As if there wasn’t enough discouraging news in other sections of the newspaper, the New York Times Book Review last week showcased books on the dangers associated with earthquakes and wildfires.
Happy New Year, California.
It remains a cruel irony. For years, Sonoma County residents worried about what would happen when the next major earthquake struck, only to become victims of the most destructive wildfires in state history.
The multiple fires proved worse than anything we could have imagined, leaving us to ponder how we can be better prepared for the next disaster.
Disaster preparedness remains a product of human imagination. Using the best available science, experts try to imagine all the things that could occur and then — as best they can — devise plans to limit the risks to life and property. Building codes, land-use restrictions, early warning systems, evacuation routes, methods of communications, food and water supplies, medical care, search and rescue teams, the reliability of transportation systems and of the electric grid — all of these and more become necessary considerations.
Here in California, we have not made it easy on ourselves. We choose to live on a landscape where wildfires and earthquakes come with the territory. (As if on cue, a 4.4 magnitude earthquake struck on the Hayward fault in Berkeley on Thursday morning, rattling residents all over the Bay Area. Seismologists said the shake could be a precursor to a larger quake.)
While the estimates vary depending on the source, what we know is that millions of Californians live in neighborhoods vulnerable to wildfires.
In Southern California alone, 550,000 homes occupy the “highest-risk fire zones,” the Los Angeles Times reported in November. If you want to include the homes in areas of lower but still significant risk, the Times said, you could double that number.
On Thursday, state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones cited insurance industry findings that say 3.6 million California homes are located in areas of high or very high fire risk. Jones seeks new laws to prevent homeowners in these areas from losing their insurance, or seeing their premiums become unaffordable.
In the aftermath of the October fires, he fears more Sonoma County neighborhoods will be placed in these high-risk categories.
Revisiting the North Bay fires, we focus on the Fountaingrove and Coffey Park neighborhoods — and we should — but these were not the only neighborhoods ravaged by fire. Thousands of people in other locations lost homes, thousands more were evacuated, and thousands more were told to be ready to be evacuated.
There were fires all over the place. (The Atlas Peak fire in Napa, which gets less attention, caused horrific damage.)
Meanwhile, Californians also co-exist with the risks associated with earthquakes, floods and landslides.
Let’s be honest: We live in harm’s way. (In fact, the most luxurious homes tend to occupy the most hazardous areas because many people want to live in areas of natural beauty.)
And the great majority of us — almost 40 million people by now — aren’t going anywhere.
So what can we learn?
We can begin by acknowledging that changes in climate patterns are changing the game, increasing the ferocity and the risks associated with fires, floods and landslides.