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Golis: Notes from a disaster: Thank God for the firefighters

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Anyone who has driven over Pine Flat Road and Geysers Road knows the steep and rugged terrain, the brush-dry landscapes, the crumbling and washed-out roads (sometimes reduced to a single lane).

Given the punishing topography and the difficulties of moving equipment, this is no place to fight a fire — except fires often occur in places like this.

The Kincade fire started in these mountains, and before the week was over, more than 5,200 firefighters were on the fire lines in Sonoma County.

If you don’t believe firefighters’ work requires bravery, skill and toughness, you haven’t explored the rugged landscape on the east side of the Alexander Valley — or imagined what it’s like to be battling fire and smoke there, while worrying about what will happen when the wind kicks up again.

This past week, first responders — firefighters, police officers and sheriff’s deputies, utility workers and more — were asked again to carry the burden for the inaction of others. We owe these first responders a lot, beginning with our gratitude, our support and our willingness to make changes that reduce the risk from catastrophic wild fires.

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After spending days worrying about what happened to the homes of friends, we learned that all five homes survived the Kincade fire.

There were tears that came with the news. Three of the five families lost their homes in the 2017 Tubbs fire. It hurts the heart to imagine the pain associated with having it happen a second time.

Such are the conflicting emotions associated with this kind of disaster. We’re simultaneously despondent that people lost their homes and thankful that others did not.

All these fires and power outages — they can’t be the new normal. We have to do better, and we have to insist that government pick up the pace.

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It’s true. The official Cal Fire log notes that this fire started near “John Kincade Road and Burned Mountain Road.”

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In Monte Rio, it’s reported that a single store owner lost $15,000 worth of perishable food when the power was turned off.

How many other small businesses have their own stories to tell? How many employees lost several days’ pay (or a week’s supply of food)? How do we even put a cost on schools that were closed, or the disruptions associated with moving patients from hospitals or elderly people from assisted living? With these widespread blackouts, there are more impacts than we can count or quantify.

The worry, of course, is that we may be facing years of these kinds of disruptions. (A spokesperson for PG&E said the other day it might be 10 years before new safety measures are in place.)

As state government begins to figure out what will happen to California’s public utilities, it should be guaranteeing there’s sound science backing up decisions that leave people in the dark.

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We had electricity this past week, but people who live nearby did not. No doubt PG&E can explain why. Whether the people without electricity will be satisfied by that explanation is another story.

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Like many, we received notes from family and friends who live outside California.

We’re OK, I respond, but “all the things we thought we knew about our state may or may not apply.”

Then I add, “Thanks for checking in with formerly smug Californians.”

In so many ways, the Kincade fire and others testify to a state that hasn’t been taking care of business.

California is overdue for a serious and comprehensive conversation about climate change, about who operates the public utilities and who regulates their conduct, about the costs of building in areas of high fire risk and about how we manage forests and grasslands.

Are business and political leaders capable of sustaining the momentum for change? Are consumers and taxpayers prepared to accept the additional costs?

Recent history is not encouraging. “California is burning” has become an oft-used headline in recent years.

Writing about the failure of his home state to respond to problems ranging from fires to the electric grid to housing, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo offered this grim assessment: “Maybe it’s the smoke and the blackouts, but a very un-Californian nihilism has been creeping into my thinking. I’m starting to suspect we’re over. It’s the end of California as we know it.”

So long as the last fire remains fresh in our memory, we talk about improved alert systems and improved firefighting capabilities — and these things are important.

But until we focus on the circumstances that produce these devastating fires, we are fated to do this again next year and the year after that and the year after that.

After this week of devastation, fear and disruptions, it’s irrational to believe that the status quo is good enough.

It’s not difficult to criticize the inaction of others. It feels good. But California’s future will depend on political leaders who are willing to step up and explain how they’re going to make things better.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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