A wildfire is like a horrible, living beast. Its appetite all-consuming, its tentacles deadly, its speed deceptive, its breath terrifying and poisonous. So very, very dangerous.
One of the worst fires in California history metamorphosed from a forest fire into an urban inferno this weekend, ending 17 lives, destroying some 1,500 homes and doing billions of dollars in damage in Santa Rosa. It was just one of 17 major fires across California – from San Diego to San Luis Obispo to Grass Valley to Oroville.
The Santa Rosa fire was horrifying in its scope and intensity, rivaling the Oakland Hills fires of 1991 that killed 25 people, consumed 2,840 houses, 425 apartments all in just 1,500 acres. It was one of the costliest fires to that date at $1.5 billion; the fires raging across Sonoma County will far surpass that. The value of 1,500 homes alone tops $2 billion. Worse, according to property analysis firm CoreLogic, many more houses in wine country are at risk – some $65 billion worth. Other predict dire consequences to the region’s $34 billion wine industry.
Add it up, and we’re in the same ballpark as damages from hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
Reading of those who lost everything, we are heartbroken. At the same time, we know California wildfires strike every year; some are much larger, like the 2013’s Rim Fire which consumed 254,000 acres.
But there’s a sense it’s getting worse. Just as this year’s hurricanes were more fierce than predecessors, this summer’s heat wave more extreme, our recent drought deeper. Everything about our climate is intensifying. Catastrophe doesn’t strike every year, but it comes more frequently and with more intensity – which is what scientists like those at the California Climate Change Center have been predicting for decades.
Why is this happening?
Some still choose not to look for answers, preferring to bury their heads in the baloney spewed by those who think climate change is a liberal hoax. But even the most hard-core non-believers no longer deny the climate is changing; they just don’t want to accept any responsibility.
They’re not alone. You drive a Yukon? You like grilling steaks over charcoal? Cutting your grass with a gas mower? All contribute to the problem. Few of us are blameless, though some are trying harder than others to do something about it.
It’s not just the way we live, but where we live. Headwaters Economics has studied western wildfires and their scientists warn us that this is not a “forest” problem. As we saw in Santa Rosa, it’s also an urban problem – and we’ve got to be better prepared for it.
Leave it to the Trump administration to make that more difficult. He’s proposing cuts to some of the agencies most engaged in fighting wildfires – like 21 percent less for the Department of Agriculture, which includes the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service has already spent $2 billion fighting fires this year – the most ever. Trump wants to cut 12 percent out of the Department of the Interior, which also helps put out fires.
Even worse is the 23 percent cut he’s proposed for volunteer fire departments, largely in rural areas like ours.
As Headwaters points out, it is the “wildland-urban interface” that will see most pressure in coming years. That’s where volunteer fire departments operate; it’s where many cities are expanding.
We need better tools – like planning that includes assessments of fire danger to houses built in those urban-wildland interfaces – to combat wildfires. If we don’t get them, this insatiable beast will only get larger, more ferocious and more deadly.