old doesn’t tarnish, but the Golden State lies blackened. It happens almost every year, but California’s current bout of fast-burning wildfires, following last year’s conflagrations, leads inevitably to a sobering thought: If communities built amid the picturesque West Coast wildlands can’t be protected from rampaging flames when spring flowers and grasses turn tinder-dry in summer, maybe they shouldn’t have been built there in the first place.
Fourteen thousand firefighters are struggling to contain and extinguish at least 18 separate blazes spread along the length of California. Twin fires in the Mendocino region, covering an area the size of Los Angeles, are the largest in the state’s history. All told, the firestorms of the 2018 dry season have consumed more than 1,000 square miles of forest and grassland, turned to ash thousands of houses and other structures and killed 14 persons at last count. Last year’s fire season lasted into January, consuming more than 2,000 square miles of California, sending 10,000 structures up in smoke and killing 43.
The flames are burning through California’s fire control budget. The state spent $242 million on fire control in fiscal 2013. Last year the figure tripled to $773 million. The price tag of the 2017 fires, including fire suppression, insurance claims and rebuilding expenses, could reach $180 billion, according to AccuWeather, and the price of this year’s fires may be more than that.
Californians are accustomed to dealing with fires triggered by lightning and inattentive campers during the summer dry season. The sight of a red glow behind the hills that cradle the state’s innumerable outlying communities is the price they pay for an idyllic climate that is the envy of neighbors to the east.
The state’s population, on the cusp of 40 million, has pushed new housing into desolate — and dry — places. An academic survey four years ago predicts that over the next three decades as many as 645,000 California houses will have been constructed in “very high” wildfire severity zones.
Human nature being what it is, where people are, is potential for both mishap and mischief. Roadside car fires have triggered blazes in the past, but more unsettling is arson. A 51-year-old man was charged Wednesday with setting the so-called Holy Fire southeast of Los Angeles. Overwhelmed by the intensity of the flames, a firefighter spokesman concedes that “we continue to actively engage, but cannot get ahead of the fire.” Sometimes, the only recourse is to flee, and more than 20,000 residents have done so. A 46-year-old woman has been charged with starting a fire along a stretch of interstate highway near Sacramento.
A 2017 study published by the Carnegie Institution found that while research into the causes of wildfires focuses primarily on the effects of climate change, 84 percent of all wildfires during the past 21 years have been caused by the growth of civilization: “Ignitions caused by human activities are a substantial driver of overall fire risk to ecosystems and economies. Actions to raise awareness and increase management in regions prone to human-started wildfires should be a focus of United States policy to reduce fire risk and associated hazards.” Lightning is a natural threat, but since man figured out how to coax a flame by rubbing two sticks together, wildfire is mainly the dreadful work of humans.
California received $212 million in federal disaster relief funds last year and can reasonably expect another grant to offset some of the costs of this summer’s damage. American taxpayers are generous with assistance to disaster victims, as they should be, but they cannot be expected to sign a blank check for the billions it will cost to rebuild communities in the perilous path of future flames.
Insurance companies have with good reason raised homeowner policy premiums to account for higher risk, and six of California’s most fire-prone counties saw policy cancellations climb 50 percent between 2015 and 2016, by the count of the Orange County Register. Developers and politicians complain when property becomes uninsurable, but building human habitats in fire-prone regions amounts to burning dollars. Mother Nature has blessed Californians with an environment to die for, and by building on top of tinder, many risk exactly that.
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