Golis: Can Californians learn to live in harm’s way?




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.

We need to learn more about what this means for fire suppression methods and for where we build and how we build. Are fire codes that govern defensible spaces, sprinkler systems, building materials and air vents adequate to the task?

If downed electrical wires are found to be a cause of one or more fires, do we need to place electrical lines in high-risk areas underground? Or do we need to do something as simple as turn off parts of the power grid during periods of high winds? A University of Washington atmospheric scientist proposed that option in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in November, “What if people were paying attention to (the winds)? What could they have done?”

Sooner than later, we need to identify what worked and what didn’t in the responses to the October fires. In doing so, we may learn lessons useful in other kinds of disasters. A major earthquake, for example.

Finally, all of us must be better prepared, recognizing that disaster preparedness begins with a plan and the capacity to be self-contained for a time. (Google “Be Prepared California” and you will find plenty of good information.)

California is not alone, of course. Earthquakes occur in many parts of the world, and unlike folks in places such as Florida and Kansas, we seldom experience hurricanes and tornadoes.

Still, we know there is work to do. The development of a coherent approach to reducing the impact of natural disasters will require time, money and leadership from government and business alike. Government agencies will need to work together, knocking down silos and rejecting the temptation to think that the old ways of doing business will be good enough.

In Sonoma County, the recovery effort inevitably leads to a conversation about how to speed the process of rebuilding more than 5,200 homes, while also controlling costs and figuring out the best way to contain the risks.

If you think this will be easy, you’re not paying attention.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at