Disastrous fire management wreaks havoc on California

Like swarms of locusts devouring everything in their path, the wildfires that struck California’s fabled wine country and surrounding areas have left behind death and destruction on an unimaginable scale.

With no warning, the blazes began spreading rapidly on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 8th, and by the end of the week, there had been 31 confirmed deaths, over 400 people still missing, and 3,500 structures destroyed. In Santa Rosa, long considered safe from wildfires, whole neighborhoods went up in flames within minutes. An estimated 60,000 people were forced to flee or were evacuated from the fire-ravaged area.

All told, some 22 separate fires scorched 191,000 acres, or about 300 square miles. It is the second-deadliest wildfire in California since 1923. Adding to the misery were quirks of Mother Nature. The Diablo, a strong gusty wind prevalent in northern California, helped spread the conflagration. And while the arid region has recently recovered from a severe, years-long drought, the grasses that have grown back thanks to the much-needed precipitation enabled the fire to spread more rapidly.

Wildfires and the Environment

In addition to the dreadful loss of life, the wildfires, which are expected to last for several more weeks, have taken their toll on wildlife and air quality. Satellite images show a huge plume of smoke stretching from central California to northwest Nevada and into southern Oregon and Idaho. Sean Reffuse, an air quality analyst with the University of California at Davis, told USA Today that the fires have put 10,000 tons of particulate matter (PM), a leading cause of haze, into the air. He calculates that it would take about 35,000 on-road vehicles a year to produce that much PM pollution. Exposure to higher levels of PM have been associated with respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

At this writing, the cause of the wildfires remains unknown. Wildfires have been a scourge in California and other areas of the arid West for as long as anyone can remember. California’s dry climate and strong winds – Diablo in the north and Santa Anna in the south – are often a wildfire’s best friend.

Consequences of Bad Policies

The region is also dotted with huge national forests, which for decades were governed by disastrous fire-suppression policies. In forests, wildfires, usually caused by lightning, can be nature’s way of removing undergrowth before it has a chance to build up to dangerous levels. When these relatively small fires are suppressed, forests can become veritable tinder boxes. Even after enactment of the Healthy Forests Initiative in the last decade, a law that allows for the removal of dead and diseased trees in national forests, many of the lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, are still at risk of igniting a conflagration.

What’s more, restrictive zoning laws in cities like San Francisco and San Jose have put home prices out of reach for people of upper-middle, middle, and lower income. Unable to afford homes in high-end urban areas, many people are forced to live in distant suburbs, which puts them closer to areas where fire are likely to break out.

Wildfires will always be with us. They come with the territory. But when policies are in place that create conditions that make forests ripe for wildfires or that force people to live in high-risk areas, don’t be surprised if disaster ensues.

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.

  • sean2829

    I’ve read that downed power lines may be responsible for igniting some of the biggest fires. Perhaps utilities lines should be buried or elevated lines upgraded to withstand higher wind speeds.

    • It’s expensive, but burying power lines is one of the most effective ways to combat many natural disasters. Burying key lines was a major factor in Miami’s quick bounce back from Hurricane Irma. Exposed, aging power lines is a key factor making it difficult to get Puerto Rico back on its feet after Hurricane Maria.

      • sean2829

        Perhaps “keep it in the ground” could be a new rallying cry for buried electric utility wires.

  • Marilynne L. Mellander

    CFACT: Photos and drone footage showed dramatic and troubling proof that these fires were not “wildfires” but were intentionally set possibly by patented “directed energy” technology…just look at the Santa Rosa Walmart and Applebees, the Coffey Park neighborhood…like a laser just the houses and buildingslooked like 911 all over again…and the PTB are predictably blaming PG&E once again, good Ludites that they are, and trying to move us to “green” energy production which will leave many out in the cold (or hot depending on the time of year) PLUS….the older neighborhoods like Coffey Park which were destroyed will likely not be rebuilt as single family dwellings but will have internationalist building codes applied as per ICLEI which will make it unlikely that most will be able to resuild and leave the door open for “smart growth” AKA “mixed use” housing….Agenda 2030 in action

  • Gold Stars

    Good article, nice to see some real facts for a change, instead of the crap from the leftist wackos!
    My father’s uncle was killed in the Tillamook burn in Oregon, when a burning snag fell on him. The information about it really puts the lie to some of idiots whom claim fires are so much bigger and worse today!
    https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/tillamook_burn/#.WeaAzrjmh0Y
    The things making fires so bad and out of control are idiotic and dangerous regulations restricting responsible forest management!