Christmas is nine days away and California is burning.
Not only is the fire danger high in the Southland, but earlier this week there was a blaze that got passing attention in the Oakland Hills that wiped out three homes before it was quickly contained. It was in one of the same neighborhoods destroyed in the Oakland Hills firestorm on Oct. 19-20, 1991 that killed 25 people and destroyed 3,280 single-family homes and apartments.
Some people seem aghast that this could be happening at Christmas time as if it is some new freak of nature brought about, of course, from the popular bogeyman du jour known as climate change.
Major brush fires are not uncommon at Christmas time. Just ask people who live in Australia. While it is summer there, it is winter here but marginally so. The record high on Dec. 25 for Los Angeles was 85 degrees in 1980. So you don’t think hot weather in Los Angeles is a late 20th century aberration, the record high for Jan. 1 of 84 degrees was set in 1898.
It is usual for weather to be on the hot side in LA this time of year. The destructive Santa Ana winds have also been known to blow as the calendar closes in on the first day of weather.
Long before California had 39.5 million people, massive fires that burned for months in the Great Central Valley and the Sierra were commonplace. Such was the case in 1840 when Hubert Bancroft in the book “History of California” pegged the future state’s population at 5,780 non-Indians and 9,140 Indians or just slightly less than Ripon’s current head count. Fires back then didn’t destroy many homes.
Climate change per se is not the problem nor a problem.
Nature has used climate change to mold the California landscape whether it is using repeated ice ages and subsequent retreats to carve Yosemite Valley, retreating oceans combined with the ever-so grinding down of rock to fill in the Central Valley or the rising ocean to bring the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean from 20 miles west of present-day Ocean Beach in San Francisco to where it is today.
Mankind’s growing presence may be ever so slightly moving the needle but it is nothing compared to the forces of nature.
It is why is we want to do something about reducing destructive wildfires we need to get off the global warming band wagon and deal with reality.
First, when you have urbanized areas housing and serving 39.5 million people today as opposed to 14,920 some 177 years ago on the same 163,696 square miles, you are going to have more destructive fires because there is a heck of a lot more to burn.
In 2015, there were 893,362 acres that burned in California compared to 5.2 million acres in Alaska. The destruction of manmade property in Alaska was essentially zilch while wildfires in California destroyed more than 2,000 homes and other structures that year.
Blaming global warming is a cop out as it allows us to continue to build in a manner that is anything but bright. While banning new homes in brush and tree covered canyons, rolling hills and such is not practical, how we actually build, position, and maintain landscaping is important.
When the current fires neared the Getty Museum earlier this month, a number of stories were penned on efforts made to reduce the museum’s exposure to wildfire when it was designed. It wasn’t built on the edge of a steep hill, structures weren’t nestled under a small forest of trees and a fire free zone was created with expansive lawn areas.
Take a drive in the foothills, up canyons and down the coast. You will find more than a few instances where homes are built beneath a canopy of oaks — nature’s equivalent of exploding dynamite during a fire — or have excessive debris or natural, dry growth within 30 yards of a house in lieu of either green landscaping or drought and more fire-resistant hardscape and xeriscape. Then there are the homes on the edge of fairly steep hills placed to secure commanding views. With a wildfire being fanned by natural winds and the winds a moving blaze can create, such homes are sitting ducks when fires start racing up hill.
We probably can’t un-ring the proverbial bell. But we can go forward with practices that minimize fire risks instead of maximizing them.
It is doubtful firestorms and major wildfires can be prevented to any large degree. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take steps to try and minimize them.
Those steps, however, shouldn’t include jacking up hidden taxes on gasoline or trading greenhouse credits. Call those mechanism by what they are — ways the government can generate revenue to pursue air quality objectives that in reality will have little if any impact at changing the arc of climate change that science has documented is cyclical and predates humans. And while those goals are noble, they won’t really put a brake on climate change.
We need to have less “duh” moments by minimizing the ability of wildfires to overpower development by remembering that no matter how vigilant you are, they have always been — and will always be —wildfires in California.