Drastic action needed in California

Frank Carroll
The internet is awash in questions and ruminations about the continuing nightmare of endless California wildfires. People sense that something is fundamentally and profoundly wrong with the picture of massive flaming fronts eating miles of homes and businesses and leaving once pristine oak woodlands in ruin. The hyperbolic news reports last week of the worst fire anybody ever saw is replaced by the new worst fire anybody ever saw this week.
The Kincaide Fire is a fearsome example of the old news of terrible fires being supplanted by the new news of terrible fires, and often in the same place. We were called to California in 2017 and 2018 to assess damages on the Pocket Fire near Geyserville, Calif. The Pocket Fire burned beautiful Pocket ranch when Pacific Gas and Electric equipment failed and ignited dry brush. We surveyed the fire, calculated costs to rehabilitate the land, factored in aesthetic losses and came up with a claim for the landowner. Fast forward to today: The Kincaide Fire is burning into the Pocket Fire footprint over the same ground we walked last year.
 The tragedy of California is that the very things that once made the state one of the most desirable places in the world to live and work are now thwarting people who live there in frightening ways. In our vanity we allowed ourselves to build homes in the brush fields and dense chaparral of the coastal and interior ranges. Not content to just visit the wildlands we loved, we decided to build on remote steep ridges, in wild canyon bottoms, along beautiful river corridors, and in golden fields of wild oats three feet deep and as flammable as gasoline. We built tens of thousands of homes along two-lane highway corridors. Mindful of saving money, we erected all of our power infrastructure above ground where wind and falling trees could smash the lines into the vegetation below.
Traveling in rural California is an exercise in fear in the hot summer months and in the fall when the Santa Ana winds blow from the interior mountains toward the ocean. We scraped the ground to mineral soil where we parked our ATVs so as not to inadvertently start a fire with our catalytic converters and hot engines. We stepped carefully so that our boots wouldn’t dislodge a rock that would strike another rock and cause a spark. The air was so dry and the vegetation so drought-stricken that any fire start from any source was a disaster from the get-go. Among the best most aggressive firefighters in the world, CalFire’s people are only minutes from any fire start. They attack fires immediately with all hands in the most impressive head-long attacks…and often to no effect.
We wandered in a daze through the haunting and terrible Camp Fire ground at Paradise, Calif. The fire killed 80 people and many more died subsequently from suicide and despair. Tens of millions of board feet of heavy timber burned and was thrown to the ground to rot or be hauled away to marshaling yards to rot. In the past, local people insisted on leaving the heavy tree cover and not cutting any trees, ever, in some misguided desire to maintain a more natural environment in town. They packed in their homes, trailers, businesses, and government buildings a few feet from each other in vegetation so thick GPS would not function as there was no clear line of sight to the sky.
California is a disaster and the fire problem, from Malibu to Redding, is beyond redemption. No amount of forest management or fuel reduction will alter the fire history of that storied state, not now and maybe not ever. People are fleeing that place, much as I imagine people fled Hiroshima in the wake of the war and bomb. It is not a stretch to say that the fires burning there the past two decades are much like the atomic bomb attacks on Japan but with a slightly slower energy release. The outcome is the same. The compounding fires are merely making things worse by allowing fine fuels and weeds to grow back with a vengeance, ensuring that the fires next year will be even worse.
There are a few things we can do. Immediately stop insuring homes built in the Red Zone. Stop providing free fire protection in the form of government firefighters who are funded by everyone but only serve those few who build combustible homes in highly flammable areas. Resist and block supposedly “green initiatives” that don’t allow for clear-cutting vegetation. Aggressively reduce fuels every year, especially in key highway corridors and around cities. Cut and mow all vegetation and xeriscape 100 yards on either side of highways and arterial roads. Force PG&E to enclose their power lines either underground or in concrete pipes or culverts along roads and highways where wind cannot affect them and where power line failures are contained.
Make it so onerous to live in the wildlands and fringes of cities that we abandon those places for the safety of properly designed and constructed homes and communities that can be defended and maintained. Pass laws with draconian building codes and enforcement up to and including not attempting to protect homes and communities that do not conform. It sounds radical, but it’s really what we’re doing now by default. There is no help for California. Forcing them to rebuild, if at all, in survivable space would be a good first step for all our sakes.

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