With the Camp and Woolsey fires collectively killing dozens of people, destroying more than 20,000 structures and burning more than 250,000 acres in Butte County and northwest of Los Angeles, Californians may consider this historic devastation and think it’s as bad as wildfires can get. Sadly, it’s not. In 2016, scientists from Cornell University, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies released a study predicting that the U.S. Southwest has a 99 percent chance of a mega-drought lasting decades. In August, the California Natural Resources Agency issued a report based on more than 40 peer-reviewed studies that was no less gloomy, warning that the state faces decades of hotter, deadlier weather. This month’s damage could easily be eclipsed.
That is why there is an urgent need for a comprehensive local, state and federal response to the wildfire threat — one that reconsiders previous assumptions and starts from scratch in evaluating all that can be done to minimize the loss of life and property.
This has already sunk in to some degree in Sacramento, the state capital. Since 2008, the state has mandated that any structure built in very high fire-risk areas must feature specific fire-resistant designs and materials that protect against flying embers. This year, lawmakers expanded those restrictions to cover more land and funded more forest management.
But a new CALmatters report makes it clear that politicians’ focus on how homes are built misses the crucial importance of where they are built.
“Between 1990 and 2010, an estimated 45 percent of all new housing units built in California were constructed in what experts refer to as the wildland-urban interface — where the state’s cul-de-sac’d suburban subdivisions and rural communities meet its flammable forests and shrub fields,” CALmatters reported. This is an invitation to disaster. Local and state authorities need to be far more cautious about approving subdivisions in these areas. This would complicate the response to California’s housing shortage, but it is the only prudent approach.
And while President Donald Trump’s comments about “raking” forests led to ridicule, it’s true that forest management has been a neglected tool. After a severe wildfire in 2003, Deschutes County in dry eastern Oregon adopted what The New York Times called “a cohesive strategy involving public education, community outreach, landscape restoration and robust emergency response” that built off the idea that flammable material must be continuously removed and that enough space must be maintained between housing and fire-risk areas. The county subsequently enjoyed a 14-year stretch without losing a home in a wildfire.
California’s wildfire threat won’t ever be erased. But it can be greatly reduced with vigorous enforcement of smart rules, more vigilance by homeowners and the use of constantly updated best practices by local, state and federal authorities.
What Gov. Jerry Brown calls “the new abnormal” of extreme fire risks demands a commensurate response. Let that be the sad, lasting legacy of this month’s wildfire victims.
— The San Diego Union-Tribune