Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Deja Vu All Over Again 

One journalist recounted how the California wildfires started this way:

On the morning of 26 October, Southern California woke up to perfect fire weather. Los Angeles Fire Chief Donald Manning accurately assessed "a potential day for disaster" and dispatched 10 city engines to the rim of the San Fernando Valley where chaparral meets suburb. And shortly after lunch, a blaze flared up....

Early [the next] morning, as a 50-mile-per-hour Santa Ana whipsawed power lines and ripped the fronds off palm trees, fires erupted one after another....As dawn broke...fires were out of control, five firefighters had already been critically injured, and new blazes were being reported throughout five Southern California counties....

[Firefighters] arrived too late to save the two dozen homes destroyed by the first...fire, which ultimately incinerated 39,000 acres. But events... were overshadowed by the fire that began [the next day] after lunch and with incredible speed consumed Laguna Beach "as if it had been soaked in gasoline."...

The Laguna Beach blaze... injured 65 firefighters, destroyed 366 homes (most of them valued at over $1 million) and caused $435 million in damage. It seemed to be the dramatic denouement to a catastrophic fire week. In fact, it was only the first act.

The fires are not those of the week of October 26, 2003, but rather of 1993, described by muckraking journalist Mike Davis in his prophetic Ecology of Fear. In "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn," Davis catalogs the stately procession of catastrophic wildfires that have rolled across Southern California almost since the dawn of time with a periodicity that makes Pacific ocean breakers look random by comparison, but which, unlike the latter, are steadily worsening. Chaparral ecology, he points out, is literally rooted in periodic wildfires as a means of regenerating its ecosystem. And this ecosystem's imperatives will not be denied:

A key revelation was the nonlinear relationship between the age structure of vegetation and the intensity of fire. Botanists and fire geographers discovered that "the probability for an intense fast running fire increases dramatically as the fuels exceed twenty years of age." Indeed, half-century old chaparral--heavily laden with mass--is calculated to burn with 50 times more intensity than 20-year-old chaparral. Put another way, an acre of old chapparal is the fuel equivalent of about 75 barrels of crude oil.

Prolonging and hence exacerbating the fire cycle has, of course, been human development with the attendant short-sighted policy of "total fire suppression." Moreover, under this policy, each wave of extreme fires has had the effect of worsening the prospect of the next one by damaging the overall ecology. Extreme fires actually transform the chemical composition of the soil, exacerbating erosion and flooding, while the successive waves of destruction favor speculative development in favor of the well-heeled, who have the political pull to neutralize zoning codes that might, for example, prohibit shake cedar construction, while socializing the costs of their pyrophilic habits onto others. The results are graphically on display here.

Again prophetically, Davis concludes:

Once again, politicians and the media have allowed the esstential landuse issue--the rampant, uncontrolled proliferation of firebelt suburbs--to be camoflaged in a neutral discourse about natural hazards and public safety. But "safety" for the Mailbu and Laguna coasts as well as hundreds of other luxury enclaves and gated hilltop suburbs is becoming one of the state's major social expenditures, although--unlike welfare or immigration--it is almost never debated in terms of trade-offs or alternatives. The $100 million cost of mobilizing 15,000 firefighters during Halloween week 1993 may be an increasingly common entry in the public ledger. Needless to say, there is no comparable investment in the fire, toxic, or earthquake safety of inner-city communities. Instead, as in so many things, we tolerate two systems of hazard protection, separate and unequal.

Predictably, the Bush Administration has already seized upon the current catastrophe to try to ram through a "forest policy" retrofitted to its pre-existing agendas, benefitting timber interests and few others. More surprisingly, a Senate alternative sponsored by Diane Feinstein and Ron Wyden would actually re-orient fire policy away from "ignition control" and toward managing chaparral accumulation in the form of regular thinning and prescribed burns. (It's unclear whether another alternative sponsored by Barbara Boxer and Jeff Bingaman would simply perpetuate the short-sighted total fire suppression policy currently in place.)

If the Feinstein/Wyden bill manages to snuff out the Administration's cynical giveway to timber interests, we might actually be looking at a semi-sane fire safety policy for once. If not, expect to meet here again on this tragic subject, another 10 years out.

corrente SBL - New Location
~ Since April 2010 ~

~ Since 2003 ~

The Washington Chestnut
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