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October fire: Like snow to Siberia

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
November 6, 2003


"Powerful as our weapons are, vast as is the destruction we are capable of, there is something still more powerful than we." — Joseph Wood Krutch

As right as rain, fire is an integral part of Southern California's ecosystem, yet sadly we continue to ignore the inevitability of this fact of life. Sprawl burns. Tucked onto ridgelines and into finger canyons, surrounded by sage scrub as dry as toast, homes encroaching into places better left undisturbed are left unprotected when wildfires come into season.

The evolution of wild California includes fire as a reproductive element for many indigenous plant species. Fire is also ideal for sweeping away trees destroyed by drought and bark beetles. After the fire season, spring comes fresh with wildflowers and regrowth. Such is the ecological cycle that has defined the arid regions of Southern California.

Selective denial is a luxury Californians can no longer afford. The refusal to take environmental factors into account is a cultural condition that has long plagued the conquerors of Alta California. Nurtured by media interests that revel in feigned ignorance, California immigrants have always been encouraged to play dumb, even as more immigration is actively promoted by those who will profit from increased population and the resulting suburban sprawl.

That is, of course, until a natural reckoning occurs.

On day three of the October fire event I was struck by the complete lack of intellectual integrity demonstrated by the two big regional newspapers. The North County paper used a one word headline, UNIMAGINABLE, to highlight its editorial disconnect. The San Diego paper used two, "Beyond belief" in a bigger and bolder font. Excuse me, but where were these people last year during the Gavilan fires near Fallbrook? Or the Harmony Grove fire of October '96 that burned all the way to La Costa? How about the massive fires in San Clemente and Malibu that same year?

And how can anyone in the media declare massive property loss due to wildfire as "beyond belief" or "unimaginable" after the Oakland hills fire of October 1991? To use such words is not only intellectually dishonest it is also a very clever way of distancing human behavior from the cause and effect conversation.

The leap from cause and effect to catastrophe is a short one, the only distinction being the amount of private property one stands to loose. Million dollar homes perched along ridgelines at the fringes of suburbia burn just as easy, but twice as hot, as the habitat in which they encroach. And as the population of California continues to increase, so does the probability of fatal firestorms wreaking havoc.

Fire isn't the problem. People are the problem. Building homes in fire prone wilderness areas is inviting catastrophe. But still planners and bureaucrats continue to permit housing within the tinderbox. Homes burn. Homes will always burn. This is because builders continue to build structures unable to withstand environmental conditions, and people continue to buy them.

A lost hunter igniting three fires hoping to signal his hunting buddy started the fire, which laid waste to San Diego's east county. The Cedar Fire near the mountain town of Julian in the Cleveland National Forest. That fire, the state's largest at 400,000 acres, has, at this writing, claimed the lives of at 13 people. The hunter may face charges, including manslaughter.

Arsonists are responsible for the Piru fire in Ventura County and the Old/Grand Prix fire that ravaged San Bernardino County. According to Dallas Jones, California's Director of Emergency Services, "This will be the most expensive fire in California history, both in loss of property and the cost of fighting it." "Hundreds of millions" is the current estimate.

October 2003 should be wake up call for all Californians. Human indifference to environmental conditions is what makes this a disaster. By discouraging construction in wilderness areas ripe for fire, and allowing periodic brush fires to clear under brush, catastrophic wild fires become a thing of the past. It's only a catastrophe when people and private property are involved.

Fire is not new, Santa Ana winds are not new, and dry combustible vegetation is not new. Sprawl is new, and the continued development of the east San Diego County destroys more open space than any wildfire. Nature will rebound from fire given the chance. It's time Californians started to live in balance with our ecosystem, which includes flammable foliage and the occasional firestorm, and plan accordingly.

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