USA — In an era when global warming is mixing hotter summers with drierwinters, what could be more foolhardy than promoting a building boom in one ofthe most wildfire prone zones in the US?
Plenty, it turns out.
As firefighters Monday were putting out the last embers of the blazes thatdevastated much of southern California last week, investigations and accusationswere pointing the spotlight at numerous other factors that exacerbated thesituation and could create the potential for a future firestorm that could makelast week’s events pale in comparison.
To be sure, for those impacted by the deadly infernos there was nothing trivialabout them. More than 2,000 homes were reduced to mounds of ash and rubble,hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes and 12 people diedin fire-related incidents. Insurance groups estimate the damage at around 1.5billion dollars.
The temptation is to place the blame on the fickle behaviour of Mother Nature.But doing so ignores the multitude of human decisions that created the perfectconditions for fires to thrive, says Ellis Clarkson, an environmentalist andfire control specialist.
“(Governor Arnold) Schwarzenegger called it ‘the perfect firestorm’ but ifthe present trends continue this will be the norm in California,” Clarksonsaid. “And that’s not even thinking about the earthquakes.”
On the most basic level, over a century of drastic wildland fire suppression inCalifornia created a huge stock of deadwood and other combustible fuel thatignites instantly and burns furiously.
In neighbouring Mexico, wildfires are generally allowed to burn their course. Soas the same Santa Ana winds pounded southern California and its Mexicanneighbours the results were starkly different: 25 hectares and three touristcabins in Mexico, versus almost 200,000 hectares and 2,000 houses in California.
Another part of the deadly California formula is the building boom that seesthousands of homes going up each year as Americans seek their paradise in theregions famously scenic wildlands. According to a University of Wisconsin study,had last week’s fires burned in the same locations in 1980, about 61,000 homeswould have been within a mile of a fire. By 2000, the number would have grown to106,000 homes, and this year it was 125,000.
Then there are the building codes, which until very recently paid very littleattention to constructing homes to withstand wildfires. In a region rich withforests it’s perhaps understandable that most houses are built mainly from wood.But it was only after the disastrous fires of 2003 that state and localofficials began to get serious mandating the use of fire resistant materials forthe roof and exterior walls, as well as interior sprinklers and other features.
The dramatic effect of these regulations was highlighted in the community ofRancho Santa Fe, where five subdivisions built with stringent safetyrequirements emerged unscathed even as surrounding homes burnt down.
The communities used an Australian-developed concept called “shelter-in-place”that requires indoor fire sprinklers, noncombustible roofs, wide roads anddriveways for firefighting equipment and 30 metres of defensible space aroundhomes with irrigated, fire-resistant plants.
But all that will mean little unless local and state governments in Californiabegin to implement their own recommendations and spend a lot more onfirefighting. For instance, officials recommended the purchase of 150 newfiretrucks after the 2003 fires in San Diego. Four years later, 19 have beenordered and none have been delivered.
In Orange County, one of the hardest hit areas, there is so little money devotedto firefighting that there are only three firefighters per truck rather than therecommended four.
Low staffing meant that there was no chance to put out fires while they werestill small. A string of bureaucratic wrangling also prevented sufficientfirefighting aircraft from attacking the fires before they had become too large.
Local and state leaders have dismissed much of the criticism at the same time asthey promise to implement lessons learned last week.
But Max Moritz, a wildfire expert at the University of California at Berkeley isa little skeptical. “Unfortunately it seems like we keep relearning some ofthe lessons that we probably should have implemented already.”