinguishing fires’ spread–and imagine the temporary shut offs can intervene as a deus ex machine to prevent fires’ spreads all we have to forestall the fears of spreading flames and intense firestorms or whirls.

In the Bay Area, where I live, the danger of the new firescape is so pressing, and so impossible to process, that we can only digest it as a danger that is ever-present, akin to living in an active seismic area, but we cannot process in a static or dynamic map.

But this is an area of risk that we are living cheek-by-jowl beside in ways that are truly unfathomable. As the power shut-off zones have been expanded in clearer detail by PG&E in response to the growing gustiness of winds that threaten to compromise the safety of residents as well as the aging electric infrastructure of the state, we are oddly haunted by past promises to maintain or upgrade our national infrastructure–the promise to rebuild national infrastructure was itself an energizing call of the Trump campaign–only to be demoted by being assigned, with improved veteran care, the opioid addiction, workforce retraining, and the Middle East peace to Jared Kushner, in ways tantamount to moving it to the way back burner, soon after being mentioned in the State of the Union as a non-partisan issue in January, 2018.

And yet, the spread of fires with increased rapidity, across landscapes that remain highly flammable, has created terrifying imagers of a highly combustible landscapes, where the recent growth of fires–in this case, the Kincade Fire that did began only long after the shut-off policies began–chart the spread of fires across terrain multiple times larger than cities, moving across the landscape rapidly, driven by unprecedentedly strong offshore winds: the passing overhead of satellites charts its expansion, making us fear the expansion of the next pass overhead as realtime images of the durations of fires only grows.

Burrito Justice/VIIRS/MODIS fire spread map/October 27, 2019

Sure, the current landscape had long seemed to be burning up at a rate we had not begun to adequately acknowledge–as Peter Aldhous promptly reminded any of us who needed reminding in Buzzfeed, providing a GIF of CalFire’s data of areas of California that had burned since the 1950s, decade by decade, in an animation of red bursts of flames atop a black map, that seemed to eerily illuminate the state by the 2000s, and hit much of the north by the 2010s, as they close,–illuminating fires as a state-localized crisis–

Peter Aldhous for Buzzfeed from Cal Fire and frap.fire.ca.gov

but the scope of human-caused fires that have consumed land, property, and habitat are a truly endemic crisis in California, he showed, in ways that he suggested reflect a parched landscape and the uptick of human-generated fires that are a direct consequence of climate change, especially in a region of increased residential construction. This sense of illumination places a huge onus on PG&E for its corporate responsibility, and the very notion of distributing electricity and power as we once did,–and illuminates the imperative to think about a new form of energy grid.

Human-Generated Fires Peter Aldhous/Buzzfeed

Indeed, the parsing of “human-caused fires” as a bucket suggests the real need to expand the classification of wildfires. Whereas most earlier fires were caused by lightening strikes in the western states, the expansion of housing and electricity into areas suffering from massive drought–as if in an eery reflection of the spread of “slash fires” across the midwest during the expansion of railroads that caused a rage if firestorms coinciding with World War I–press against the category of fires as wild. The deeper question that these maps provoke–as do the data of Cal Fire–is whether the term wildfires is appropriate to discuss the hugely increased risk of fires that damage or destroy property and land.

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Filed under California, Climate Change, energy infrastructure, PG&E, urban interface