California’s choice: Let it burn, or figure out how to prevent deadly fires

Drone flyover shows Camp Fire destruction in Paradise

Flyover shows the destruction from the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest wildfire, in Paradise on Nov. 13, 2018.
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Flyover shows the destruction from the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest wildfire, in Paradise on Nov. 13, 2018.

The Camp Fire has claimed more than 60 victims, and rescue workers continue to search for hundreds who are still missing.

The Woolsey fire, burning in Southern California. has killed three people.

Just months ago, seven people perished in the Carr Fire in Redding.

The Tubbs Fire, around Santa Rosa, killed 22 in 2017. Mudslides following the Thomas Fire in Southern California killed 20 people last year.

Even Californians who live far from the fire lines are affected. With our attention fixed on Paradise, we anxiously wonder: Who will be next?

Scientists predict extreme fire danger across much of the West. Jerry Brown, California’s outgoing governor, says we’re already living in the new abnormal.

Our hearts go out to those who have lost family, friends, pets and homes.

One of the most-read stories on sanluisobispo.com in recent days is about how to help, and there’s no question your support is needed and appreciated.

But when it comes to tangible steps that will reduce tragedies, we face a long road.

State and federal agencies, environmentalists, utilities, planning officials and homeowners must take seats at the same table. We need a clear understanding of risks and tradeoffs and we need strategies to reduce the likelihood of another catastrophe.

There are plenty of places to dig in:

  • Are we doing enough to build fire resistance into our communities? Should building (or rebuilding) be allowed in fire-prone communities? Why spend millions on a mansion in the hills if we risk loss of life to defend it? Can homeowners or homeowners associations accept responsibility for the risk that comes with a view of beautiful, old-growth trees out the kitchen window?

  • Utilities must evaluate the danger posed by overhead lines and, where necessary, bury lines underground. Some already are doing that. San Diego Gas & Electric plans to convert 20 miles of overhead wires to underground in a high fire-risk area in Southern California. In Sonoma County, PG&E is undergrounding utility lines as part of a test project.

  • For those who already live in high-risk areas, let’s be proactive about cutting power lines that spark fires. What are the safest steps in areas where it’s difficult, or even impossible, to bury lines? Are we prepared to live off generators during red-flag conditions?

  • Evacuation routes are inadequate. What can we put in place as we move forward – sirens, improved reverse 911 calls or other solutions?

  • We must improve forest management. We’ve been talking about this for decades. The biggest threat to our forests is not tree loss from harvesting. It is catastrophic events such as wildfires. Forests will continue to burn and they will burn into our cities if we do not work together to reduce fuel. Sawmills can be retrofitted to accommodate smaller-diameter trees, those that are now serving as kindling for major fires. How can we responsibly remove those trees and cut down on chaparral and brush?

  • We can also look at roadways, which are major flashpoints for human-caused fires. State lawmakers are working on a proposal to thin vegetation growing along forest roads, a logical solution to make fire-prone areas more defensible.

  • One of Gavin Newsom’s first priorities as governor must be to convene an inclusive and thoroughly serious summit on these issues. He must provide it with direction and deadlines.

Private landowners, environmentalists, the federal government and our incoming governor and lawmakers all have roles. And all of us have a responsibility to demand change and acknowledge that it comes only if we work together.

If we do not, California will continue to burn. Our friends and family will continue to be at risk for homelessness and, as we have seen in recent days, far worse.

This editorial was crafted by opinion editors in McClatchys five California newsrooms: The Sacramento Bee, The Fresno Bee, The Modesto Bee, The Merced Sun-Star and The Tribune in San Luis Obispo.

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