Saturday, December 15, 2007

Firestorm! Thoughts on the Recent Brushfires in California


Let’s mourn the loss of life and property, but let’s not deceive ourselves about the real cause of the destruction in southern California

By Tyler Berding

2007 will set yet another record for California acres consumed by fire. As I write this, after a week of massive destruction, firefighters in southern California are finally achieving some level of control over what will may be the most costly fire in California history, perhaps with 1906 excepted. Nevertheless, massive wildfire destruction is becoming a regular occurrence in this state and certainly has earned enough ink and video footage to put it right up there with other major disasters around the country. Over a thousand homes and several lives have been lost this past week, and by any measure you would care to use, it qualifies as a tragedy of epic proportions. Let’s mourn the loss of life and property, but let’s not deceive ourselves as to the real cause of this destruction.

Whatever loss is tallied in this particular fire, it will be due, not to global warming, criminal acts, or any lack of preparedness by state government to fight the fire, but rather to a callous lack of control over the unbridled development of California wild lands. This is not an environmental piece decrying the loss of habitat for various species or open space, although those are certainly consequences as well. This is an appeal for the primacy of common sense over the pressures of development profit.

California has been burning for thousands of years. Grasslands and chaparral burn. That’s a fact. Whether by lightning, a careless campfire, or an intentional match, the wild lands of California burn frequently and that’s what usually prevents the magnitude of fire damage that we are beginning to see. When wild lands burn periodically, the underbrush, which serves to spread fire, is burned off quickly and the larger trees remain. When we suppress this natural occurrence, we simply build up kindling for a much larger fire. When we build homes in this natural undergrowth, we demand fire suppression, and that’s exactly what we get—more kindling for a much bigger future fire like the one we’ve just seen and this time the homes burn too. It’s a vicious cycle for sure, because just as we protect these homes by suppressing small local brush fires, we are setting the stage for hugely destructive firestorms.

We cannot have it both ways. Life in the suburbs may be appealing, but the cost of massive fire suppression efforts to protect outlying areas is born by everyone in the state, not just the homeowners and insurance companies who pay for the loss. And for what? So more developers can build more homes on more marginal land way outside of established cities which in turn require more water, freeways, and firefighting readiness to protect and service them? Also the cost of service is way out of proportion to the number of homeowners serviced. There is no economy of scale in rural development. Cities, where population is concentrated, can offer necessary services at much less per resident than in sparsely populated areas.

But you don’t need an economic argument when common sense will do. When we see that the towns that are burning were not even on a map thirty years ago, we have to believe that responsibility for this destruction lies with the city and county planners who allowed this massive wild land development to happen in the first place. Preventing development in fire prone regions of the state would seem to be a logical way to avoid fire tragedy in the future. But self-restraint is hard to come by when developers can make huge profits from building homes in new areas. But restraint is exactly what we need. If the county planners are too easily persuaded, then perhaps the state needs to get involved when it comes to approving development in certain fire-prone regions. In any case, we need to worry less about why wild lands burn and focus more on keeping homes out of harm’s way.

No comments:

Post a Comment