California Governor Jerry Brown is quoted as responding that "forest management is only one element of preventing forest fires. Managing all the forests in every way we can does not stop climate change and those who deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedies that we are now witnessing and will continue to witness."
Both make good points. Scientists and observers all agree that the climate has been warmer and drier in California, rendering the state susceptible to fires that seem more easy to ignite, are more widespread, and more difficult to put out. They also agree that forest management is an issue. The same article (and photo source) concludes with:
It's relentless, says Malcolm North, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service."In much of California we're getting to a pretty much year-round fire season as in the past it used to be limited to five or six months out of the year," says North.
Dry weather and strong winds also mean that what would have been small fires in the past are now monster fires that both damage trees and climb up into the canopy and kill whole forests, says North. This is due in part to the fact that forest managers have spent the last century putting out every fire they could, even small, natural fires, he says, and the forests have became choked with too much overgrowth, making them ready to burn.
Additionally, North says hurdles such as steep slopes, protected wildlife and complaints from homeowners about smoke limit how much federal and state mangers can thin or do controlled burns in forests. "Literally probably 80 to 90 percent of these dry, mid-elevation forests are chock-full of fuels that really drives high intensity fire," he says.
Reports today note that more than 600 persons are still missing in due to the fires in California. This is a staggering figure, though it's hoped that the list includes many evacuees who don't even know they're reported as missing.
Whether climate change, carelessness, or poor forest management, or the likely combination of these and other contributors to the problem, the President points out the obvious. The only things on the list we can truly control are development and forest management. For a variety of reasons, including political and public outcry, forests aren't managed in a way that preserves the balance inherent in nature. For many of the same reasons, counties and municipalities are equally unable to restrict (or physically guide) development in and around forested areas. The demand for space and the voices of land owners too often drown out the calm voices of common sense.
In a Forbes article earlier this year, former California Assembly member Chuck DeVore outlines the political and literal ties between climate change, the decline of the timber industry, and forest management policy. He concludes that, "whether global climate change is a problem that can be solved by California is a dubious proposition—one year’s worth of emission growth in China is greater than California’s total emissions. But the action needed to reduce the state’s growing forest fire threat would be the same regardless of one’s belief in any problems posed by climate change: start managing our forests again."
The Voice of Reason?
But one of the most obvious and, frankly, common-sense statements I've heard from anyone regarding the actions that can reasonably be taken to reduce the loss of life and destruction of property from wildfires in California is from this Bloomberg piece of two days ago. Simply:
"Stop building homes in places that are likely to burn -- and make homes that already exist in those areas a whole lot tougher... Anything less won't make enough of a difference."
The article continues:
The article says that there’s a precedent for retroactive enforcement in the application of the seismic code for Los Angeles in 2015, when those more stringent codes required the most vulnerable properties to be rehabilitated to meet the new code.
It's location, location and location--or is it money?
The article state the obvious on the minds of anyone outside watching this drama unfold. "A more draconian measure would be to make it harder for developers to build subdivisions in risky areas in the first place." Michele Steinberg, wildfire division director for the National Fire Protection Association, said the growing severity of the wildfire problem and its aftermath are "making a lot of (residents) question,
'Why the heck did you all build there? This is just a bad land-use decision. Now you’re reaping the trouble.'"
Then she added that "stopping people from building where they want to build can run counter to American values. Our country’s big value is owning your own land, owning your property. Anything that appears to threaten that is really not met with happiness and open arms.”
If California won’t stop building at the edge of the wilderness, it should at least apply the same strict standards of firefighting that cities adopted decades ago, according to Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a consulting group in Montana that advises governments on wildfire risks. That means significant new spending on water infrastructure and municipal employees, as well as a willingness to enforce tougher rules.
“You would have fire hydrants. You would have full-time firefighters in your neighborhood. You would require sprinklers," Rasker said. “And you’d have a fire department inspect your building and your property once a year, with strict penalties if you don’t comply.”
The reason that many towns at the edge of the forest don’t apply those standards is cost, he said. But as climate change gets worse, that calculus becomes more shortsighted.
“Human lives are invaluable,” Rasker said. “Yeah, cost matters. But the cost of not doing the right thing is tragedy.