PD Editorial: Getting ready for the next wildfire

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To live in California is to live with the wildfires.

Most of us understand that, especially after the infernos of 2017 and 2018 — fires that consumed 1.6 million acres, destroyed 20,000 homes and claimed more than 100 lives.

Still, we were startled to learn how many people call fire-prone areas home.

More than 1.1 million structures are located in the highest- risk fire zones, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of Cal Fire risk maps. That’s roughly one of every 10 buildings in the entire state.

Los Angeles and San Diego counties have the most buildings in these combustible areas, according to the Times analysis, but the Cal Fire maps also identify significant concentrations in Northern California, including parts of the East Bay and some of the areas hit hardest by wildfires over the past 18 months: Santa Rosa, Redding and Paradise.

Ken Pimlott, the state’s recently retired fire chief, suggested that these vulnerable areas should be off-limits to residential construction.

That’s not likely to happen any time soon. And even if it did, millions of people already live and work in the so-called wildland-urban interface.

These communities — including our own — need to start hardening themselves against future fires.

That means preparing homes for fires the way we already do for earthquakes and floods. It also means developing better alert systems, heeding evacuation warnings when they come and being prepared to shelter in place when escape routes are cut off, as they were in Paradise.

Fourteen months after Sonoma County’s firestorm, the Board of Supervisors is looking ahead. Earlier this month, the supervisors adopted a framework for disaster recovery and preparedness. On a parallel track, they advanced an overdue restructuring of the county’s emergency services department, which had lost the confidence of the board, other fire agencies and the public.

The framework identifies more than 200 goals and actions under broad heading such as community preparedness, infrastructure, housing, economy, safety net services and natural resources. Michael Gossman, the county’s director of recovery and resiliency, said the 360-page document includes goals for the next five to 10 years.

Long-term goals are fine, but the “new normal” demands expedited action on, among other things, vegetation management, warning systems and evacuation routes.

Further consolidation of the unwieldy collection of underfunded, understaffed fire departments serving much of the county also should be a near-term priority.

To that end, Supervisor James Gore is on the right track.

“What I am pushing for,” he told Staff Writer Hannah Beausang, “is that we identify the top 10 items we want to have completed by the first quarter of 2019.”

Gore and fellow Supervisor Susan Gorin say alert systems should be at the top of the list.

They’re right. The county’s failure to use an Amber alert-style warning system as the Tubbs fire chewed up thousands of homes in 2017 cannot be repeated. The board must ensure that clear protocols are in place and training and systems stay up to date. One valuable addition already is in place: Fire-detection cameras around the county. But better alerts aren’t enough to prevent fires. That will require, for starters, improved vegetation and property management.

As Pilmot, the newly retired state fire chief, told an Associated Press reporter: “Fire is a way of life in California, and we have to learn how to live with it. We have to learn how to have more resilient communities.”

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

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