The Camp Fire has claimed more than 60 victims, and rescue workers continue to search for hundreds who are still missing.
The Tubbs Fire, around Santa Rosa, killed 22 in 2017. Mudslides following the Thomas Fire in Southern California killed 20 people last year. Just months ago, seven people perished in the Carr Fire in Redding.
There are nearly 9,000 firefighters battling blazes this week in Malibu and Butte County.
Californians are anxious. And with our attention fixed on Paradise, we wonder: who will be next?
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Scientists predict extreme fire danger across much of the West will become the new normal by the middle of the 21st century, per a recent report by the U.S Forest Service. Jerry Brown, California’s outgoing governor, says we’re already living in the new abnormal.
Our hearts go out to those who have lost family, friends, pets and homes. One of the most-read stories on SacBee.com this week is about how to help, and there’s no question your support is needed and appreciated.
But when it comes to tangible steps that will reduce tragedies, we face a long road.
State and federal agencies, environmentalists, businesses and homeowners must take seats at the same table. We need a clear understanding of risks and tradeoffs and we need strategies to reduce the likelihood of another catastrophe.
There is room for optimism.
“Sometimes out of catastrophe comes greater unity,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told The Bee’s Dale Kasler Wednesday in Butte County. Brown said Wednesday we should “learn how to do this together.”
There are plenty of places to dig in:
▪ Are we doing enough to build fire resistance into our communities? Should building (or rebuilding) be allowed in fire-prone communities? Why spend millions on a mansion in the hills if we risk loss of life to defend it? Can homeowners or homeowners’ associations accept responsibility for the risk that comes with a view of beautiful, old-growth trees out the kitchen window?
As homeowners, we must take personal responsibility for maintaining our land.
▪ For those who already live in high-risk areas, let’s be proactive about cutting power lines that spark fires. What are the safest steps in areas where it’s difficult, or even impossible, to bury lines? Are we prepared to live off generators during red-flag conditions?
▪ Evacuation routes are inadequate. What can we put in place as we move forward – sirens, improved reverse 911 calls or other solutions?
▪ We must improve forest management. We’ve been talking about this for decades. The biggest threat to our forests is not tree loss from harvesting. It is catastrophic events such as wildfires. Forests will continue to burn and they will burn into our cities if we do not work together to reduce fuel. Sawmills can be retrofitted to accommodate smaller-diameter trees, those that are now serving as kindling for major fires. How can we responsibly remove those trees and cut down on chaparral and brush?
▪ We can also look at roadways, which are major flashpoints for human-caused fires. State lawmakers are working on a proposal to thin vegetation growing near along forest roads, a logical solution to make fire-prone areas more defensible.
▪ One of Gavin Newsom’s first priorities as governor must be to convene an inclusive and thoroughly serious summit on this issue. He must provide it with direction and deadlines.
▪ Breathing the smoke from these fires is dangerous. Period. The chemicals and particulates it contains worsen virtually every respiratory condition; often severely. Look out your window, and realize we all are in danger from these fires.
Private landowners, environmentalists, the federal government and our incoming governor and lawmakers all have a role. All of us have a responsibility to demand change and to acknowledge that it comes only if we work together.
If we do not, California will continue to burn. Our friends and family will continue to be at risk for homelessness and, as we have seen this week, far worse.