Editorial: California fires’ cruel cycle of natural and human disaster

22 August 2020

Published by https://www.sfchronicle.com

USA – The ring of fire around the Bay Area is a rarity among the catastrophic blazes of recent years in that it’s a truly natural disaster. While power lines and other human causes have ignited nearly all of California’s most destructive wildfires, the flames that claimed lives and homes over the past week were sparked by a strange barrage of dry lightning storms.

And yet it’s not difficult to discern our role in the latest round of devastation. Californians are engaged in a decades-long net migration from cities and their nearby suburbs to exurban fringes. Even when we’re not inadvertently starting the fires that burn the adjacent forest and chaparral, we’re putting homes in their path.

While the population of California and most of the Bay Area grew little in 2019, and Los Angeles County lost residents for the second year running, according to the state Department of Finance, most of the fastest-growing cities and counties were on the metropolitan edges. San Joaquin and San Benito counties, both in the outer orbit of the Bay Area, were alone in the region in experiencing more than a percentage point of growth, much of it due to housing production. Excluding rebuilding to compensate for earlier wildfire losses, the cities that saw the greatest housing-related population growth were also on the outskirts of the Bay Area — including Lathrop in San Joaquin County and Rio Vista in Solano County — or within an extreme commute of Los Angeles.

This continues a long-term trend. Six of the nation’s 25 fastest-growing cities over the past two decades were in California, according to one analysis of census data, and all were on the sprawling boundaries of cities and metropolises. Fairfield and Vacaville, two of the cities facing the North Bay fires designated as the LNU Lightning Complex, have more than doubled in population since 1980.

The so-called wildland-urban interface, the area where housing meets and mixes with forest, scrub and grasslands that are often vulnerable to fire, grew by a third in the 1990s and 2000s, according to a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2018. That helped add more than 100,000 homes within the perimeter of wildfires that burned from 1990 through 2015, a 62% increase. More than a third of California’s nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are in the wildland-urban interface and other fire-prone areas, according to a recent KQED analysis.

President Trump and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson recently alleged a broad Democratic conspiracy to “abolish single-family zoning in California,” spearheaded by state Sen. Scott Wiener. In fact, the San Francisco senator has been thwarted by his fellow Democrats, and it shows. Most of the state’s multifamily development takes place in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and other cities where barriers to construction are high and population is stable, the Finance Department noted; most of the growth is happening in the places building new single-family homes.

Perversely, this ever-outward pattern of development also requires more driving and pollution, contributing to another wildfire accelerant: climate change. Hotter, drier conditions, especially during summer and fall nights, make fuels more flammable and fires more fearsome. Nine of the state’s 10 largest wildfires took place in the past two decades, and eight of the 10 most destructive have been within the past five years.

Unfortunately, despite California’s most enlightened efforts to grapple with the problem, the more relevant national policy on climate change parallels a state and regional approach to housing characterized by malign neglect. That ensures that however the next wildfire starts, the human disaster won’t end.

This commentary is from The Chronicle’s editorial board. We invite you to express your views in a letter to the editor. Please submit your letter via our online form: SFChronicle.com/letters.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien