We can do more about fires

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FROM THE COVER -

Cal­i­for­nia’s fire records are be­gin­ning to mir­ror global cli­mate records in that most of them have been set re­cently. The past two years have seen the state’s most de­struc­tive wild­fire, five of its 20 dead­li­est fires, and its largest — twice. The con­fla­gra­tions now clear­ing whole towns around Chico and Los An­ge­les, and the vast smoke plume dark­en­ing Bay Area skies more than 150 miles from the burn­ing Sierra Ne­vada foothills, af­firm that a new cli­mate has brought a new kind of West­ern wild­fire: faster, more fright­en­ing and more likely to oc­cur through­out the year, mak­ing the term “fire sea­son” in­creas­ingly quaint.

None of that means Cal­i­for­ni­ans have to throw up our hands or re­sort to wring­ing them while we wait for Wash­ing­ton to join Sacra­mento in tak­ing cli­mate change se­ri­ously and hope hu­man­ity can one day tem­per ris­ing tem­per­a­tures. Rather than ab­solve us of re­spon­si­bil­ity for the grow­ing hu­man and ma­te­rial dev­as­ta­tion of wild­fires — what might be called the PG&E Pos­tu­late — global warm­ing should spur more ur­gent ef­forts to mit­i­gate the dan­ger with poli­cies that make sense in any weather.

Like the other dev­as­tat­ing blazes of re­cent years, the Camp Fire in Butte County and the con­cur­rent fires in Ven­tura and Los An­ge­les coun­ties burned through the in­creas­ingly blurry line be­tween wilder­ness and civ­i­liza­tion — what schol­ars call the wild­land-ur­ban in­ter­face. Start­ing in the Feather River Canyon within the Plumas Na­tional For­est, the Camp Fire was whipped by high winds through the town of Par­adise and to the out­skirts of Chico, forc­ing tens of thou­sands to flee and killing at least five trapped in their ve­hi­cles.

Chico’s pop­u­la­tion has grown by half since 2000, from about 60,000 to more than 90,000, and even Par­adise, a small, slow-grow­ing re­tire­ment com­mu­nity, recorded a boom­let that out­paced statewide growth last year. This is in keep­ing with state and na­tional trends push­ing hous­ing and pop­u­la­tion into the ex­urbs and onto the edges of for­est and scrub. In the con­text of fires fanned by a hot­ter, drier cli­mate, that puts more peo­ple in harm’s way. It also puts more peo­ple in a po­si­tion to start wild­fires, which, par­tic­u­larly in Cal­i­for­nia, is how the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of wild­fires start.

Dense, tran­sit-friendly, ur­ban and sub­ur­ban devel­op­ment that ben­e­fits the hous­ing sup­ply and cli­mate there­fore di­min­ishes the risks of wild­fires, too. And the state’s cur­rent short­age thereof makes fires more deadly and de­struc­tive. The Leg­is­la­ture has taken steps to over­come met­ro­pol­i­tan re­sis­tance to smart growth but has a long way to go.

For­est over­growth, an age-old prob­lem through­out the West, also takes on added sig­nif­i­cance. While they were dis­tracted by a back-and­forth over ab­solv­ing PG&E of its role in re­cent fires, law­mak­ers be­gan to tackle that is­sue. The cur­rent fires are also re­veal­ing per­sis­tent de­fi­cien­cies in emer­gency alert and evac­u­a­tion pro­ce­dures, which be­come more im­por­tant when blazes can burn through pop­u­lous areas be­fore fire­fieghters have any chance of con­tain­ing them.

Amid the dev­as­ta­tion of wild­fires, our ca­pac­ity to head off more such dis­as­ters can of­fer a mea­sure of com­fort and hope.

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