More People in California Lead to More Fires; More Fires Equal More Budget in Cash-Strapped State

Published on March 25th, 2011

Maria FotopoulosCalifornia may be as well know for its natural disasters from floods, mudslides, earthquakes and fires as for the natural beauty of its coasts, mountains and famous parks such as Redwood, Sequoia and Yosemite. But how “natural” are some of these natural disasters? Increasingly, wildfires are the result of human activity. In 2008, more than 5,200 wildfires in Southern California were attributed to people. For the period 2006 to 2008, the area was the only region in the country that saw a significant jump in the number of wildfires attributed to people. Most experts agree that in densely populated areas where development has encroached on parts that are known to burn, it’s not surprising there will be fires. Don Smurthwaite of the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho said that more people equal more fires. While a very small number of fires are the result of lighting strikes, an estimated 94 percent of wildland fires have human causes. Many fires are caused by careless human action – from the casually flicked cigarette to a campfire left smoldering. Last September, a wildfire in San Diego County was the result of two illegal aliens starting a signal fire after being lost for two days. Several wildfires also were begun in California’s national forests as a result of marijuana growing activities in park areas exploited by Mexican drug cartels. And some fires simply are the result of arson. Whatever the causes, results can be devastating, and expensive, up 150 percent in California in the past decade to more than $1 billion a year, according to CBS News (May 9, 2009). In inland Southern California areas most prone to fire, the latest census results show a 50 percent increase in the number of people living there in the last decade. For example, in Riverside County where high fire threat areas fall under local responsibility, the population has grown from 65,000 to 125,000 in ten years. The level of growth in this area, one University of California forestry specialist said, is larger than in the Sierra Nevada and brings serious challenges. The state, however, has fire protection responsibility for more than 31 million acres. But both state and local governments footing the bills for fire protection and other services are seriously short of budget. As California governments at all levels struggle with budget shortfalls and population growth continues, seemingly unchecked, there will continue to be tension as to who will foot the cost of providing education on reducing fire dangers, enforcing fire codes and actual firefighting.

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