Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Red October- the new normal in California?

Once again wildland fires are raging in California. While Public Safety Personnel struggle to contain and fight the menace, those affected by the disasters are asking questions.

Why do these terrible conflagrations continue to occur every year? Why do the fires seem to get bigger and cause more destruction?

Why can't we stop them?

To understand the cycle we have to go back decades. In my lifetime, environmental policies have changed and must take a big part of the blame. For example, in the sixties and seventies, when my husband was growing up in the Bay Area, folks would clear out overgrowth, trim tree, clear out dead trees, and generally maintain fire breaks on their property. Those who didn't were cited by local fire departments.

In our forests, logging companies had contracts to remove dead trees. During the process of cutting down trees, thick underbrush was thinned out. Concerns about clear-cutting led to responsible logging policies.

Did wildfires happen? Yes but generally the fires were not as bad although there were exceptions.

Environmentalists like Rachel Carson led the way to reform in the early 1960's. Eventually, fire departments were forced to change how they managed lands in the jurisdictions. Some Bay Area counties reversed how land management polices. Now, residents were cited for clearing growth, trimming trees, etc.! Changing the "natural" landscape was upsetting the balance. Never mind that it increased fire danger! The politicians are to blame for the legislation changing how the land is managed. "Green Policies" have tied the hands of those who would fix antiquated issues, including the utilities companies. They are mandated by law to spend money on green power that could have been spent clearing brush and upgrading lines.

Now, let's add another factor: the firefighting methods. Despite newer ways of battling fires, wildland fire management has not evolved at all. Ground crews still fight fires using the same methods developed in the 20th century. The planes and helicopters drop red clay and water instead of newer gel.

There is a third factor: the human one. Housing communities are placed in areas where access is  questionable at best. We've all been to those neighborhoods to visit friends or family. The two roads in the twisty "exclusive" areas. Narrow roads on hills. Non-native landscaping, grown too close to houses without mandatory firebreaks. Wood homes, wood-shake rooftops, and no suppression systems. No requirement to keep trees clear of power lines (isn't that the responsibility of the power company?) - and if you do it on your own, a risk of being cited by the HOA for "spoiling the view". Honestly, I can see insurance companies requiring new homes to be built of stucco with metal rooftops.

Finally, there is a Public Safety personnel aspect. Let us be honest here. Fighting fires is big business. Prior to October, I heard grumbling from those in the profession because there had not been any"big" fires, which meant no overtime. Over the years, the rumor mill has whispered about not rushing to put out fires. Of course, folks don't hesitate to protect life. This goes along with the gradual change from the handling of structural fires. Most of us have the classic image of a firefighter putting out a single family house fire from inside a building (interior attack) yet the reality is now more fires are handled from outside (exterior attack). Why place personnel at risk unless people need to be rescued? Again, different structures require different methods. An apartment building may need an interior attack. A strip mall may be fought from outside. It all depends upon what is inside the building and what is adjoining. More departments are going with safety. Honestly, can you blame them?

Will these fires continue?

Absolutely. Until the Department of the Interior, along the EPA, various Fire Associations, and the individual States get together and decide to make some major changes in land management policies, these wildland fires will happen every year. Construction permits should require a minimal firebreak between homes, better fire-proof standards, and improved services BEFORE the "future site" sign is placed in the ground.

Stay safe out there.

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