By Joe Guzzardi
October 15, 2017
California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), which oversees the state’s 31 million acres of privately owned wildlands, said the raging and ongoing wildfires rank among the worst in the state’s history.
With weather forecasts calling for higher temperatures, lower humidity and gusting winds, conditions are ideal for more death and destruction. More than 300 square miles have burned in Northern California, and about 6,000 buildings have been destroyed, as 11,000 firefighters have battled flames. As of Sunday, the confirmed death toll stood at 40, but with hundreds missing, the total could go higher. The fatalities represent the most lost lives since 29 perished in the 1933 Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles.
Wineries, homes and other structures in picturesque Napa and Sonoma Counties have burned. Reuters reported that victims needing medical attention face long delays. At least 40 Sonoma County physicians lost their homes in the fires, and medical assistance crews are shorthanded. Containment is not expected soon.
Economists estimate that before the final fire is extinguished, California’s economy could suffer as much as $100 billion in losses. In turn, the losses will adversely affect California’s bond ratings which means higher interest payments on the state’s debt, and a possible state tax increase to offset lost revenue.
To Californians, devastating wildfires, related deaths and land loss are sadly familiar. Since 2001 when the National Interagency Fire Center began keeping precise records, and through 2016, more than 8,000 fires have raged, and burned through an estimated ten million acres.
But lessons that California’s leaders should have learned from past disasters haven’t sunk in. Wildfires are difficult to control, but slower growth could minimize the inevitable destruction.
California’s exploding population has created an insatiable housing demand. The state is now home to nearly 40 million residents, and demographers anticipate more than 50 million by 2050.
That demand has spawned what’s called “Wild-Land Urban Interface” or inter-mix, low density housing built on hillsides amidst highly flammable vegetation. In his interview with The Washington Post, Jonathan Cox, battalion chief with Cal Fire, labeled increasingly popular inter-mix construction a “recipe for disaster.”
Cox explained that areas in California that 20 years ago would have been undeveloped are today inter-mix communities. The vast inter-mix square acreage plus the frequency and intensity of fires turn homes into tinderboxes, and makes access for rescue crews difficult.
Fire codes require inter-mix housing to have fire-resistant roofs, noncombustible siding and 100 feet of clearance between vegetation and structures. Still, Cox said, fighting tactics for vegetation and for structure fires are fundamentally different. The challenge becomes greater when fires are on slopes and hills.
Governor Jerry Brown, U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris toured the disaster areas last weekend, and promised to find the victims more federal funding. But California remains 100 percent committed to more growth, and to more building to accommodate growth.
Earlier this month, Brown signed 15 bills that will accelerate development. While the legislation is designed to ease the affordable housing shortage and not necessarily written for inter-mix construction, some of the bills eliminate public hearings and environmental impact studies.
Wherever open spaces can be found, Sacramento wants edifices.
To Brown, et al: Slow down! Direct more attention to family planning. Use your considerable leverage as the most influential politicians in the largest U.S. state to lower immigration which, by definition, slows population growth.
Overdeveloped California needs governance that recognizes its density crisis, and legislates accordingly.