Will wildfires threaten Southern California's theme parks?

November 12, 2019, 5:04 PM · The past few weeks have filled news reports with dramatic video and reports of wildfires burning throughout California. The flames and smoke have prompted some to declare the state 'unlivable'. With Southern California the birthplace of the global theme park industry, many readers are concerned about not just the community, but also the beloved theme parks that call it home.

A reader wrote:

Given the increase in wildfires in California, I would like to [learn] how Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott's Berry Farm, and Six Flags Magic Mountain are prepared to deal with a potential wildfire.

In particular, given Disneyland's solid place as a historical icon (some would say around the world), does Disney have water reserves? Specific plans with local and state government? While I say this in a joking manner, I could see fans from all over the world coming in to be volunteer firefighters to protect Disneyland.

So, I pose the question, what would happen if a fire were to get within "danger" distance of the beloved park?

First, all local theme parks absolutely do communicate with local authorities on a regular basis and have contingency plans in place for just about everything, including fires.

"The safety and security of our guests and employees is of utmost importance," a Universal Studios Hollywood spokesperson replied when I asked the reader's question. "We work closely with law enforcement and the fire department, including Fire Station 51 located on property, and have processes and procedures in place to address a variety of emergency situations."

The Barham Fire last weekend burned several dozen acres across the street from Universal Studios Hollywood. But neither Universal nor the neighboring Warner Bros. lot were endangered by the fire, which resulted in no injuries, no property damage, and no mandatory evacuations, thanks in part to swift response from local agencies.

A brush fire earlier this year forced an early close at Six Flags Magic Mountain, when flames came within sight of its parking lot. But no park property suffered any damage in that blaze, which, again, local agencies extinguished.

Many theme parks might also remember the Canyon Fire from 2017, which darkened skies over the Disneyland Resort.

Canyon Fire at Disneyland

Again, no property at Disneyland was damaged by the fire, though the smoke-filled sky made for some dramatic photos.

To understand the risk that local theme parks face from wildfire, it's helpful to know more about the size and topography of the Greater Los Angeles metropolitan area.

First, it's huge. Really, really huge. I'm talking 100 miles from end to end. That means that a fire engulfing a community in one part of the region might not be noticeable elsewhere in the area. For example, on the day when the Getty Fire was burning at its worst on the westside of LA, here was my view in Pasadena.

Pasadena

No flames. No smoke. No sign that there was a fire anywhere in LA... unless you turned on the news. But those news reports prompted many friends around the country to message us to ask if we were okay. While I am grateful for my friends' concern, and I share that concern for those affected by the fire... I wasn't one of those people affected. It seemed a bit weird to me that people were reaching out to me about a fire that I couldn't see or smell. But that just reminded me that many people don't know how big, and widespread, the LA area actually is.

Also, most of the LA population lives in valleys. The nature of wildfire is that they almost always start in brush or wooded areas in the mountains or on hillsides. When you see video of neighborhoods consumed by wildfire flames, they are typically in the foothills adjacent to such areas.

Developed valley floors just don't have the deadwood fuel to enable wildfires to spread like they do through the more natural mountains and foothills. Plus, all those streets and water systems mean easy access for firefighters to defend valley communities. Given their location miles from any hillsides, there's almost no risk that wildfire flames ever would come anywhere near enough to Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm to damage to those parks.

That doesn't mean that wildfires cannot affect them, though. Smoke travels much farther than flames, so as we saw in the Canyon Fire, a wildfire can make a visit even to Disneyland or Knott's unpleasant, if not dangerous, due to unhealthy air quality.

Fires also can close highways through affected mountain passes, snarling traffic throughout the area. So even if a park is unaffected by a fire, there might not be any good way to get to it from where you are in Southern California, if the freeways you'd use to get there are closed.

And of course, wildfires are not the only type of fire. As long-time theme park fans might remember, a construction fire devastated Universal Studios Hollywood's backlot in 2008, destroying the old Kongfrontation attraction as well as the Courthouse Square sets.

But from wildfire, Southern California's theme parks are generally safe. There's no need to plan to join the fire brigade to save Disneyland. (In fact, you really ought to leave that job to the pros and trained volunteers, no matter where you live.)

Every destination has its unique local risks. From hurricanes in Florida to tornadoes in the Midwest to wildfires and earthquakes in California, no location on Earth is safe from natural disasters. But such disasters happen rarely. While it's always smart to get informed and be prepared, I think it's foolish to hunker down in fear and refuse to travel. So don't let a fear of wildfires keep you from planning a California theme park visit.

Replies (9)

November 12, 2019 at 5:20 PM

*Shrugs* I don't want to downplay it, but being born in Australia the Fire-Flood-Drought cycle is just what I'm used to. These are managable risks, and dare I say it, the big dry brown country down south probably has it a bit worse, particularly right now. The idea that California is unlivable... it makes me chuckle actually.

I was in Canberra during the big fire there, and yeah, it is scary seeing day turn to night with smoke, and yeah, it can do a lot of damage. But on the whole, I think Mr Niles has it right.

November 12, 2019 at 11:00 PM

We flew into LA a couple of weeks ago and could see a couple of fires burning from the plane, but as pointed out it was tiny compared to the utter vastness of LA. We are doing a tour (up to vegas and currently in Palm Springs) and it took us 2 hours just to get out of the LA wider metropolitan area, it is so vast.

We are due to arrive at disneyland on sunday for 3 days.

What has surprised us most is how hot, dry and sunny the weather is in November - we haven’t seen a cloud in two weeks and day temps in the 80s and 90s, is this normal for November?

November 12, 2019 at 11:00 PM

We flew into LA a couple of weeks ago and could see a couple of fires burning from the plane, but as pointed out it was tiny compared to the utter vastness of LA. We are doing a tour (up to vegas and currently in Palm Springs) and it took us 2 hours just to get out of the LA wider metropolitan area, it is so vast.

We are due to arrive at disneyland on sunday for 3 days.

What has surprised us most is how hot, dry and sunny the weather is in November - we haven’t seen a cloud in two weeks and day temps in the 80s and 90s, is this normal for November?

November 12, 2019 at 11:00 PM

We flew into LA a couple of weeks ago and could see a couple of fires burning from the plane, but as pointed out it was tiny compared to the utter vastness of LA. We are doing a tour (up to vegas and currently in Palm Springs) and it took us 2 hours just to get out of the LA wider metropolitan area, it is so vast.

We are due to arrive at disneyland on sunday for 3 days.

What has surprised us most is how hot, dry and sunny the weather is in November - we haven’t seen a cloud in two weeks and day temps in the 80s and 90s, is this normal for November?

November 12, 2019 at 11:00 PM

We flew into LA a couple of weeks ago and could see a couple of fires burning from the plane, but as pointed out it was tiny compared to the utter vastness of LA. We are doing a tour (up to vegas and currently in Palm Springs) and it took us 2 hours just to get out of the LA wider metropolitan area, it is so vast.

We are due to arrive at disneyland on sunday for 3 days.

What has surprised us most is how hot, dry and sunny the weather is in November - we haven’t seen a cloud in two weeks and day temps in the 80s and 90s, is this normal for November?

November 12, 2019 at 11:00 PM

We flew into LA a couple of weeks ago and could see a couple of fires burning from the plane, but as pointed out it was tiny compared to the utter vastness of LA. We are doing a tour (up to vegas and currently in Palm Springs) and it took us 2 hours just to get out of the LA wider metropolitan area, it is so vast.

We are due to arrive at disneyland on sunday for 3 days.

What has surprised us most is how hot, dry and sunny the weather is in November - we haven’t seen a cloud in two weeks and day temps in the 80s and 90s, is this normal for November?

November 12, 2019 at 11:00 PM

We flew into LA a couple of weeks ago and could see a couple of fires burning from the plane, but as pointed out it was tiny compared to the utter vastness of LA. We are doing a tour (up to vegas and currently in Palm Springs) and it took us 2 hours just to get out of the LA wider metropolitan area, it is so vast.

We are due to arrive at disneyland on sunday for 3 days.

What has surprised us most is how hot, dry and sunny the weather is in November - we haven’t seen a cloud in two weeks and day temps in the 80s and 90s, is this normal for November?

November 13, 2019 at 1:01 PM

December can get a bit cold. But. Yes It is pretty normal for November. That is why real estate values are so high in the LA and San Fran region despite our dysfunctional lawmakers taxing and spending us to death.

November 13, 2019 at 1:01 PM

December can get a bit cold. But. Yes It is pretty normal for November. That is why real estate values are so high in the LA and San Fran region despite our dysfunctional lawmakers taxing and spending us to death.

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