Wednesday, October 30, 2019

850 words about our fires that the Chronicle did not print

We should be outraged to live in a state that alternates between fires and floods and yet does so little to prevent either. 

So, now it is fire.  Again.  

My former mother in law needs to be evacuated for her health because she needs to breath air without smoke and has health concerns that she uses electricity to cope with. People died in her town in their last fire. 

Last time I wrote on this it was about a flood.  

A town where I like to catch dinner was under a few feet of water.  Many businesses were damaged, some residences too. That town has been flooded several times. 

Both the fires and the floods are made worse by bad land management coupled with ineffective building codes.  Our state’s response to these long-understood problems of fire ecology and watershed protection is the same as our nation’s response to climate change: insufficient.  

We blame climate change, we blame Trumpian budget cuts, we blame PG&E, all with some justification.  

But the bigger picture is formed with long standing inconvenient truths.  

We need to set little controlled fires to avoid larger blazes that get totally out of hand.  

The native peoples have been saying this, the forestry people have been saying this and environmental biologists have been saying this since before I was born, and I am not young.  

We need to reforest and replant a buffer distance out from all of our rivers and streams. 

When it rains it should be an opportunity, not an emergency.  Water needs to slow down in forested land as it runs off.  When you see high water that is brown with dirt, that is our topsoil washing away out of an unhealthy watershed.  We need strategically placed reforestation and wetlands to keep the water and land both healthy, let water seep back into the depleted aquifers, give us fish runs and become natural fire brakes.  And sometimes water just needs to rise, so don’t build there. 

Why do these two simple fixes not happen? 

My guess is because it requires that two powerful economic groups be regulated and pay a good share of the cost of change.  

They are the agricultural sector and the building sector.  

On the one hand, the kinds of land use zoning and building code upgrades that would turn our regular fire and flood seasons into non-emergency events will cut into profits. 

And on the other hand, those with large amounts of private property have a habit of resisting any and all kinds of regulation.  They keep us all asking why they should not be allowed to do what they want with their own land and real estate projects.  

The question deserves an answer because nobody should be regulated or restricted without due cause.  

In this case, they should not be allowed to manage lands or build buildings that easily burn, and there are places where we never should build, farm or graze cows.  In many parts of the state we have developments that were permitted directly in harms way, or in ways that make harm.  

The reason the rest of us should have a right to keep business from repetitively burning down our state is part of the same thinking that does not allow anyone near a school to build a dynamite factory. 

To be fair, if one thinks about it, a lot of us have benefited from the housing business and the farm production and have participated in the lifestyles they afford us. The fixes are simple to understand, but will have all kinds of complex local issues to deal with when put into effect. 

We will all have to help pay for the change.  

Now that the state is on fire again, let’s take a moment to think about how bad it really is.  We need to get out of denial and do as much as we can, the same way we have prepared for earthquakes.  

Of course, the technical and political part is in no way easy. We will end up moving whole communities, retrofitting homes, setting aside land and finding better use for our waste waters as we manage other difficult changes. Our old water and fire problems exist in a time of other challenges. 

In many ways climate change, fire ecology and seasonal rain patterns along with everything we need to do to get off fossil fuels add up to a serious, statewide rebuild. 

That rebuild is also a great opportunity, but we have hardly even started.  

Don Macleay,

The author has written more extensively on this subject