Thursday, October 19, 2017

We need to live with fire and not let it burn us down

When a disaster like the current outbreak of California fires takes place there are an inevitable number of people throwing spin and the spin we should least believe is that these outbreaks of fire could not be prevented.

The fires cannot be prevented, but the disasters can.

Let’s just start with:

Much of California is a natural fire ecology.

You will hear a lot of lip service to that and a lot of jargon thrown around more than you will hear about how our state planning and regulations are ready for the inevitable fires.

So how could we have kept this from being a disaster?
I’ll propose five expensive parts to a plan that could well work.

Part one: Stop building buildings that burn.

“Oh we have done that and it did not solve everything” is part of the CYA discourse and that is basically not true. We did not get fireproof building codes, we got “fire resistant” building codes.

Sure, we don't have shake wooden roofs any more, but what we do have is not fireproof.

Fire resistant shingles on plywood held up by cheap pine burns quite well and the standards that claimed it was sufficient are just bogus. Walls made of press board held together with “fire resistant” insulation paper and covered with some kind of plastic siding or stucco, also burn.

And unfortunately you will see block after block of buildings built to this new “better” code burned to the ground in Santa Rosa.

Roofs made of ceramic tile and held up by metal are what is fireproof. You will find them in the San Diego area, but only after some serious suffering and loss of homes there. Walls made of cement or adobe don’t burn so well either. That would be a standard that might help.

Cheap is probably the word to follow here. I wonder who lobbied for those watered down standards that allow builders and developers to make so much money, so fast, building cheap buildings for a hot market?

I heard one government apologist on the radio saying that even concrete buildings with cement roofs would have burned in this fire. Yeah? Show us one that did.

Fireproof building is not new, it is ancient. Those old adobe buildings with red tile roofs? How many of those have burned to the ground due to wildfire?

Part two: The choice is big fire or small fire, but not no fire.

It seems that every time a fire like this happens the forestry experts get out and tell folk that either we do proscribe small burns or the fuel will build up. So, let’s start our own small fires to avoid the big ones.

Part three: Fire ecology areas should have fire ecology plants.

The native plants of our area have evolved to survive. They do not produce so much fuel and when there is a small fire, the fires that we should have, they open their fire resistant seed pods and plant the regrowth. Some of our native plants only can reproduce when there is a fire.

In practice that means enough of the grass fields and non-native trees already. 

They may grow well in our climate, but they also burn well in our fires. Too well. And stop planting that stuff as landscaping around our “fire resistant” buildings.

Part four: Get ready, get proactive, actively prevent and isolate the danger.

Well of course everyone wants that right? But our local and state budgets don’t show prevention as a priority. Right now people are acting surprised. Any state office holder who is surprised by this set of fires should not be. They could just listen to their own excuses.

“The rains created a lot of fuel”. “The winds whip up a forge”. “There was unusually high heat”.

None of this was not predicted and by the heart wave in early July of this year it was obvious that too much grass fuel had built up along with other types of fuels. This was so obvious that the cattle industry trucked their animals north to get them out of the dry, high fire risk, areas.

Note that the lack of controlled burns and lack of native plant restoration is happening on top of the drought, the rains, the unusual growth and the following heat wave. Global warming has an influence here in only in the statistics and intensity; the basic environmental science was figured out before any of us were born.

Informed land management people have known how bad the problem was this year for a long time and the risk of this kind of disaster was predicted. Our state did not prevent or prepare.

Part five: Spend the money it takes.

The press is now being filled with speculation about where the fire started and who started it. This is a diversion. If a tanker truck turned over and spilled, we would not blame that fire on the pilot light of a nearby water heater. The conditions that our state authorities allowed to develop were just as flammable as a gasoline spill. Can anyone doubt that now?

When such conditions build up, it takes work to build the buffer zones between habitations and open lands. It takes money to remove fuel, do prescribe burns, and replant with fire ecology vegetation around the key buffer zones and waterways.

And it takes some time. This work should have started years ago and this year we should have been on an emergency footing since that June-July heat wave.

And when conditions get as bad as they have been in California since July, get ready.

Mow the damn grass in key locations if you have to. Grass fields need buffer zones and intense fire control practices. Other than move the cows to safety, what was done?

Have people, materials and equipment pre-positioned in the danger areas. Calling for extra support after the fire starts is a bit late. It would have been better to have everyone on guard for a fire that did not happen than to be rushing in help as we are now. We need to budget for what we know is coming sooner or later.

So, I offer these five proposals intending to start the conversation. It would be good to hear other proposals if you want to shoot these down. If not this, then what? Right now what we are doing is tragically and obviously too little too late and I am proposing we avoid a “next time”.

My background is as an administrator and activist. It is time to hear from the scientific community that is willing to speak up and not afraid that their funding is at risk. It is time for those who work the land to speak up. It is time for those who actually build the buildings to speak up. The only voices that we should not give much credence to are the spin doctors and lobbyists representing those who oppose any regulation that curbs their profits.

I can be accused of proposing that people be told what they can do with their own private property. 

Yes, we need to tell people what to do with private property in land management the same way we tell that not to build a dynamite factory next to a school yard or throw raw sewage into the river that runs past their home.

Ownership has its rights, but it also has its responsibilities. If you owned a Rembrandt and decided to cut it into coasters to sell, well you might have the right to do that, but I doubt you would have much public support. If you own a stand of redwoods that are older than our culture, you fall under laws of stewardship and are not allowed to cut them indiscriminately.

The ownership of real estate, farm and city, has a bit of both types of law applied to it. On the one hand we have stewardship obligations and on the other we are prohibited from public endangerment. In the case of building and land management regulations as they relate to fire we have both the moral task of conserving our collective natural heritage and we need to stop building and growing fire hazards.

Addressing conservation and fire control we can also give ourselves a healthier environment in biodiversity, biomass and carbon capturing. Of all the things said about global climate change, one thing is sure: we need to plant more trees and protect more waterways. The kind of land management regulations we will need to manage our fire ecology home state will help with both. 

Now we will get talked down to by our political class who will read this and then lecturer us about budget and political realities.

Realities like why they won't stand up to the lobbyists who resist reasonable regulation.
By that I mean the builders and agribusiness.

Realities like why they don’t really have a decent fire management budget or much of any land management leadership, authority or financing. The buck gets passed to the local authorities who are starved for funds and the private agribusiness and building sector, who are part of the problem.

Those who will lecture us about the realities of money and politics have delivered to us the realities of loss of life, homes and livelihoods.

The first step in preventing the next disaster is to know that this one should not have happened.

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