Golis: Learning to manage fires’ historic impacts

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Friends who lost their homes in the 2017 fires moved into new houses in recent days. Nineteen months after losing everything, they arrived at a place where they were able to move on.

Every family that lost a home in the fires faced its own set of agonizing choices. Do we take on the multiple obstacles associated with rebuilding? Do we buy another house? Keep renting? Move elsewhere?

Some still don’t know the answer. Others await the slow process of rebuilding.

After 5,300 homes were destroyed, there were more stories, more adversities and more unspoken anxieties than we can know.

When travelers say they’re from Santa Rosa, the question soon follows: Is everything OK there? For a long to time to come, Sonoma County will be remembered for the Tubbs and Nuns fires of October 2017.

Meanwhile, the news each day brings us other reminders that dealing with the reverberations of a historic disaster will require patience and determination.

Local and state fire crews are gearing up for the coming fire season. California water systems are seeking relief from fire liabilities. A popular restaurant destroyed in the Tubbs fire reopened in a new location. State officials are pressing insurance companies to extend another year of rental payments to fire survivors. A state commission recommends a change in fire liability for utility companies. A letter writer complains there is still no system in place to alert residents about future fires. Neighbors are banding together to reduce the danger posed by fires yet to come. County officials begin the first-ever inspection of fire precautions at rural homes and begin to develop evacuation plans for at-risk communities. State regulators agree to allow power to be shut off during times of high-fire risk.

And those were only some of the stories in recent days.

The drama also is playing out in Washington where local and state officials are seeking disaster aid, and where the Trump administration wants to punish California by withholding payments for firefighting on federal forest lands. Revealing more about his animosity toward California than his knowledge of weather and wildfires, the president has blamed the fires on the state’s environmental rules. Never mind that most forest land in California is owned by the federal government. (A new study says the federal government isn’t doing enough to limit the danger from wildfires.)

This is how it will be. We could wish for fewer complications, but it doesn’t matter. Big and complicated issues are what we get.

Remember, too, that communities and government agencies must confront issues that came into focus as a result of the fires. Among them:

— Firefighting capacities must be reviewed — and upgraded where necessary.

— To reduce the buildup of vegetation that fuels the ferocity of wildfires, new forestry regimes must be developed and budgeted.

— Utility companies and the agencies that regulate them must review the feasibility of new designs for electrical facilities.

— Cities and water agencies must reexamine the reliability of water supplies available during an emergency.

— Alert systems and evacuation plans must be established to help people escape from fast-spreading fires.

— Local and state agencies must reexamine building codes and land-use plans. The fact is, millions of Californians live in fire-prone areas.

— The governor and the Legislature need to decide how to apportion liability for these disasters — and perhaps decide what’s next for Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Given the number and complexity of these issues, it will take longer than we would like to resolve them.

Keep in mind that the two most disastrous fires in state history happened in the past two years. If recent history has taught us anything, it is that more fires will occur.

So we can move to reduce the number of fires and the damages inflicted by the fires that do occur, or we can accept that more devastation and heartbreak are coming our way.

Given the risks, this doesn’t seem like a difficult choice.

But beware of the temptation to put decisions off to some other time — to study and then study some more. Another fire season is on the way, and after that, another and another. It’s time to get ready.

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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