This year has been the worst on record for California wildfires. KPCC journalists are covering the fires burning across Southern California and are working hard to answer community members' questions.
Let us know what you need to know. Have answers to some of the questions you're seeing? You can email Ashley Alvarado directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: Why don't firefighters use that thick foam like they do at airports?
We put this question to Cal Fire, and they said the foam used at airports to put out jet fuel fires just doesn't work when dropped from airplanes onto wildfires. Instead, they use three different kinds of firefighting chemicals, according to Shirley Zylstra with the U.S. Forest Service.
- Gels, which are are similar to the chemicals found in baby diapers, allow water to stick to trees and bushes, creating a thick layer of fire protection. Gels are only useful until the water they contain evaporates: about an hour.
- Foams are like a strong dishwashing detergent. They allow water to absorb more easily into trees and bushes, protecting plants from flames. Foams last even less time: no more than 20 minutes.
- Retardants, the red liquid you often see falling from planes, are by far the most popular form of firefighting chemical because they can be dropped ahead of the fire line and last longer than foams or gels. They create a chemical reaction that pulls heat away from the fire, cooling it to the point where it can't sustain itself — except when the wind is strong, causing flames to grow to 4 or 8 feet in length. In those situations, retardant is "not helpful," according to Zylstra.
Q: Can firefighters use sea water to put out the fires?
According to Cal Fire, yes, but it's not ideal. Spokeswoman Debbie Strong says firefighters prefer freshwater, like lakes and reservoirs, but if that is not available, they can dip their buckets into the ocean. However, they have to clean their buckets out afterwards to prevent salt corrosion.
One reason firefighters prefer freshwater, Fire Captain Larry Kurtz told the Orange County Register in 2016, is that it is safer to hover close to the surface of the water than at sea.
Q: Why weren't firefighters called on sooner to fight the fires?
Well, they were. If you're talking about firefighters outside of Southern California, it's a bit of a complicated process.
There is a three-tiered system: local, regional and national.
- Local - When a 911 call comes in reporting a fire, the dispatcher will first send local firefighters from the immediate area to the scene.
- Regional - If the fire grows quickly and becomes larger and more complex than the initial responders can handle, the dispatcher may call the Regional Geographic Area Coordination Center (GACC), which is responsible for rounding up help from a large region to help with local fires. This week, firefighters from places like Marin County, Big Bear and San Diego were called on to assist.
- National - Eventually, a fire may grow so large and threaten so many homes that still more assistance is needed. At that point, the regional coordinator will call a national broker for fire resources in Boise, Idaho. Staff there will ask around to see which other regions have firefighters then can send. Firefighters from Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming and Colorado reported to the wildfires in Southern California this week, according to Robyn Broyles with the National Interagency Fire Center.
In short, it takes a lot of coordination to bring in firefighters from around the country to battle a wildfire, and it's not something that happens right away. Sometimes it can feel like it takes forever for national firefighters to show up, but Broyles sums it up best: "People think when you have a fire, you can throw everything at it and it goes out. But when you put 3,000 people on a fire, how do you feed them? How do you shower them? How much can they work without rest? When you have a fire moving so quickly across a landscape, that's the challenge."
Q: How far can an ember travel?
Three to four miles! That's according to Robyn Broyles with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. She says the distance depends on what kind of vegetation is burning and how strong the wind is blowing. Fires that burn in the crown, or top, of trees and bushes are the most likely to produce embers that can get carried by the wind.
In fact, it is wind-blown embers, not a huge wall of fire sweeping through a neighborhood, that generally cause houses to burn down, according to a trio of San Diego firefighters standing outside the smoldering remains of a house in a Ventura neighborhood. Many residents had chosen not to evacuate and instead were dousing their roofs with water, stamping out small fires that ignited in potted plants and on their decks and frantically cutting brush and dead vegetation so flying embers had less fuel to burn. For tips on how to fireproof your home from embers, read this.
Q: What happens to wild animals in a wildfire?
It really depends on the animal. National Park Service researchers studying the aftermath of the 2013 Springs Fire in the Santa Monica Mountains have found three things:
- The animals that remained in burn zones a year after the fire were either mobile and escaped the flames, like deer, or they could eat a wide variety of food, like coyotes.
- Some animals that had disappeared from burn zones were less mobile, like rabbits, meaning they died in the fire or starved to death afterwards in the charred, barren landscape.
- Still other animals that had disappeared from the burn zones after the fire were picky about their habitat. Bobcats, for example, prefer dense, woody undergrowth, which disappeared in the burn.
Q: Who names these fires anyway?
That honor goes to the dispatch center that sends the first firefighters to the scene of a fire, or sometimes to those firefighters themselves, according to CalFire. Fires are usually named for the area where they started: a local landmark, a street, a creek, a mountain, etc. The Thomas Fire, for example, was named for Thomas Aquinas College. The Skirball Fire started near the Skirball Center, and the Rye Fire started near Rye Canyon Loop in Santa Clarita.
Q: I'm wondering about the cause of each of the fires.
It's too early to know what started the rash of wildfires sweeping across Southern California this week. This kind of investigation is usually done after the fire has been contained, which none of them have. (When KPCC texted the public information officer on the largest of the fires, the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, to ask if he knew what ignited it, he replied simply, "No.")
The odds are good, though, that we are to blame. Humans started 84 percent of wildfires in the United States between 2002 and 2012, according to research published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That percentage is even higher in Southern California, where we have fewer lightning storms than in the Rocky Mountains and desert Southwest. In addition, residential development here sprawls into canyons and foothills where there is more fuel to burn, making ignitions more likely.
Q: How are people notified if they are in a new evacuation zone?
Unfortunately, there is no centralized alert system in Southern California to notify residents about fire evacuation orders. Instead, each county in the region – Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside – has its own text alert system. Here's how you can opt in.
Q: What do I do when I return home after a fire?
Check for fires on the drive back home. When you get there, walk around the inside and outside of your house checking for embers or dangers from downed power lines or gas. If you find fires during your checks, Cal Fire says to call 911 immediately.
KPCC just put together a great list of do's and don'ts. You can check it out here.
Q: Why don’t we have a siren for earthquakes like Mexico City does? Is there a siren for fires?
Outdoor warning systems were used in Los Angeles in war-times – air-raid alarms in the 1940s and sirens for the event nuclear attack in the 1960s. But because there are so many different hazards in the region, (fires, earthquakes, mudslides and more) Jeff Reeb, director of emergency management in the Los Angeles County Chief Executive Office, says it wouldn’t be clear what any one siren might signify.
The use of siren systems has fallen out of use in favor of county-specific Wireless Emergency Alerts that can provide specific instruction about what action to take. Reeb encourages people to keep the emergency alert feature active on their phones, despite the unnerving sound.
"There’s no magic bullet," said Reeb. "It take a variety of ways to get out information."
Outdoor warning sirens are generally uncommon in the state, but there are some used to warn of tsunamis. In the Bay Area, Oakland does have a siren system with three distinct sounds – a steady tone that means shelter in place, a slow wail for a tsunami alert and a fast wail for a fire alert.
In Ventura County, the only siren system is in place is to warn of flooding near the Lake Casitas Dam.
As for earthquake alerts, there are a number of systems in development, including a cell phone-based system called Shake Alert that's in the beta-testing phase.
Q: How do I know when it's safe to go home?
You might find out in a number of different ways. If you live in Ventura County and you've signed up for VC Alerts, you could get a message telling you the evacuation in your area has been lifted. There will also be information posted on ReadyVenturaCounty.org. Reporters will also be monitoring that site, so pay attention to the news, too.
As of Thursday at 3:45 p.m., there are currently no evacuations from the Rye Fire.
Q: If we live outside of evacuation areas, do we need to wear masks outside?
The answer has less to do with whether you're in an evacuation area, and more to do with local air quality. This map, from the PurpleAir network of sensors, has real time information on particulate pollution in the air. If you're near an sensor that's colored orange, the elderly, children, or people with respiratory illnesses could begin to feel the effects of poor air quality and may want to consider wearing a mask. Once the sensor is red or purple, everyone will be impacted.
In general: if you see or smell smoke, wear an N95 respirator mask. If you have a respiratory illness, you may want to take extra precautions.
Q: Where can I bring supplies to help evacuees?
Thousands of people have been displaced because of the wildfires burning across Southern California this week. If you're not one of them, you can help. Here's how.
Q: Does Sherman Oaks/Van Nuys have to evacuate?
The situation is constantly changing. You can find the latest evacuation information about the Skirball Fire, which is the closest to both areas, here. Also, follow @LAFD with the hashtag #SkirballFire to stay up to date. And here's a map of the latest Skirball Fire evacuation zones.
Q: I want to see maps of the fires!
This NASA map shows how much smoke is blowing out to sea from the fires.
And this one, from the National Interagency Fire Center, shows in red where the fires have burned most recently.
Q: Which direction is the wind blowing?
Here is an awesome map that shows you! You can also check out this one, from the National Weather Service, which shows you wind direction and gusts.
Q: Are there maps of the streets where houses burned in Ventura?
No official maps yet, although here's an unofficial one that people are making.
Q: How can I find out what roads are closed?
It depends where you live and what roads you're trying to find out about. CalTrans has closures of major roads and freeways listed here. The agency also has a mobile app you can download. KPCC is updating road closures for each fire, too: check the Thomas Fire and Creek Fire.
Q: Are the fires affecting LAX?
Not currently. You can look up the latest conditions at LAX and all other Southern California airports here.
Wildfire smoke can slow traffic at airports, though, by creating "conditions that essentially mimic cloudy weather," according to Ian Gregor, a spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Q: What air mask should I buy?
We tested five different masks here at KPCC, from the simple bandana (avoid that) to the hardcore respirator. You definitely want one that has the N95 label, which means it filters out 95 percent of airborne particles, including smoke.
Q: In L.A., what can we do to protect ourselves from the fires?
Let's break this into two categories: inside and outside the house.
- Three days of food and three gallons of water per person
- Paper maps
- Extra clothes
- Glasses and/or contact lenses
- Extra set of car keys, credit cards, and cash
- First aid kit
- Batteries and battery-powered radio
- Copies of important documents
- Sanitation supplies
- Pet food and extra water
There are also number of things you can do outside your house and on your property to limit the risk of wildfire burning down your home. All cities and counties have different rules (here are the City of L.A.'s), but most require you to cut brush and grass within 100 or 200 feet of your home, remove all low branches on trees to keep fires from climbing into the canopy and remove tree branches hanging over the roof of your house. If you're a renter, ask your landlord to make sure this gets done.
Make sure you're signed up to receive messages from local emergency officials about evacuations. They may also come down your street or send you a notification using the Amber Alert system. Finally, when an evacuation order is given or if you see smoke or flames in the distance, grab your evacuation kit and go.
Areas of local concern
Q: Is the Thacher School in Ojai OK?
As of 7 a.m. on Thursday morning, yes. The latest update came in an email update to families, alumni and friends from head of school Michael Mulligan that was forwarded to KPCC. "There is no overstating the incredible work of these California fire crews who come from all over the state. They have saved our school," he wrote. "They know exactly what they’re doing and they have put up a stand tonight that has protected every one of our buildings on campus."
Mulligan said he felt fortunate that "the horrible gale force winds never materialized last night. In fact, at one of the most critical moments a miraculous and magical wind came from the west that allowed the fire crews to set the back fires that saved the campus."
"On a sidenote," he wrote, "it is remarkable to me how quickly one adjusts to this situation. What would’ve terrified me two days ago suddenly seems perfectly reasonable right now. There are big billowing flames on the edges of campus and the fire crew watches them carefully, sets back fires, and uses a little water here and there."
"We all know that it’s not over till it’s over. But we are in much better shape here this morning. The hills around us have now been stripped of fuel. The fire crews are on alert and still setting backfires to protect the campus. We are truly blessed. But we also must remain keenly alert."