Historic California Wildfires Ignite Blame Game

Source: Multi Briefs by Michelle R. Matisons

Image credit: The Associated Press

You already know there are some serious wildfires burning in California and the west. So what’s new?

What’s new is that the Mendocino Complex fire is now the largest in California history. This fire is so large that one astronaut on the International Space Station — 250 miles above Earth — tweeted a photo of the infernos as seen from space.

Consisting of two fires — Ranch and River — burning around Clear Lake, over 290,692 acres have already been destroyed and 11,300 structures are threatened. In Shasta County, the Carr fire has burned around 167,000 acres. During peak tourism, parts of Yosemite National Park have been closed down due to the Ferguson Fire which covers 91,000 acres.

The Carr fire has been the most deadly; seven people have died in the blazes, while people returning to their homes there are finding “empty lots piled with ash and debris.”

The really bad news is that fires are expected to burn the rest of August as high temperatures further fan the flames.

This is only the middle of the fire season. As the fire season progresses, “the land becomes increasingly dry and weather patterns create windy conditions.”

This is not good news for the 14,000 firefighters, including prisoners trained to do the job, who are on the ground there. Additional help has arrived from Australia and New Zealand.

Of course, acrimony spreads along with deadly blazes, and this includes the White House. As pressure was placed on President Trump to declare the area a federally recognized disaster, Trump tweeted that California’s own environmental laws cause the situation.

Trump blamed California’s bad water management; he stated that California has “foolishly diverted water into the Pacific Ocean.” This is water that could ostensibly be used to put out fires.

In this war of words, California officials fought back. “We have plenty of water to fight these wildfires, but let’s be clear: It’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires.” These are the fighting words of Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency.

Other people who study the housing construction industry blame factors besides water laws.

New home construction in fire-prone areas exacerbates burning conditions, argues a reporter at The Mercury News. This criticism of home construction is not new, but it has more weight as we witness this current fire fallout occur before our eyes.

Villanova University’s Stephen M. Strader studies population growth in high-risk areas. Naturally, he has much to say about California. The Natural Hazards journal published Strader’s recent study that finds “a 1,000 percent increase in the number of western U.S. homes at risk from wildfire over the past 50 years — from about 607,000 in 1940 to 6.7 million in 2010.”

There’s notable population growth in the northern stretch of the Sacramento Valley known as the Sierra Foothills, and Mendocino and Lake Counties, near Clear Lake — the place where the River fire is now burning.

California is unique for its wild-urban interface: a combination of homes and wildlands that is home to one-third of Californians. One way that this interface encourages fire is that the old forest management technique of controlled burns is not an option when there are homes around.

Also, people-initiated events like car problems and downed power lines are now setting off these historic blazes, in contrast to the previously more common natural event of lightning starting wildfires.

Once a blaze starts, it helps that firefighters can reach it easily, using readily available curbside hydrants and trained teams. The new rural subdivisions, that promise so much natural wonder and open space, also promise to be extremely flammable.

“Tomorrow’s tinderboxes” is the right word for these risky, short-sighted subdivisions.

What further complicates matters is that until people are personally impacted by fire, they may not see the problem with buying a lovely, affordable and larger house outside city limits.

While changing homebuyers’ expectations is a noble longer term goal, the short term remains focused on containment, then damage assessment and recovery.