Skelton: California’s ‘new normal’ for wildfires is unacceptable
Please spare me all the political patter about California burning being the “new normal.” It’s really getting old.
If the new normal means week after week of smoky skies blotching our once-beautiful state, I don’t want to hear about it. Seeing and smelling is depressing enough.
If it means thousands of homes constantly being incinerated and people dying in flames, California is headed into ruins.
Never mind our high taxes, unaffordable housing and regulatory morass, if the new normal is year-round firestorms, sensible people will flee this state. Tourists will vacation where they don’t need to cart fire extinguishers and wear face masks.
I just spent two gloomy weeks at Lake Tahoe. In the old normal, it was gorgeous. This time, you couldn’t see the Sierras across the lake on most days. Water famed for its spectacular blue color had turned gray, mirroring the sooty sky.
As of Wednesday, 14,000 firefighters were battling 18 large wildfires across California, according to the state government. More than 2,000 structures — mostly homes — had been damaged or destroyed.
One hellish fire in Mendocino, Colusa and Lake counties had burned more than 300,000 acres to become the largest California blaze ever recorded — and it was still burning.
Of the 20 largest wildfires in California history, 15 have occurred since 2000. So have 13 of the 20 most destructive fires, measured by structures destroyed. In three Wine Country fires last October, 7,774 buildings were wiped out and 31 people killed.
If this is the new normal, the Golden State cannot be sustained.
But the new normal is indeed climate change — hotter weather that, combined with the recent four-year drought, parched vegetation and stoked it for runaway wildfires. But we’re also to blame for failing to clear our forests of dead trees and combustible underbrush. And people and their property become at risk when they dare nature by living in volatile woodlands.
Still, “95 percent of these fires are started by people,” says Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. “Many times it’s just an accident — a broken down car on the side of a road, someone welding or hitting a rock. One less spark means one less fire. The public has a responsibility here.”
Then there are the creeps who purposely set fires. They should be locked up permanently, especially when the fire kills someone.
The crusade against global warming is noble. But California produces only 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions that are heating the planet. Not every state and nation are as committed to reversing the warming as California. It’ll be a long wait before the cooling commences.
Meanwhile, we’re in the thick of firestorms. Government’s first duty is to provide public safety. There should be no higher priority for Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature than combating wildfires — not homelessness, not health care, not water tunnels, not a bullet train.
Brown, who is arguably the country’s most outspoken advocate of combating climate change, has taken some important steps to improve fire prevention and firefighting.
The wildfire threat “would be much worse,” if it weren’t for actions the Brown administration has taken, insists Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services.