Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fundamental, Not Incremental, Wildfire Reforms

Written from Redwood City, Calif.--

There is a kind of disjoint between the New York Times and Los Angeles Times coverage of the wildfires in Southern California this past week in today's Sunday newspapers.

The Los Angeles Times pays more attention to the shortfalls in state, county and local planning for the fires -- the state plans for 150 more fire engines (only 19 realized), the decline in the number of volunteers in Orange County, the gaps caused in some places by sending firefighters to earlier fires in others, and so on. All this, I imagine, is quite valid.

But the New York Times takes a longer. deeper view, and it may be a more useful one. Its frontpage story, "Rethinking Fire Policy in the Tinderbox Zone," by Kirk Johnson and Jesse McKinley, points out that, while fires recur year after year, the number of homes built in hazardous zones has increased exponentially. Had the fires that occurred last week occurred in 1980, 61,000 homes would have been within a mile of the blazes. By 2000, that number would have been 100,000, and by this year it has grown to 125,000. The figures are from a University of Wisconsin study. During the same period, the firefighting resources have not grown by as much. So the exposure has increased, while the means of dealing with it have been reduced proportionally.

The New York Times story gives a nod to the thought that perhaps it would be wise to curtail or stop building homes in the hazardous zones. The story quotes the state fire marshal, Kate Dargan, as saying that discussions have been going on about this, but it says decision on such a monumental change is "prrhaps five to 10 years away."

As a native Californian with experience in disaster reporting, I'd say there is every likelihood, it is further off than this. There is virtually no chance of an operable ban on building in hazardous zones within the next decade, because it would be resisted violently by both homeowners and the building industry. The lobbies are just too strong in Sacramento, and our elected officials lack the willpower to take on such major reforms.

The authors of the New York Times story are more accurate when they observe, "State and local governments are locked in an increasingly difficult battle with Mother Nature."

Another interesting fact noted in an accompanying story by Solomon Moore and Eric Lipton is that while about 2,000 homes were burned or damaged in the latest Southern California wildfires, approximately 300,000 were so affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast two years ago.

But there has been no plan adopted to clear out of New Orleans and build on higher ground. Rather the emphasis there has been on rebuilding structures and building a more efficient levie system.

Proposals that certain hazardous zones be made the subject of building bans has also been heard in relation to the seismic dangers in California. But in this instance even less has been done. The Alquist-Priolo Act bans building right on faults, but the ban involves only a few feet. At least with the fires, some emphasis has been placed on clearing the brush from the immediate vicinity of houses and using more fire-resistant roofing materials.

Bettina Boxall, in her story in the New York Times, makes a reference to California growth in relation to the fires, but she does not go into the detail evident in the New York Times stories.

Yet, this is a debate that needs to be undertaken, and newspapers like the Los Angeles Times have to widen their attention span to all the time rather than primarily the week or two after each major fire episode.

Another aspect of what has transpired in the last week has to do with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which fell down almost completely after Katrina, and has now suffered the embarrassment of calling a fake news conference to report too glowingly on its supposed greater success with the fires.

But the trouble with these disaster agencies is that they are jerry-built operations functioning at full strength only during and in the immediate aftermath of disasters, and even then with second rate personnel.

Yet, it should be noted, disasters can have devastating political consequences. Almost as much as Iraq, the Bush Administration has suffered huge embarrassment by the perceived incompetence of its handling of Katrina, and in California, the able Gov. Pat Brown fell to Ronald Reagan in 1966 in part because of his perceived ineptitude at the time of the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles (when he had the misfortune to be on a trip to Greece when his lieutenant governor, Glenn Anderson, failed to send in the National Guard promptly enough).

When Grey Davis was elected governor, I mentioned to a key adviser that Davis should take care to name a top person to head the State Office of Emergency Services, just in case a disaster struck. Yet, Davis appointed a second-rater and was just lucky nothing of great magnitude did happen.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has weakened the state Seismic Safety Commission.

It remains somewhat debatable to what extent, if any, global warming that has occurred so far contributed to the week's wildfires. It is possible, but as the press points out there have been devastating fires before. Very serious ones occurred in 1889, but there weren't very many dwellings in their path.

If, of course, we do little or nothing about global warming, certainly the case up to now, and it does grow as bad as some scientific estimates would have it, then the issues posed by the week's fires will be very small compared with what could happen.



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