We can do more about fires
EDITORIAL California Burning
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.