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Is breathing in 246 square miles of burning wildlands making you turn pro face mask?
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

It feels as if we’re living on the set of “Riddick.”

Except while the 2013 science fiction action film had Vin Diesel dumped on a sun-scorched planet with eerie reddish-yellow skies in the last movie of the “Riddick” trilogy he didn’t have to inhale smoke and eat soot.

This will be our reality for at least a week if not longer.

That’s because as of Thursday at 9 p.m. the fire complex that turned the skies over the Northern San Joaquin Valley into a remake of a 1965 Stage 2 smog alert in Los Angeles is only 5 percent contained.

It is clear that the call has been made to let it basically burn given it isn’t a high priority. That is a reasonable call given 11,000 lightning strikes early Sunday morning across Northern California sparked 357 wildfires. Who needs lax California Public Utilities Commission oversight of for-profit utilities that neglect aging infrastructure when you’ve got a pro like Mother Nature lighting up the state?

The reason why the Santa Clara Unit Lightning Complex Fire — the largest fire burning currently in California having scorched 157,475 acres or 246 square miles that is the equivalent of 5¼ times the land mass of the City of San Francisco — is pretty obvious.

Firefighting crews under the mutual aid system are stretched to thread-bare thinness. They need to concentrate resources at protecting areas with people and property. At the same time other western states that often send help to California during its fire season have an unusually high number of wildfires to deal with as well.

The Diablo Range, where the 20 fires that started Sunday with the biggest originating from Del Puerto Canyon is burning, is one of the least populated areas in the state and lacks heavy forested areas that can cause a wildfire to rage as if it were on steroids.

The fires can continue burning southerly all the way to Pacheco Pass and beyond without threatening more than a couple dozen of homes. The fuel is dry grassland, shrubs such as manzanita, and lots of oak trees from scrub oaks to blue oaks. And while it is a shame to see it burn, nature hasn’t torched the area on such a large scale for well over a century. Fire renews sparse woodlands just as it does forests.

But the real problem is they are also burning east toward San Jose. That means resources that are available to prevent a repeat of the October 2017 Tubbs Fire where 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock — 2,800 homes — went up in flames.

That means the fires on this side of the ridgeline will likely be allowed to burn with relatively little effort to stop them for a long time. It will result in plenty of smoke in the valley.

Up until Wednesday, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District termed the air quality as only moderately bad.

They are not joking. This is all-natural smoke. Compare that to the toxic mess when all of the plastic, metals, chemicals and such from 16,000 homes, 5,000 other structures like stores and schools, thousands of cars, and countless other manmade objects plus 85 people burned in November 2018 in a Butte County fire PG&E admitted its equipment caused. That fire caused air quality to be termed “bad” in the San Joaquin Valley hundreds of miles away.

The world isn’t coming to end; although one’s opinion could change should locust suddenly swarm the state to add to the long list of already declared emergencies from the COVID-19 pandemic, heat wave and rolling blackouts to wildfires.

California has been programmed by nature to have floods, droughts, wildfires and — dare we add — earthquakes as part of a routine cycle of life.

It is highly doubtful that any flood, drought or wildfire to touch this section of the world since man began in earnest to try and tame it starting back in 1849 is anywhere near being as devastating as those that occurred before the Gold Rush when an estimated 160,000 people populated the entire area we call California where 40 million people reside today.

Early settlers of the Great Central Valley in 1862 survived a massive flood that covered much of its 450-mile length that widens as much as 60 miles in places. It was caused by the same conditions that led to the 1997 floods that inundated the valley. There was a heavy early December snowpack followed by unseasonal rain and warm weather. That melted the snowpack quickly. There were no dams or levees to contain the runoff.

Explorers like John C. Fremont and trappers such as those with the Hudson Bay Company that established its southernmost outpost in French Camp wrote about massive fires in the Central Valley that burned for months. They eventually stopped burning when the rains returned.

Man, of course, has made it worse. But that’s only for man and not nature. We are the ones that have set up more droughts, floods and wildfires than nature intended because we have re-engineered nature’s water system to allow significant urbanization in areas not designed by nature to accommodate as many people as they do today.

Closing the proverbial door on the barn after the horses have gotten loose isn’t going to reverse the trend but it can stop it from getting progressively worse.

We really need to have a serious conversation about stopping development in high-prone fire areas, whether it is heavy urbanization or building homes tucked under oaks or pines on a string of 5-acre parcels accessed only by narrow roads in canyons.

Even if we somehow managed to eliminate all wildfires caused by the actions of man, we have no control over nature lighting up the terrain even though we think we can engineer our way out of any situation.

The problem is everything man creates has a limited life span whether its massive dams, levees, freeways or buildings.

The same is true of mountains.

The big difference is it takes millions of years to ground down mountains using water and ice.

We may think we are king of at least the earth.

If you believe such a foolish thought just step outdoors and let your eyes and nose soak in what just took a matter of minutes for nature to put in motion and she didn’t need Ben Franklin to help her invent the way to don it.

And if you’re among those that argue against the advantage of wearing a face mask, a couple days of breathing in soot might change your mind.