Stop California Wildfires with Emerging Technology & Ecological Engineering

INTRODUCTION

What can be done to stop the holocausts that torch citizens, roast properties, annihilate wildlife and poison us with toxic ash? California wildfires are increasingly dangerous and insanely expensive; suffocating smoke kills thousands prematurely every year and the cost in 2018 after 7,948 wildfires scorched 1,975,086 acres was $148.5 billion.

Golden State strategies today are failing and feeble; they woefully blame their charred condition on ‘nature,’ global warming, increased population, and elevated fuel, but offer no inspiring solutions. This essay wants to help; it will present optimistic ideas that utilize innovative techniques and emerging technologies. If California — global leader in entrepreneurship and creative technology — implements these imaginative plans it can offer its residents a fire-free future that safeguards their health, wealth and lifestyle. Strategies and techniques suggested here can also be marketed to other regions of the globe of the world similarly threatened by flames: India, Indonesia, the Amazon, British Columbia, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Chile, Siberia, South Africa, Australia, and most of the other 49 states.

Let’s start with a continued scrutiny of facts and statistics. California has 39 million people, 25% live in fire-threatened areas in 33 million acres of forest: 60% owned by state and local governments, 40% on private land (often Native American reservations). Over 80% of the wildfires are caused by humans, either arson or accidents, like a lawnmower chipping a rock, tossing sparks that ignite dry grass. (Other catalysts are careless campfires, car accidents, cigarette butts, chainsaw malfunctions, downed live-wire utility lines, firework displays, escaped residential burn piles, and mismanaged “prescribed burns”). Firestorms can incinerate 10,000 acres of forest per hour — a football field every second. Only a small fraction are “natural” fires, i.e., caused by lightning or lava. Most fires in forests die out quickly because nearby fuel is too damp or sparse, but major conflagrations occur when there’s dry weather, copious tinder, encouraging winds, and difficult access to the afflicted areas. The US Forest Service defines “fire season” as 70 days longer than it was a generation ago. In 2020 approximately 4% of California burned up and almost 1 million of the state’s homes have been dropped by their property insurance providers in recent years.

Examining this, it is obvious we only need a quartet of goals to end California wildfires:

  • Let’s make the environment inhospitable to flareups,
  • Let’s detect and douse all sparks asap,
  • Let’s develop battle plans and equipment that can overwhelm monstrous blazes
  • Let’s create fire-proof forest villages (to protect human life, property, and affordable home insurance rates)

This essay will explain how these goals be accomplished with effective strategies. Some of the ideas might seem outrageous because they differ radically from today’s failed plans, but necessity requires us to depart from current schemes that leave forest-dwellers dead, de-housed, or living in fear, as nearby city-dwellers choke apprehensively on the wafting smoke. We need startling new plans to guarantee a California victory; we can no longer endure the fire red & charcoal black images of our state’s disgraceful defeats.

Using new technology to solve eco-challenges isn’t an original approach. Between 1998–2003 an ideology conceived and eventually termed “bright green environmentalism” was promoted by futurist writer Alex Steffen, Jamais Cascio (Senior Fellow at Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technology), weblogger and tech CEO Jon Lebkowsky, science fiction author Bruce Sterling, environmental photographer Ed Burtynsky, editors Julia Levitt, Amanda Reed, Jeremy Faludi, Sarah Richand, and other contributors at the now-defunct publication WorldChanging. They envisioned prosperous human development via social innovation, computing, nanotechnology, clean energy, electric transportation, sustainable products, and utopian urban planning. This essay’s advice is just second-generation “bright green thinking” applied to a hot, real-time problem.

PREVENTION: TRANSFORMING CALIFORNIA INTO A FIRE-RETARDANT STATE

First, let’s examine the state’s forest floor. Anything different in recent years? YES. California’s wildfires are now incinerating larger chunks of acreage because “fuel” (plant material) on the ground is more flammable,. Recent lack of water due to drought/climate warming is stressing the state’s trees, leaving them vulnerable to beetle infestations that eventually kill them, tumbling them to the ground where they lie dangerously dormant like gigantic Presto-Logs. Fuel quantity on the forest floor has also increased because — for many decades — the US Forest Service’s “fire suppression” policy rushed to extinguish blazes immediately, instead of allowing them to reduce fuel on the ground level.

Another fuel-reducing practice was eliminated earlier, claim anthropologists, when Native Americans were displaced from the forest by white colonists. The indigenous groups practiced controlled burning for centuries, to promote seed groups, to make land more open for easier hunting, to stimulate shrub roots needed for basketry, and to reduce brush to avert firestorms.

Today’s strategy to decrease fuel mimics the Native Americans. “Prescribed” or “controlled” burnings occur in carefully-monitored actions, ideally after rains to guarantee damp conditions. Trimming also takes place: removing many of the broadleaf plants, culling inferior seedings, cutting off the lowest and low-hanging branches. Additionally, high grass and foliage is occasionally pruned back by sheep or goats, who can gobble up to five pounds of weeds per day.

Unfortunately, the prescribed burning strategy is complicated, expensive, unreliable to implement, and the activity itself has serious flaws. A Santa Cruz forest committee member, who requested anonymity, explained that his group, “depends on grants to remove and thin trees and brush, plus its hard to find qualified people to do the work because manpower isn’t available at current wages and training levels. Scheduling controlled burns is also difficult because of many agencies involved with permitting, public opinion is typically negative, liability for burns that escape is a huge issue, and permits are often revoked or postponed for many reasons including weather, wind, and fuel moisture.”

Prescribed Burning

Even if prescribed burning proceeds on schedule with well-trained staff, there remains at least three obstacles to relying on this as the primary strategy. 1) Controlled burns occasionally go out-of-control, due to winds shifting or a miscalculation in the flammability of the targeted area. 2) Controlled burning is destructive to the environment because it destroys carbon and emits smoke into the atmosphere. 3) Controlled burns are generally ineffective because their intention is to create a “fire break” but the odds on a wildfire actually encountering it, and being halted by it, are extremely small, and there’s high likelihood a firestorm’s flying embers will easily leap over the barrier anyway.

Many “experts” claim numerous California forest trees need to be burned to reproduce, notably the Giant Sequoia — largest tree on Earth. A brief examination of this claim, however, proves this contention is misleading, to put it politely, FRAUDULENT, to be more direct. Multiple reasons for the big tree’s addiction to fire are listed: 1) Fire helps loosen the soil, 2) Fire helps clear away small trees from the “Mother Trees” so sunlight can nurture her young saplings, 3) Fire helps dry out the Sequoia’s cones so seeds can emerge.

Notice the consistent presence of the word “help” in each statement. Fire does indeed help Sequoia reproduction, but it is not absolutely necessary. Seeds emerge if the cone is opened by insects or squirrels (or humans, or machines). Saplings can gain sunlight if humans or robots trim away obstructions. Soil can be softened with rototillers, so seeds can gently germinate. The brutal, volatile administration of fire to aid tree breeding is absolutely unnecessary. Sequoia seedlings can easily be purchased on eBay and I’m sure their mothers were never inflamed.

How can forest fuel be reduced, without prescribed burning?

(I am not opposed to all prescribed burning… but I view it as prudent to develop alternatives)

One solution, promoted by multiple futurist advisors, is to create autonomous machines that roam the forest like enormous ruminants, devouring undergrowth, turning it into organic mulch that is excreted in bags, and quickly removed. One advisor suggested a machine to turn forest debris into valuable biochar. Another recommended Boston Dynamic’s “BigDog” as a starting point in a design, but this model would be unstable on the varying surface of a forest floor tangled with dead branches and other trip-inducing plant material. Even banana peels cause BigDog to lose balance and keel over. A superior plan is to create a large, crawling, low-center-of-gravity tank-like robot, that moves and eats like a voracious vegan badger. The machines could also have several long arms that feed the plant material into their wide, wood-chipping mouths (terrestrial octopi), with a similarly-large anus that pushes out bags of mulch to either sellto the public as is, or be fashioned, for construction, into particle board.

BigDog

Another mulch-making option, easily organized, is to establish brush-chipping centers in towns throughout the forest regions, and offer this service for free, as an alternative to prescribed burning. If the timber and scrub quantities are too enormous for an owner’s truck to handle, the federal, state, or governments, or green entrepreneurial companies, could pick it up themselves, perhaps in huge munching vehicles that immediately reduce all the dangerous fuel into harmless, garden-helping nuggets.

Are their other ways to manipulate the environment, so flammability is lessened?

John Baker PhD, who proposes climate change solutions at Geoengineering.Global, sent an intriguing idea via email. His opinion is: “we need to restore wetland and stream/riparian corridors, and… keep water on the landscape, to prevent catastrophic fire.” He is correct. Artifically-created lakes, rivers, canals, and marshes would indeed be highly effective obstacles to wildfires, and far more beautiful than half-baked strips of skeletal trees after a controlled burning.

Two challenges to his landscape plan are: 1) the cost of manipulating gigatons of water is frightfully expensive, and 2) How would extra H2O be obtained in the drought-stricken state?

Three options enable Baker’s scheme: 1) Ponds created by beaver dams are excellent wildfire barriers, plus reintroducing the large, paddle-tailed rodents would be hugely popular. 2) Desalination plants, already operating in California, can produce 50 million gallons daily, that could be pumped to regions needing water barriers.

Option #3 — Cloud-seeding — can be used in multiple ways. It can generate rain to add water to Baker’s imagined environments; it can dampen a forest to elevate fire resistance, and, if improved upon, it could trigger intense showers to subdue large wildfires. Cloud-seeding is already implemented in multiple parched Western states: California, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, and New Mexico. It’s also been used to put out fires in Indonesia, Siberia, and India. Is cloud-seeding a guaranteed strategy? Zach Calhoun, Ph.D. student in Civil & Environmental Engineering at Duke University, isn’t sure. “I am skeptical about cloud seeding” he emailed me, “mainly because it’s a nascent technology, and I think it’s had limited success…more research is definitely needed.”

Zoltan Istvan, 2018 California libertarian gubernatorial candidate, proposed cloud-seeding in his campaign. After touring Santa Rosa’s wildfire he claimed, “A major factor in fighting fires is keeping the land semi-wet. Recently Dubai created a rain storm for their city. I believe this type of weather creating technology is an excellent way to limit Californian wildfires. If we can start creating weather, including storm systems that moisten fire prone areas, less fires will burn and drought may also be solved at the same time… We must seek out better technological solutions to stop wildfires… Lives are at risk and hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake.” Improved development of cloud-seeding should emerge from wealthy nations threatened by drought, like United Arab Emirates, China, and the United States.

Alexei Turchin, Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technology, proposed two ideas for this essay. His first plan is to use “super foam” to create barriers to fire; an example is this dark brown block. The rectangles can either build an extremely tall wall that extends above the trees (Lodgepole Pines grow to 100 feet in height) or they could construct wide horizontal ‘fire breaks’ that could be added to the side of regular highways, or circle human settlements, or scale hills and mountain sides where there’s dense tree cover, but its too steep for a bulldozer to make a road.

Will block walls and wide brown lines be atrocious to look at? Let’s reflect on the utility transmission lines in California forests that are an atrocious eyesore that residents have endured stoically. Burying powerlines to prevent wildfires is a long overdue task that’s finally underway; their disappearance will immensely improve the safety and visual appeal of California forests. Let’s remember how ugly powerlines looked when people start complaining about foam blocks. Utility lines were both ugly and dangerous (California’s worst fire, that destroyed the town of Paradise, was caused by a faulty electric wire) but they were still readily accepted. Foam blocks will help preserve the health and beauty of the state’s forests for future generations, and we can try to implement them in a way that is not remotely as hideous as the power lines we’ve lived with for decades.

Finally, let’s examine a revolutionary, botany-transformational idea.

Turchin’s second suggestion is to re-plant burned forests with fire-retardant trees, shrubs, and ground cover. Most flame-resistant trees are non-native and deciduous: Oak, Mulberry, Chestnut, Olive, Elderberry, Citrus, Loquat, Sycamore, Walnut, Poplar, Big leaf Maple, Alder, Beech, Bay Laurel, Magnolia, and “fruit trees in general.” Turchin’s idea would appall botanists and environmentalists who revere the highly-flammable conifer residents of the Sierra Nevada — pines, firs, hemlocks, cedars, redwoods — but it should be noted that other nations, Portugal in particular, are replanting incinerated areas with forests of fire-resistant Cork Oak (Quercus subera). Doing this would upset the present ecology, of course, but multiple species, although different, can thrive in a cork forest environment: 135 plants, and 37 mammals. An added benefit is cork from these trees could be harvested and sold to California wine bottlers, or used as fire-resistant flooring.

Cork Forest in Portugal

Conifers are also available that are fire-resistant: several species of cypress. Researchers in Italy and Spain discovered walls of cypress can serve as barriers to forest fires, and in California, “phoenix” cypress forests have already survived firestorms. Eleven cypress species exist in the state — Santa Cruz cypress, Tecate cypress, Gowen cypress, Monterey cypress, Paiute cypress, pygmy cypress, Cuyamaca cypress, Baker cypress — these hardy trees could be planted in burned regions where “fire pines” used to stand, if the elevation and soil are conducive to their growth.

Conversely, trees, shrubs and grasses that are highly flammable could be discouraged in California, or grown only in very safe areas. Topping this list would be the eucalyptus, an invader from Australia. Eucalyptus trees are filled with a highly-volatile oil; even the gas it emits is dangerous. Additionally, the bark it litters in long strips on the soil floor is ideal fire-friendly tinder. Recent wildfires in Australia and the 1991 fire in the Oakland Hills were blamed on this flammable tree. Other torch-like menaces that should be planted only in fully-safe areas are acacia, manzanita, rosemary, sagebrush, blackberry, bamboo, honeysuckle, and Scotch broom.

To summarize, this essay section has provided four ways to mutate California forests into a fire-retardant region: 1) develop autonomous machines that devour the dangerous forest fuel, turning it into a marketable item. 2) geo-engineer the landscape, using water to create rivers, canals, and marshes that serve as fire barriers, accomplishing via civic engineering projects, re-introducing beavers to build dams, transporting water into forest areas from desalination plants, and creating rainfall via cloud seeding. 3) creating walls and barriers with super foam blocks. 4) planting billions of fire-resistant trees, shrubs and grasses and phasing out their incendiary relatives.

Now, let’s move on to the second set of reforms.

Beaver Dam

PUTTING OUT THE SPARKS QUICKLY

Let’s assume California does an excellent job preparing its forests to be fire-resistant. Beaver dams, water barriers, and foam blocks are strategically situated, fire-retardant trees have replaced flammable species, kindling on the timberland floor is vacuumed up by voracious robots, and seeded clouds regularly dampen the region. But still, a catastrophe can happen on a hot, dry day if a cigarette butt, or a sick arsonist, or an errant spark ignites available fuel and it flares up quickly into a conflagration. How can we squish small fires immediately? How can we halt fire — the chemical reaction that converts a fuel and oxygen into carbon dioxide and water— before it becomes uncontrollable?

Satellites and AI are already detecting fires with amazing quickness. Fireball International satellites, from Australia, spotted a 2019 California wine country fire in 66 seconds that was authenticated in three minutes by the ALERT Wildfire System, a network of nearly 400 cameras installed on the state’s mountaintops and towers. OroraTech, in Germany, has created small “nano-satellites” with thermal infrared cameras that can spot any fire larger than 33 feet, and report it within 60 minutes of ignition. Another German company, Dryad Networks, has developed inexpensive “wilderness sensors” — hung from forest trees, they can “smell” carbon monoxide and other fire gases and issue alerts via satellites. Chooch AI in San Francisco, and Descartes Labs in Santa Fe can analyze satellite images every ten minutes. Alchera from South Korea provides Sonoma County with similar technology, except it’s optical, not olfactory; it analyzes visual imagery and sends alerts to local authorities.

Drones, suggest Alexei Turchin of IEET, might provide fantastic value, “for early fire detection.” A 2019 report published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers believes “aerial robots are a perfect fit for wildfire preventions as they are able to scan an area autonomously to detect potential hotspots… as small as 15 centimeters” and their usage does not involve putting humans in dangerous situations. Another report, published by Aerospace Research Central, believes, “teams of autonomous unmanned aircraft can used.”

The spectacle of drone teams dwelling autonomously in forests, like fully independent flocks of wild birds, filled me with skepticism, but Wayne Cox, FAA Licensed Drone Operator in Grass Valley, assured me of this possibility. “Drone flocks, referred to as swarms, are already available,” he replied via email. When I asked if California could install recharging stations in forests for drone swarms to recharge themselves with electricity, natural gas, gasoline, or hydrogen fuel cells, he replied, “It’s technically possible. There are fully autonomous systems out there that only require minimal human intervention.”

Drone Swarm

With autonomy, drone swarms could work as vigilant sentinels 24/7, “migrating” to different regions of the state when those areas become vulnerable to fire. Nature-lovers, especially bird watchers, might be infuriated by mechanical buzzing in their cherished environment, but there’s a way to alleviate this: Cox informed me that custom designers can create drones that resemble birds with rotating wings like hummingbirds and bird-chirping vocalism. The drone swarms would look and sound like bird flocks.

Drones will do far more than just hover above, spying for fires. Already, the US Forest Service uses aerial robots to ignite fires around beginning blazes, to deprive them of the fuel they need to grow larger. Drone Amplified, a Nebraska company, provides government firefighters with drones that carry 450 “dragon eggs” under their wings — the eggs are small balls filled with chemicals that ignite on impact. A recent 32,000 acre Colorado wildfire was squelched after the drone droppings scorched a wide adjacent area, creating a barrier that contained the blaze. Drones in the future can also can be outfitted with squirt-guns to spray foam on small blazes, or they can collaborate in coordinated flight mobs to drop fire-retardant tarps or tissue on a budding inferno (another idea from Turchin).

Land Robots can also be used to fight fires, replacing the brave but vulnerable human flesh that is presently used; 102 firefighters died in the US in 2020. The Robot-Goats proposed in the earlier section, that devour dry shrubs and grasses, could be equipped with “first responder” fire-fighting equipment. When they’re alerted that flames are in their region, they could roll or scamper quickly to the flare-up and squirt it out with fire-retardant liquid or foam, and with shovel-nosed snouts or feet they could kick or toss dirt on the flames. Robo-Goats — like the drone flocks — could migrate to areas that are determined to be the most vulnerable. Forest rangers as fire sentries have already been replaced in lookout towers, by high-definition cameras with AI capabilities.

California’s goals in this category are simple to comprehend: 1) we need faster detection of fires, 2) followed by quick obliteration. Technology available now is already impressive and rapidly improving; safety would be near-guaranteed if overhead cameras could spot fires as small as 3 feet in diameter, anywhere in the state, within 30 seconds, and report the blaze in 2 minutes.

CONTROLLING THE INFERNOS

Giant infernos whipped by high winds are often impossible to stop; firefighters are limited to merely trying to help people escape until the flames run their course. The technology described in the section above can locate and squelch the majority of early fires, but not every flame can be controlled, especially flareups born during windstorms, whipped quickly into hellish waves, rising high over treetops with heat over 2,000 degrees, capable of melting metal. How can these chaotic conflagrations be stopped, when they are in full maniacal force, killing and destroying every object in their path?

Many effective tools already exist. Satellites, AI, and drones can strategize combat against epic infernos, with platforms like FireMap, developed at UC San Diego to predict a fire’s direction. Air Force and National Guard drones flying at night can map fire hotspots and boundaries using heat imagery, and satellites can report the projected direction of clouds containing lung-and-heart crippling smoke and ash.

When we’re forced to actually fight the hot tsunamis, or save humans from the enemy flames, heavy equipment is needed, frequently rented or refurbished from the US military arsenal. A giant, heavy-lifting CH-47 Chinook helicopter (veteran of every war since 1957) and a UH-60 Blackhawk chopper (operating since 1979), from the state’s National Guard, were used to rescue 200 people from the 2020 Creek Fire. A fleet of retrofitted Chinooks, called the Quick Action Force, also fought the Caldor Fire in 2021, each one dropping 3,000 gallons of water or retardant on the opponent below. Even larger than the Chinooks are seven Lockheed-Martin C-130 Hercules transport aircraft (military surplus, again) customized by the state to carry 4,000 gallons; 3x the capacity of Cal Fire’s previous airtankers. Largest of all, by far, is a retrofitted 747 jumbo jet that dumped 18,000 gallons of fire retardant on the the fast-moving El Dorado Fire in September 2020. The monster aircraft was preceded in its flight by a maneuverable, “light attack” Rockwell Bronco plane, to guarantee the jumbo jet’s path was clear of smoke columns, updrafts, hidden terrain and other dangers.

Chinook

Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks are also part of the CALFIRE, LA County, and City of San Diego aerial firefighting force. Firehawks can quickly (160 miles per hour) deliver 11-person teams to new fires; they “only” drop 1,000 gallons of water at a time but they carry snorkels that quickly refill its belly tank from nearby bodies of water. Chinooks can also “reload” — sucking up to 3,000 gallons in only 90 seconds. To summarize, CALFIRE has the biggest firefighting air force in the world, with the capacity to grow far larger via leases from the six US Air Force bases in the state. With its 22 stations throughout the state, CALFIRE can deliver aircraft over a newly reported fire in just 20 minutes.

Anything fresh to report? Yes. Night vision goggles, long utilized by the military, are now available to the state’s fight-fighting helicopter pilots, and fully-autonomous helicopters are currently being tested. Equipment for land-based fire-fighters is also improving. Clothing they wear is now more durable, flame-resistant, and lighter — to reduce heat casualties, especially in the summer. Ground crews now carry thermal-imaging cameras that can peer through smoke to identify hot spots and fire direction — a major safety upgrade — and a computerized mapping system to provide real-time information is being developed by Science Applications International Corp.

Fire-fighting land vehicles are already utilized in combating urban fires. Designs are invariably tank-like in appearance, capable of crawling over wreckage, with either hoses attached to their rear end, or cylinders of retardant strapped to their chassis, plus they can fight “smart” because they’re equipped with AI. Many also have bulldozing ability (see image below). The advantages of robot fire-fighters are numerous: 1) they can operate at a high temperature — 350 degrees — that would cook human flesh, 2) they are not affected by smoke or weather conditions, 3) they can extinguish fires 3X faster than humans. Of course, their primary benefit is they don’t put human life in danger. Ideally, entire fire-fighter ground crews might be replaced by robots, acting either autonomously or under the direction of human management in a secure location.

What is still needed? A (human) fire-fighter interviewed by National Geographic expressed a wish for “better communication tools to safely operate in the smoke… a (ground-based) system where we know where we all are and communicate better with live video to help us with our decision-making and our situational awareness.”

Weather Manipulation is the most ambitious goal for the fire-fighting future. Controlling climate has long-been a utopian ideal; to battle fires the top two priorities would be: 1) creating rain to damp out the flames, and 2) abating wind to halt an inferno’s progress.

Zoltan Istvan, the 2018 gubernatorial candidate, hopes, “when technology becomes good enough, humans may even be able to create a storm (literally on demand) to rain on fires that break out.” Cloud-seeding — discussed earlier in this essay — to increase rain by 10–15% during a wet season is far easier than getting the sky to obediantly dump waterfalls on flames, but progress in this arena might emerge. Will wind mitigation research also become critical? Climate researchers are unsure. Some scientists claim global wind speed has decreased by 25% in the last 50 years, while others note it has increased since 2010.

Similar to the previous section, California’s goals in battling infernos are easily quantifiable. Progress is being made quickly in multiple arenas: faster and bigger helicopters and planes, carrying larger fire retardant loads, with night-fighting capacity, and helpful technology for pilots and ground forces. On the downside, this level of fire-fighting is extremely expensive, $24 million per Firehawk, and up to $8,000 per hour to operate a Chinook. In my opinion, it is wisest to invest heavily in fire prevention and early detection, so flames never get to the level where massive war machinery is neededto combat their advance. Regarding weather manipulation… I don’t forsee it developing quick enough to be applicable in fighting fires in the crucial, upcoming decade.

BUILDING UN-BURNABLE HABITATION

In just four hours, the Camp Fire of 2018 destroyed the towns of Paradise and Concow, burning 18,000 structures, and killing 88 people. Horrible totals, but not the worst in US history, that infamy belongs to the Peshtigo Fire of Wisconsin in 1871 that killed 1200–2500 people (many buried in a mass grave) and 2 billion trees and wild animals. Tragedies like this must be prevented in the future, but how can wilderness towns be safe, if they’re surrounded by flammable timber?

At the present time, the primary advice to residents in severe hazard zones is to live in homes with fire-resistant construction and maintenance standards, such as: keep vegetation away from the house, keep roofs and rain gutters clean, use ignition resistant shingles and siding, install air filtration systems, adequate exits, screens over vents, fire alarms, fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, automatic sprinkler systems, and dozens of other regulations and suggestions. Even with these precautions, human skin melts at 162 degrees, and houses can combust if a wildfire gets within 100 feet. Traditional housing, in my opinion, just isn’t safe in a fire zone. Only three alternatives exist: tiny houses, island homes, and underground dwellings.

Nicole Sallak Anderson and her family lost their house, their goats and cats, and all their possessions when the Butano and Wadell Creek fires near Highway 1 combined, went out of control, and torched their small rural community in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The novelist/software engineer considered moving out of the state she viewed as doomed to repeated flames, or rebuilding their 3 bedroom home if they could acquire and afford the costly, difficult-to-get insurance, but eventually she and her husband decided their best option was to continue residing on their scorched lot in a mobile 325 square foot tiny house. “This way,” she says, “I can drive off in a fire and insure it as a vehicle… not so much to lose and easy to keep fire safe.” She recommends tiny house living for anyone in a fire zone, the entire abode can be wheeled briskly to safety if an inferno is threatening, plus they’re an excellent way to reduce one’s possessions.

tiny house community

Two drawbacks exist: 1) they are indeed “tiny” — inadequate for families, hoarders, or people who simply want space to sprawl; Nicole is impelled to get two more, for each of her sons. 2) tiny houses are not entirely safe from fire unless there are enough roads to escape through, in multiple directions. On the positive side, they’re affordable, Nicole’s cost 100k, plus 50k each for her sons, and another 100k to install wells and septic. Tiny house communities are springing up all over the nation; if you’re inclined, you can simply move to another one, is a safer region.

A more expansive, expensive, and imaginative solution is to live on “Island Villages.” Builders could re-route water (this strategy was mentioned earlier) to surround a town with a fire-preventative moat, river, or marsh. If water is too scarce or costly to acquire, the village could be circled with a quarter-mile wide space of foam fire-resistant blocks (also mentioned earlier), or a combination of foam blocks and water canals. The safety circle, moat, or marsh, has enormous hedonistic potential, it could include beaches, swimming pools, aquaculture ponds, basketball courts, tennis courts, aquariums, rock-climbing walls, boat-racing courses, and other recreation activity zones, any setup that is not flammable.

A third solution, which is the safest but the most claustrophobic, is to build underground villages, or cave communities that tunnel into mountainsides. These dwellings would need thick metallic doors at the exits, and plenty of fresh storage air, to guarantee breathing happiness if there’s an inferno upside.

Subterranean existence has been successful for many species like earthworms, gophers, ants and prairie dogs; can homo sapiens be the next ecstatic burrowers? Living underground offers many benefits besides averting fire, such as: 1) escaping nuclear bombs, with their explosive force of 2,000 mph, millions of heat degrees, and deadly radiation. 2) staying cool with global warming, and 3) surviving meteor & asteroid attacks, toxic air, and volcanic activity.

Humanity has always built communities in our planet’s interior. A 5,000 year old underground city was recently unearthed in Cappadocia, large enough to accommodate 20,000 people, plus their livestock and food, with tunnels seven kilometers long, and hundreds of escape passages. Montreal’s RESO, aka Underground City contains 20 miles of tunnels, 1,000 offices, 2,000 stores, nine hotels, 200 restaurants, four universities, and 40 cinemas. Underground housing does have some disadvantages: 1) Claustrophobic fear of enclosed spaces afflicts 2–10% of the population. 2) Studies indicate views of nature, especially trees and mountains, provide a neurological boost that accelerates surgery recovery, decreases pain, and elevates happiness and attitude. Beneficial views can, however, be enjoyed in the daytime. 3) People deprived of sunlight can suffer from insomnia and hormone dysfunctions. This can be alleviated with supplements and artificial light duplicating the properties of solar rays.

Underground House

Today’s present technology is fully equipped to build underground. Oil drills plunge 6,000 feet down; tunnel boring machines can excavate 60 feet per day. Montreal developed air purifiers that not only extract dust, allergens and odors, they also destroyed 99% of the Covid-19 virus.

Are any of these options — tiny houses, artificial islands, underground dwellings — exactly what we want? For most of us, no, but it is reassuring to realize these options exist for people who want to live safely inside or near California’s glorious forests. The inconveniences of my proposed living arrangements are still immeasurably superior to getting agonizingly charred, like the victims of Paradise and Pompeii.

ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS

The top ethical priority of any fire management policy is to protect human lives and property.

I italicized human because a few of the reforms I suggest will create challenges for non-human species. For example, highly-flammable pine trees would not be re-planted if my strategies were followed. This would decrease their numbers, but they’re far from endangered because they represent a healthy portion of the state’s 4.5 billion conifers. [see below]

Wild creatures that depend on pine trees for their survival would be inconvenienced — this includes woodpeckers, squirrels, raccoons, wasps, ticks, and mites. — but, ideally, the pines would be replaced by other equally-habitable but less incendiary trees, like cork and cypress. Cork forests have one the “one of the highest levels of plant diversity in the world” and they provide habitation to a wide range of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, and insects. An expansion of cypress trees would also provide benefits to many creatures, including squirrels and wild turkeys, who eat the seeds.

A second reason my reforms are ethical is because they safeguard carbon — a necessity in halting global warming. Not only are they designed to save forest trees (carbon sequesters) from burning, they also provide an option to the practice of “prescribed burning” by transforming it into mulch, biochar, or particle board. Once again, the carbon loss activity of burning wood is averted.

A third ethical concern was provided by Zach Calhoun, the Ph.D. student in Civil & Environmental Engineering at Duke University. He informed me that fire-fighting chemicals in foams and retardants can potentially cause environmental catastrophes, especially fluorinated alkyl substances, a.k.a., PFAS, and polybrominated diphenyl ether, a.k.a., PBDE. Calhoun calls PFAS a “forever chemical… it doesn’t break down naturally [and] it gets everywhere. It has been detected in 98% of human’s blood, and we don’t know the full scope of health impacts.” He believes foams and retardants need “extensive eco-toxicological [and] health-risk review” and he supports their use only “if they biodegrade within a reasonable time span. Otherwise, he warns, we might poisoning the soil in California, where 25% of America’s food is grown. Several farms in Maine, he reports, ceased operations because too much PFAS was detected in their soil, and he notes that PBDE was a fire retardant in the past, but is now restricted under the Stockholm Convention because its classified as an organic pollutant.

I agree with Calhoun’s assessment. To prevent poisoning the state’s environment, California must 1) reduce fires, so the need for foams and retardants is minimized, 2) develop non-toxic foams and retardants as effective to the current polluting products.

OBSTACLES & CONCLUSION

Opposition to the policies I suggest would be vigorous, from a wide variety of resisters. Some environmentalists oppose any form of geo-engineering; they will object to my schemes to re-engineer the botany of California’s forest, or to encourage cloud-seeding, or the re-routing and transport of water. They’d prefer to stick to the dangerous, largely useless practice of controlled burning, allowing “nature to take its course” with thousands of acres burning. Other old-fashioned foes might want to keep insensible historic traditions, like forest housing in pre-fabricated log cabins shaded by nearby pines — a suicidal invite to disaster.

The financial cost of this essay’s proposals will surely also loom as an obstacle to short-sighted readers. Many of the suggestions will indeed be pricey, but the alternative is far worse; global warming is going to exacerbate California’s fire problem and this cost of this calamity, if present strategies fail, would be in the trillions of dollars, not billions. California has the highest home values in the USA; in my neighborhood, even rotting 3 bed 2 bath houses are estimated at $2.33 million. Why? Because California has it all — great weather, food, culture, recreation, education institutes, job opportunities — but this golden age in the Golden State will totally evaporate, like an oasis surrounded by flames, if the present fire menace isn’t thoroughly solved. Real estate values will crumble, businesses will move out of state, non one will want to vacation here if the present path to apocalypse is not averted, via innovative reforms.

Los Angeles on a clear day

Indeed, the high cost of this essay’s proposals can be 100% alleviated if we acknowledge the inevitable outcome. If we completely transform our flammable, dangerous, inhospitable forests into safe, stupendously beautiful, healthy environments — the property values of the rural woodsy towns will soar upwards, rivaling the level of their urban counterparts, enriching the tax base, elevating the services and amenities of the state that already boasts the 5th largest economy in the world (it’s predicted to move into 4th place, passing Germany, in the next decade). Additionally, if California’s forest areas are gloriously modernized and guaranteed fire-safe, the federal land can be leased for sizable amounts, generating totals exponentially higher than a barbecued wasteland would earn.

Philosophical opposition to this essay’s suggestions will also arrive from a crunchy Luddite demographic, that is actually fire-enabling because they prefer “natural processes” to human technological advances. The neo-primitive mindset of these people is reminiscent of animists in Hawaii and Cameroon, who worship volcano gods and offer them gifts. This contingent is unwittingly the nemesis of other human beings, the state’s property values, and even the trees they happily hug.

A final blockade to my ideas is the fact that California forests are not centrally governed; to be unanimously adopted my ideas would require the approval of myriad county, state, federal, and Native American reservation authorities, plus private and corporate owners.

I believe all the arguments and barriers to my policies can be overcome because Californians are fully aware of the future apocalypse awaiting us if we continue to use the present futile solutions, plus, this state has an “early adapter” demographic that is willing to think outside-the-box, experimenting with fresh ideas, especially if they are marketable to the rest of the world.

Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Greeks worshiped Hephaestus, god of fire and metallurgy. Hephaestus was the favored deity of Athenian manufacturers, industrialists, craftsmen, inventors, technologists, who correctly viewed the control of fire as the most essential requirement for civilization’s progress. Today, Californians are faced with an embarrassing, Hephaestian question: do we control fire or does fire control us? We need to stoke up the forge, grab our hammers and anvils, and get the job done.

Hephaestus 2.0 can reclaim the potential of Paradise.

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Special Thanks to Adam Ford, LJ, BV, Steven Lauck, Zach Calhoun, and Pierre Pellissier

Hephaestus

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The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is a nonprofit techno-progressive think tank which examines how progress in science and technology can increase freedom, happiness, and human flourishing in democratic societies.

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