Public Affairs & Publications
Inside CSULB
CSULB Home page
Current Issue: Calendar: Archives: Contact Us
Vol 56 No. 13 | Oct. 2004
Featured Stories
Employee Information
James Woods Portrait
Brushfire Expert Says Most Started By Humans
By Shayne Schroeder

James “Woody” Woods has studied his share of wildfires in Southern California, so he knows what he is talking about. And, while hot weather and windy conditions seem to be the most obvious reason for flare up of brushfires, he says that is not usually the cause.

“In Southern California, it is fair to say, nearly all fires are human related,” said Woods, a lecturer in geography and manager of the department's Geographic Information Systems (GIS) computer lab. “You have campfires, power lines, and a variety of equipment (chain saws, construction equipment, trains, etc.) that generate sparks. Those are all human related.”

Woods says there are really only four ways fire can be started by Mother Nature and three of them don't exist in Southern California – volcanoes, coal seams and landslides.

“We don't have any volcanoes or coal seams, and sparks generated by a landslide are extremely rare,” noted Woods. “The only thing left from Mother Nature is lightning. We don't get lightning storms like the Midwest, but in the mountains, lightning is relatively common and fires do start up there under the right weather conditions. Fire is a natural process. If humans were not on Earth, fire would still happen. The only difference is there would be nobody to put them out. But, they would burn themselves out. They would eventually run out of fuel, or fog or rain or snow would put them out.”

Woods, who received his B.A. from CSULB in 1983 and returned for his M.A. a decade later, came back to teach at the university in 2000 after working for the state Office of Emergency Services, the state agency equivalent to FEMA at the federal level.

His interest in studying fires was sparked when, while pursing his master's degree, Yellowstone National Park had approximately 2 million acres burn. He quickly realized that fires encompass many of aspects of geography.

“Fire has a social impact," said Woods. "Who is affected by this fire, from both an economic and an evacuation stand point? What resources need to be brought in to fight the fire? Fire has a spatial impact. How much area burned? Fire has an impact on the environment. Will there be flooding next winter now that the groundcover is gone? Fire has a temporal impact. When did they burn last year? What's the frequency of burns? Why do some areas burn more than others? All these aspects are elements of geography and it just seemed natural for me. I was working on my master's thesis and I was interested in the fires. It seems every year California is hit hard by fires so I decided to map out brushfires in the Santa Monica Mountains.”

“Geographers get to do a little of everything,” he said. “That's why I am a geographer because you can do a lot of things. Geologists look at earthquakes and fire departments look at fires. Geographers get to look at not only the earthquakes and fires, but also at their impact on people. Who has to be evacuated? What resources are threatened? Where are the resources being threatened? Where are people going to have to be evacuated to? There is a real social impact of fires.

“Geographers look at the larger picture,” he added. “We stand back. We don't have to deal with putting out the fire. We can take a critical look at the aftermath. We can look at what is happening in terms of the social impact of fire and its long-term consequences. We look at the factors that influence and how we can use those factors to then, for example, influence building codes. That is an aspect of geography.”

Woods' master's thesis was on using advanced computer technology, called Geographic Information Systems (referred to as GIS), for brushfire mapping, hazard and analysis. The GIS technology had its embryonic stages in the early 1960s, evolved into something more in the 1970s, and 1981 is considered by some to be the birth year of GIS, according to Woods, who noted “the improvement has been just incredible.”

“I was an undergraduate at CSULB from 1977-83, and a geography major for the last three years,” he said. “When I took cartography it was all referred to as 'slinging ink.' If you wanted to make a map, you had to draw it out using pen and ink on mylar with rulers. That was high-tech back then. Now, of course, there is computerized mapping software available.”

One area Woods focuses on is where fires burn. In the past, in order to find areas that had burned multiple times, an individual had to remap or trace the fires all onto one sheet.  

“The original maps may or may not be at the same scale or use the same base map,” said Woods, noting that was definite drawback. “Then you had to look up in a table when fires burned, how many acres they burned, how many acres where the fires overlap, etc. In a GIS environment, all of the perimeters of the brushfires are put into the computer database with real world coordinates, so now they are registered to each other and are at the same scale. Now I can let the computer overlap the fires and produce an analysis of the fire frequency.”

For example, since the computer has coordinates, it can calculate the amount of area that one fire burned in 1970 and another fire burned in 1977 and produce an analysis that shows that 25 percent of the burned areas in the two separate fires overlapped, allowing researchers to pinpoint an area that burned twice in seven years.

“Then, that raises the question, 'why did that area burn twice?'” said Woods. “Now I can not only overlap two fires, I can overlap hundreds of fires and produce new analyses that can be useful in many ways.

If we knew, for example, that 99 percent of the fires in the Santa Monica Mountains started within 15 feet of the roads, we could use this information to justify implementing a fuel management program that would require clearing vegetation 20 feet away from roads. Or it could be used to help justify new building codes regarding roofing materials.”

Brushfire Prevention

Though he doesn't claim to be an expert as to what individuals should do to protect their property/structures, as a brushfire expert James Woods does offer some suggestions.

People should keep everything trimmed back as much as possible. Individuals should keep about 200 feet of brush clearance around their homes. We are of course talking about homes that are in brushfire-prone areas. People, however, want greenery around, they want pretty things. We live in a desert. Southern California is a desert, a dry Mediterranean climate. We have a distinct rainy season. It rains three months in the spring and the rest of the nine months are dry. Then we get the Santa Ana wind conditions in October and November, and that dries things out even more and fires love it. What happens to the vegetation? It gets brown. People don't want brown around their place; they want plants that stay green or they want shade with eucalyptus or pine trees and those are very flammable, so people just need to be aware of their surroundings.   

Are homes in the Long Beach area at risk of brushfires?

Technically, no. But then again, in 1985 there was a bad wind and it blew some power lines down and caused a transformer to explode showering flaming oils onto palm trees and the shake shingle roof on an apartment complex in Anaheim, I believe. It destroyed 50 homes. People think because we have good roads, a fire hydrant in the front yard, and a fire station a block away, then we don't need to worry about fire. But yet, if conditions are right, fires will spread. But, generally speaking, Long Beach and its surrounding areas won't normally be directly affected by brushfires.

Back to top