Lynne Plambeck | A War on Nature Will Not Solve Climate Change

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Humans cause fires. According to CalFire, even as the number of wildfires in California rose due to the dry conditions brought on by climate change, the number of human-caused wildfires rose to 95% of all fires.  

A good number of the most dangerous wind-driven fires were caused by downed power lines. Numerous fires start from car fires off freeways or even people pulling to the side of the road and catching the brush on fire with a hot catalytic converter. 

Carelessly tossed cigarettes and homeless campfires are also frequent sources of fire in our area. 

And of course there are a few fires that are purposely set by an arsonist. 

We don’t help ourselves, either. When cities and counties allow developers to push suburban housing like Lyons Ranch out into dangerous areas, we are putting new residents in harm’s way with inadequate evacuation routes. 

We already know these locations are prone to massive wildfires because we have labeled them “very high fire hazard zones.” We know that the new residents will have trouble getting fire insurance in California, where companies are refusing to cover and dropping existing customers because of losses. 

We know that, in the end, we taxpayers will be picking up the millions of dollars in costs to fight fires in these locations.

As humans capable of analyzing problems, we see pictures over and over again where trees have survived the fire, but the house near them has not. Why? Was it the composition of the roof? Did embers get in under the eaves or sucked into the attic? 

Was it an exterior wood siding that caught fire? Is there a way of hardening our homes against fire? What changes need to be included in the building codes?

Are public safety electrical shutoffs really the answer? It seems obvious that shutting off power to the very wells that supply the water to fight the fire is not going to work. One Aqua Dulce resident is very aware of this after losing his house in the Tick Fire because he could not pump water from his well due to the Edison shutoff. 

Water agencies will have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy high-powered generators to pump water during fires, which will be passed on to ratepayers. Nor is a sudden shutoff acceptable to those who need electricity to evacuate down an elevator or to run their medical equipment. 

Shouldn’t we be addressing the frailties of a crumbling electrical grid rather than addressing the problem by turning the power off?

Yes, it makes sense to have a fire boundary around an individual house, but in a wind-driven fire where embers can fly for miles, cutting down forests and bulldozing chaparral will not solve the problem.

It seems to me that we are not asking the very questions that could help reduce fire danger. Instead of addressing the human causes of fires we seem to be conducting a war against nature. 

Our community loves its open space. We have spent a lot of money acquiring the beautiful oak-studded hillsides that surround our valley. Destroying the very nature that we have tried so hard to preserve will not stop wind-driven wildfires. 

We must stop causing them.

We need to stop approving houses in fire hazard zones. We need to harden the housing in the fire zones where it already exists to reduce the danger of flying embers to the extent possible. 

We need to underground electrical wires or go to decentralized solar that will avoid the problem of downed transmission lines all together. 

We need to do a better job of clearing flammable brush along highways, find homes for those who are starting cooking fires or at least not allow encampments in fire hazard areas. 

At the root of the increased intensity of fires in California is human-caused climate change. Cutting down all the trees in the forest and chipping hundreds of thousands of acres of our beautiful California chaparral as proposed by CalFire vegetation plans will not remedy climate change. It will only make it worse by eliminating the very plants and trees that are absorbing CO2 and helping to mitigate the problem. 

It is time we treat climate change as an emergency and help society to make rapid changes toward fossil fuel reduction.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment. 

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