John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
An L.A. firefighter explains how bottle rockets are often to blame when palms catch fire.
Note: Some of these videos contain (copious) profanity.
People who live outside of California might be surprised to learn that palm trees double as great tiki torches. But it's not that strange when you think about it: They're loaded with flammable material and are basically shaped like giant candles.
Still, for folks situated right next to a flame-shooting palm, the sight probably never gets old. Captain Milton Urquilla of the Los Angeles Fire Department says he's not sure how many palms go up in smoke each year, but that in his three-decade career he's seen several of these awe-inspiring vegetal blazes. "A lot of times they start because electric wires are crossing through the fronds, and of course what happens is a lot of these trees don't get pruned so there's lots of dry vegetation that will spark a fire," he says. "And on the Fourth of July, with the illegal rockets that people use, that's another avenue for fire to spread."
Cue the above footage of a palm getting decimated during this year's Independence Day celebrations. One onlooker states, almost proudly: "Every year we set one on fire." More recently, palms have been immolated in West Los Angeles after a small plane crashed there on Friday and also on August 1 in the celeb-trafficked Fairfax District, where a scorched plant set the awning of Damiano's Mr. Pizza ablaze. That incident was initially blamed on hip-hop collective Odd Future, but actually happened because some knucklehead aimed a bottlerocket wrong:
A palm fire is pernicious, because it can spit out embers that spark outbreaks on nearby structures. The reverse scenario can also happen, with burning buildings casting sparks into dry palms with nasty consequences. You don't notice these kind of aerial blazes immediately, Urquilla says. "You get called out and you wonder, How did this start? And then you think, Oh, we had a fire a while back that probably sent a flying ember into the tree."
Battling palm fires requires a brute-force frontal assault. Firefighters will saturate the fronds with a straight stream from an inch-and-a-half line or, if it's really going, climb up a building and direct the water downward. If left unattended, though, a dying palm can light up a neighborhood for the length of an entire block party. "It'll burn for quite a few hours," says Urquilla.
Here are a few more palms that have ate it over the past few years in L.A. This tree was allegedly set on fire in a deliberate action by someone attending a show by the band Cattle Decapitation. Now that's metal:
Here's a very tall palm fire:
And near San Diego, this one was torched by lightning: