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Bay Nature magazineJanuary-March 2018

California’s Massive Fires Reveal Our Illusion of Control Over Disasters

by Faith Kearns on December 06, 2017

The aftermath of the fire in Glen Ellen. (Photo by Faith Kearns)

I drove away from the Pepperwood Preserve in the Sonoma County hills on a hot and windy Sunday evening in October feeling hopeful. I’d spent part of the day talking with members of the California Naturalist Program about wildfire-induced emotional trauma in the region. As I arrived home in Berkeley later that evening, however, that peculiar fire weather feeling Joan Didion described as when the “winds show us how close to the edge we are” kicked into overdrive. Several hours later, I awoke to the overwhelming smell of smoke and the news that people all over the Bay Area were hearing: a number of large fires were running wild through the beautiful place I’d left just the night before.

As the days went on, a horrifying picture emerged. Story after story of sudden and terrifying evacuations appeared. Whole neighborhoods had been awoken in the middle of the night by people—some police and firefighters, but many simply neighbors—banging on doors or honking horns as emergency alert systems lagged.

These reports from citizens are harrowing enough on their own but, as a scientist working on disasters like drought and wildfire in California for over a decade, I’m especially struck by the changing commentary from the emergency response community itself. As an example, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott told the Sacramento Bee that “it’s becoming more the norm now to have multiple damaging fires” at the same time. In the Ventura County Star, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jonathon Cox said the fire was “unstoppable.” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner noted the pace of alerts and evacuations simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of the fire. These are remarkable statements from top-down, command-and-control institutions.

Even more telling are Gossner’s remarks about fire-safe landscaping, one of the long-standing hallmarks of fire prevention. He said, “We want the fire-wise communities, so if a fire starts, we can jump on it and put it out. That gives us a chance. It doesn’t mean it’s going to prevent it.”

There was a time not long ago when it would have been difficult to find fire officials, whose focus is most often on suppression, talking so publicly about how unmanageable some wildfires can become. It might be the threat of more fire in a changing climate, or just a long-overdue admission, but even first responders seem increasingly open to acknowledging the limits of human control in disaster situations, even in highly developed places.

The admission that our best efforts may not always be enough opens a small window to shift how we think about disasters. For the North Bay in particular, it provides an invitation to rebuild creatively, in ways that are consistent with what we know about the local environment. As I’ve spoken with Sonoma County residents, it has become clear that anguish and deep grief will persist. At the same time, there is also hope that the fires served to reveal existing inequalities, offering an invitation to heal and transform, to cultivate new alliances, and to re-envision everything from affordable housing availability to a more equitable local economy.

There are still incentives—particularly arcane insurance requirements and building codes—working to keep things largely as they were. But as people commit to regenerating lives and communities, they are also reimagining the world they inhabit. Time will tell if they are able to do the things that might signal real change, like limiting building in the most fire-prone areas, requiring fire-safe structures even in places that may appear impervious, and developing realistic evacuation procedures that take into account the most vulnerable citizens.

There is no doubt that this disaster has deeply tested our assumptions about how we live with wildfires, notably the idea that we can control them. From Houston to Puerto Rico to here at home in California, disasters are revealing new ground that is paradoxically both shakier and more solid than it once seemed. We may find our footing by finally embracing the fact that we can’t always be in charge.

Faith Kearns is a scientist and communications specialist with the California Institute for Water Resources at the University of California who has been working on wildfire, drought, and other disasters in California for over a decade. Find her on Twitter @frkearns.

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Rina Faletti on December 6th, 2017 at 5:50 pm

Thanks to Faith Kearns for her educated insights. I am a water historian whose rural mountain home and property were severely damaged in the Napa-Sonoma fires. Wildfire j. California now means striking a balance between preparaedness and control, which equals new interagency and interdisciplinary management strategies that include property owners. We are listening with ears and minds wide open. As a property owner and an environmental scholar, I am expecting to hear new conversations from all sides.

Mary McAllister on December 8th, 2017 at 4:08 pm

I was introduced to the conceit of humans that nature can be controlled by John McPhee, who wrote “The Control of Nature” nearly 30 years ago. It made such a strong impression on me that I remember it well to this day. Of the three examples he gave of futile attempts to control nature, the one that I remember best is the repeated building of expensive homes on the alluvial fans of Southern California’s foothills. Wealthy people like to build their expensive homes on hills, where the views are best. A feature of the Southern California climate is that rains are infrequent, but torrential. Flash floods are therefore frequent events. These sudden floods carry torrents of rubble from high in the hills to the flat land at the foot of the hills, carrying the expensive homes with them.

You might wonder why people build and rebuild on these alluvial beds of rubble. Their denial of physical reality isn’t fundamentally different from the people who rebuild their homes on flood plains where they are repeatedly destroyed. Insurance companies no longer insure these homes, but the federal government long ago stepped in and subsidized the insurance that keeps rebuilding these homes.

I am not hopeful that Californians will abandon the fantasy that wildfires can be prevented and their homes protected from the wildfires that cannot be prevented. Such fantasies enable us to cope with our anxieties. In the San Francisco Bay Area, this fantasy is based on the absurd belief that destroying one species of non-native tree—eucalyptus–will protect homes from being destroyed by wildfires. Destroying trees is cheaper and less inconvenient than the public policies that would be more effective, such as not rebuilding homes in wind corridors and retrofitting homes with fire-resistant materials. We cannot develop effective public policies to protect property from wildfires as long as this delusion persists.

Bev Von Dohre on December 13th, 2017 at 12:18 pm

I so agree, Mary. It’s horrifying to see the tree killing continuing in our parks, as they inadvertently make catastrophic fire more likely. Most fires start in grasslands. The densest forests have more fog drip (and the tallest trees, like Eucalyptus, bring more than a foot of water a year to the forest) but they also keep out the wind, which can’t be denied is the most serious problem of fire spread and is the major component of the 1991 fire and the recent North Bay as well as Southern California fires. Dense forest also keeps out the cause of most fires: arsonists. (The spate of Berkeley hill fires a few months ago were started by one man with a cigarette lighter, who luckily started the fires near the roads. It would have been much worse had he gone into the forest.)

But instead of re-thinking their plans, the recent EBRPD mailing, “Compass,” proudly showed a “thinned” area of tree removal, almost inviting the next fire by opening the parks to wind.

We need every tree we can get, and especially not those dying from SOD or infestations, which means healthy exotics, like Eucalyptus and Acacias, as well as native species like Douglas Fir and Monterey Pines (their fossils are found throughout the Bay Area, so they are native.)

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