Just outside the northern edge of the Central Valley, the Town of Paradise has been destroyed by fire. The destruction should be called a holocaust as over 6500 structures were damaged, including the town’s central core.
In light of last year’s Santa Rosa holocaust and this year’s Redding and Paradise disasters, how vulnerable is Modesto to a comparable event? Modesto has never had a fire that destroyed an entire neighborhood, so most citizens are complacent about the threat of a catastrophic event.
A common element of recent catastrophic fires has been high wind. Above a certain wind velocity, around 40 miles per hour, firefighters become unable to stop the advance of flames. Embers from a fire will skip from building to building or tree to tree or tree to building. When the wind is strong enough, embers can start a new fire as far as a quarter of a mile away.
Modesto has a large number of buildings that are not fireproof and many trees. Therefore, plenty of fuel exists for a large conflagration. Modesto also has a few windy days each year. Some days see gusts in excess of 40 miles per hour.
On a typical day, the wind is calm or light. Modesto has enough fire personnel to maintain reasonable control over any incident. The worst incidents have involved a few buildings, where outside help had to be called in. Luckily, the biggest fires have not happened during a high wind event.
What Could Cause A Large Fire on a Windy Day?
Anything that generates an open flame or sparks can start a large fire on a windy day. Here is a partial list of potential causes: fireplace ashes, fireworks, agricultural burning, an auto accident or car fire, a cigarette smoker who carelessly disposes of ashes or the butt, an arsonist, a campfire in a homeless encampment, a lawnmower that hits a rock, and arcing power lines. Any of these events taking place at the wrong time could cause a disaster, especially if citizens are not careful.
Every citizen and business needs to exercise common sense and personal responsibility, especially on a windy day. With water rationing and a drier climate, local vegetation may be more susceptible to fire now than in years past. Just because a disaster has not happened in the past does not mean that it cannot happen here.
While Modesto has a very good firefighting department, limits on capability exist. We should not be careless under the assumption that the amount of damage can be controlled. We should learn from the experiences of Santa Rosa, Redding and Paradise that everyone needs to be vigilant.