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Newsom nailed it: Ingredients exist for repeat of the 1991 Oakland Hills inferno
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

I took advantage of moist ground Sunday to spend close to an hour pulling weeds in my front yard.

I prefer old-fashioned weed pulling when possible as it allows me to get the roots and all. In other areas where I can’t pull the roots out, I’ll use a weed eater in the next few weeks and employ Round-Up although I won’t use it so carelessly and in such large amounts that I might be able to finagle a jury to award me $37 million.

The section of yard I worked yielded enough weeds to fill two large green carts. Typically, I could stuff the weeds generated over the rainy season from the area I attacked Sunday into one of the carts.

This is why Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation forest director Douglas Bevington needs to get away from his West Hollywood office more often before slamming Gov. Gavin Newsom for declaring a statewide emergency suspending the California Environmental Quality Act to expedite 35 wildfire prevention projections.

Based on weed growth in my own yard and vegetation growth I’ve seen hiking in the East Bay hills — one of the 35 areas the emergency order applies — Newsom is absolutely correct that the extended rains have created a fuel load for hellish wildfires. 

Now DiCaprio is a richer man than I am and could easily be brighter but he has no room to lecture the rest of us even indirectly through his foundation that somehow the governor’s actions is rolling back environmental protections for communities. This is especially true when my greenhouse footprint and personal consumption is downright Lilliputian compared to DiCaprio’s footprint that in comparison is akin to Godzilla on a stroll through Tokyo.

The people I know who live in the Oakland Hills can’t summon a helicopter to take them to a private jet to whisk them off to one of their other homes if the house they are in is in the path of a wildfire. A repeat of the 1991 firestorm started by a grass fire that destroyed 2,843 homes and 431 apartments could take everything they own, not to mention their lives. The 1991 fire that swooped down from the fuel laden hills without firebreaks to slow its progress killed 25 people.

And if DiCaprio and his foundation staff care, it created an aftermath of environment issues that make Cal Fire’s proposed 11-mile fire break they are now pursuing in the East Bay hills pale in comparison.

Frankly, if I were a hardcore environmentalist instead of just one who embraces the Restore Hetch Hetchy effort, believes the Mono Lake Committee did God’s work, and worship the Sierra almost with the same intensity John Muir did I would cheer Newsom’s emergency’s declaration and use it to roll out a full-court press.

If the governor of California has decreed roughly 200 cities are threatened by the fact 25 million acres of wildland are at a high risk of burning, then shouldn’t he also suspend the issuance of all building permits that would add more structures to said cities?

One wouldn’t have more people move in below a dam that’s in danger of being breached. The same should hold true in areas that the state decrees are in imminent danger of suffering the same fate as Paradise, Santa Rosa and a number of communities on an ever-growing list. 

But doing so would take away wildfires and droughts in California as a stage prop for overselling climate change. There is climate change — but to paint what is happening in California with its historic cycle of drought and heavy precipitation that predates Sir Isaac Newton and the birth of modern science allows you to conveniently ignore what is causing wildfires to turn into infernos.

Decades ago we devoted the minority of resources battling a wildfire to evacuation and structure defense. As California has grown from 16 million to 40 million people and the ability to make long commutes or to retire “in God’s country” was made possible while suburbia crept up steep hillsides and canyons that dry out and have been swept for ages by ferocious winds, wildfires have gained momentum as almost all resources initially are devoted to preserving life and protecting homes.

They should leap on Newsom’s emergency declaration bandwagon if for no other reason than to cap the potential for the loss of life and property.

Then there is the practical matter that is simply poor public relations.

The jet set crowd that writes checks for foundations such as the ones DiCaprio created says the governor instead of trying to amass the state’s resources to reduce the potential of a repeat of Paradise this fire season should instead spend money to make homes more defensible and fire proof.

This might sound logical to a crowd that lives in 30,000 square foot mansions made of marble, steel and such on lush estates irrigated by imported water and have a domestic staff that could easily wet down the stray ember or two. But most of the homes in the 200 communities sitting in the potential path of destruction are often crammed together at five homes on an acre and usually have yards that are so small they could not slow down the advance of a wildfire by creating a defensible zone. Perhaps they can make their homes defensible by bulldozing sheds and replacing every inch of vegetation in yards with cement. That is so when the rains return we can send the odds of flooding sky high even with moderate rainfall.

Newsom has inherited a no-win situation that all 40 million Californians have contributed to in some form or another simply by being alive and needing water to drink, food to eat, shelter over our heads, and a desire to enjoy leisure time but are unable to jet off to an island in Belize.

No one would have faulted Newsom if he simply joined the Greek chorus, said there was nothing that could be done due to climate change, and threw all of his energy into one of the Green New Deal initiatives that would have had negligible impact — if even that — on California’s never ending cycle of drought and wildfires that has worsened over the years because we went from 92,000 people in 1850 to 40 million today on a landscape that is still for the most part wild and untamable. This is not Kansas. It is California.

Pulling the National Guard off the border and putting them to work tackling a proven risk to life and property is something that should have been done months ago and arguably decades ago.

You may now like some of Newton’s handiwork so far, but it is clear he’s trying to find solutions for problems that have vexed California for decades and to step away from train wrecks in the making.