Golis: We don’t need to imagine what a fire would look like

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Walking in the neighborhood last week, we came upon a cigarette butt in the middle of the street. With an excess of caution, my wife stepped on it.

Turns out, it might not have been an excess of caution. The cigarette was still burning — within sight of a wooded hillside and a plot of dry grass.

If this was your cigarette, you need to think about what you’re doing. In case you missed it, people in Sonoma County don’t need to imagine what a wildfire would look like. Last October, 24 people died and more than 5,200 homes were burned to the ground.

We would like to think this discarded cigarette represents only a single moment of thoughtlessness, but during a walk through a wooded neighborhood in Montecito Heights, we counted more than a dozen cigarette butts left along the side of the road.

Counting cigarette butts seems a petty exercise, except that cataclysmic fires begin with the smallest of mistakes — a burning cigarette butt, a campfire, hot exhaust, an equipment spark. A recent national study found that more than 80 percent of all wildfires are human-caused.

Were these butts burning when they were discarded? We can’t know. Best case, they tell us about people without the imagination necessary to understand how it would feel to have cigarette butts dumped in their front yards. Worst case, they become an invitation to catastrophe.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s still a thing,” Santa Rosa fire Chief Tony Gossner told me. “I see (someone tossing a cigarette) and I think, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’”

“It’s more common than you think,” said Fire Marshal Scott Moon.

Toss a cigarette, and you’re breaking the law, they said, and if a fire results, you could be on the hook for paying damages.

Two years ago, four homes were destroyed and 10 homes were damaged after a cigarette was tossed from a car along Highway 101 in Petaluma.

At this point, no one should need to be reminded that California is at risk in ways we could not have imagined a few years ago. The headline “California is burning” has become something of a cliché as news organizations recount the rush of fires and the impacts of drought and climate change. Record-high temperatures are becoming common. (On the day the Carr fire struck Redding, the temperature was 113 degrees.)

The Tubbs fire last October in Sonoma County became the most costly in state history. The Mendocino Complex fires in Mendocino, Lake and Colusa counties last week became the largest in state history. Yosemite National Park remains closed to summer visitors because of a fire that has burned for more than four weeks.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times counted 18 fires that have burned more than 600,000 acres.

“Such calamities, once considered freakish, are now commonplace,” the Economist magazine declared last week.

Leaping freeways, rivers and fire breaks, these conflagrations — driven by tornado-like winds — burn with a ferocity that is changing the rules of firefighting.

A new study found that more than two million California homes are located in areas of high or extreme risk from wildfires. Before long, local and state governments face a reckoning that confronts where and how we build, how we prevent fires, how we pay the burgeoning costs associated with fighting these fires and how we assign liability for the damages they cause.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” Gov. Jerry Brown said following a briefing by state emergency officials. “Since civilization emerged 10,000 years ago, we haven’t faced this kind of heat condition and it’s going to continue getting worse.”

I asked Gossner and Moon what Santa Rosans could do to reduce the risk of another catastrophic fire.

— On “red flag,” windy or hot days, don’t cut dry grass, and on days when you can cut grass or vegetation, do the work before 10 a.m. — that is, before the day turns warm.

— Remove dead or dying vegetation near your home, and clean gutters.

— Understand how your home functions. If the electricity is turned off, will you have water? Will the garage door open?

— Reach out to your neighbors, especially seniors and the disabled, and know how to help each other in an emergency.

— Don’t leave a burning barbecue, and be prepared to extinguish any fire that escapes.

— On hot days, think twice before using backyard fire pits, and clear away grass and other flammable materials around fire pits.

— Pay attention to the weather and to your surroundings. (Information about creating your own emergency plan is available at the Santa Rosa Fire Department’s website: https://srcity.org/469/Make-an-Emergency-Plan.)

The state Department of Forestry says the fire season now lasts 78 days longer than it used to last. It is August, which means we face another eight weeks or more of fire risk. Please be careful, and keep that butt to yourself.

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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