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Fire, Sustainability and the California Cul-de-sac

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
October 30, 2007


California has always lived on the edge. On the edge on the continent, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and on the edge of disaster. Famous for its' earthquakes, it is its' wildfires that cause the most damage and loss of life and property.

The State of California is a study in unsustainability. In a golden state of culturally ingrained denial and delusion, Californians live in spite of, not in balance with, the ecological conditions surrounding them.

Southern Californians even more so.

Dry or drought is the norm, and water resources always at a premium, yet the population and encroachment into wildlands continue to grow. Too many people with too little water is a problem, add to the equation wildfires and Santa Ana winds, and you have a man-made catastrophe perfect for the 6:00 news.

Southern California is comprised of desert and semiarid chaparral, two biomes receiving very little rainfall. Drought resistant plant communities have evolved to sustain themselves on limited water resources. San Diego County is situated in the chaparral biome. To say chaparral is fire prone would be a gross understatement.

Chaparral wildfires have a crown-fire regime, consuming from the top down, an entire system once ignited. Many chaparral plant species require fire cues such as heat, smoke, or charred wood for germination. These species have adapted to particular fire regimes involving season, frequency, intensity and severity of the burn. Suffice it to say: San Diego County burns. It's inevitable, it's what happens.

History and the recent firestorms prove fire suppression activities fail to exclude fire from southern California chaparral. Low humidity, low fuel moisture, and high winds appear to be the primary wildfire conditions. Overpopulation and over development of human communities only compound the threat of seasonal wildfires. In fact, the number and frequency of fires is increasing with regional population growth.

Frequent fires also increase the potential for invasive species, making it difficult for scrub and chaparral plant communities to recover. Without wild refuge, native fauna will seek the few areas not blackened by flames to compete for limited resources. Some species will move into residential areas exposing them to other threats.

The issue is not about wildfires, there have always been wildfires. At issue is the price and cost of protecting an ever-growing population of people in a drought and fire prone region.

As of this writing, fires have been burning in San Diego for eight consecutive days. Altogether, the five major fires of the October 2007 firestorm – Witch Creek, Harris, Rice Canyon, Poomacha and the Horno fire on Camp Pendleton – killed seven people, destroyed approximately 1,600 residences and have charred an area of over 600 square miles. The Witch Creek fire burned an estimated 200,000 acres.

Climate change associated with global warming trends means the future of Southern California will be shaped by fire, drought, and overpopulation. Ignorance of natural processes will not protect the people of San Diego County. The challenge for residents and their elected officials is how to best adapt to changing environmental conditions of a warming world without sacrificing biodiversity and environmental quality of life.

At the height of the fires more than a million Californians, from Malibu to the Mexican Border, were under mandatory evacuation orders. Schools were closed for a week, and retail business took a massive hit. The cost of fighting fires and cleaning up after also fall to taxpayers with money diverted from education health care and infrastructure repair. When it comes to fighting fires California will always be on the defense in a game they can not win.

The extent of power outages is evidence that San Diego County must adopt local generation and self sufficiency as key governing policy. San Diegans must also reassess how and where they build their homes. At the forefront of environmentalism, Californians must now evolve the way they interact with the natural ecology they call habitat.

Water conservation might help but only a little. The real issue is too many people trying to live the California dream isolated from other Californians. Isolated from city centers rural or wildlands dwellers should not expect city or suburban residents to replace their home, no more that the people of the back country should be expected to pick up the tab when coastal McMansions collapse into the sea with the bluffs on which they sit.

Sprawl is responsible for the overburdened infrastructure. Californians must abandon the build it and they will come lunacy. The next Santa Ana could prove Southern California's financial undoing.

The days of burn and build ideology are over. Rebuilding homes in fire prone wild lands should be discouraged if not downright prohibited. Homes surrounded by dry brush at the end of remote rural roads is the fault of city and county planners allowing development in unsafe areas. There is no excuse for ignorance or shortsighted economics. Residents who choose to live in a tinderbox must ultimately be held accountable for their own well being.

More people, less water, and increasingly combustible conditions is a recipe for disaster.

As a California native, it is my opinion if people want to live off grid in unsustainable living conditions they should not be surprised when it all go up in flames, nor expect a handout afterward. Realtors and developers must do much more to disclose and educate about fire dangers, or be held responsible. This is not to say government is off the hook, far from it. Legislation must be crafted that ends fringe development in fire prone wilderness areas.

Who knows, perhaps fire storms are Sacramento's newest weapon in its arsenal against ecological restraint. Harsh? You bet. In a state of 53 million people, Pollyanna posturing is no longer cost effective.

Got rain?

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