The fires this time

As the devastating conflagrations now afflicting Southern California remind us, the state has long been vulnerable to horrific late-season fires. The combination of dry conditions, plentiful fuel and nasty winds has posed a threat for as long as people have lived here. Indeed, we’ve had our share of terrible fires in the foothills and forests of the Sierra Nevada.

As more and more homes have been built farther and farther into fire country, the danger has become proportionally greater. You’d think people would realize that living out in the middle of large amounts of combustible material is dangerous, but local agencies keep approving projects, developers keep building them and folks keep buying them.

Then there’s global warming. As 60 Minutes reported this week, the number of mega-fires in the American West has increased dramatically in recent years. Seven of the 10 worst fire seasons in history have occurred since 1999. The length of the fire season has increased by 78 days in just the past decade. By this time of year, there is no moisture left in plants like those burning in Southern California, and they flame up like paper.

The irony is the automobile that allows us to live out in the country and commute to work in the city is also a primary cause of global warming.

We need to consider the risks and consequences of remote sprawl, pockets of development far away from firefighting services. The best we can hope for at this point is that the fires are soon contained and people can return to their homes—those who still have homes. Dare we also hope that a lesson has been learned, and that Southern Californians—all Californians, for that matter—will start making wiser choices about where to build and live?