Monday, Oct. 29, 2007 | The two worst fires in California recorded history have now struck San Diego County within four years time. While we applaud our community spirit and take stock of the progress we’ve made in fighting such disasters, it’s also time for a dispassionate assessment of what these repeated natural catastrophes mean for our future.
Neither the Cedar fires of 2003 nor the massive fires this month compares to the damage inflicted on New Orleans two years ago, where deaths topped 1,500 and insurance claims reached 40 times the estimated $1 billion in claims San Diegans are expected to file for losses this year. But New Orleans is a special case, a city that exists thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers, which (incredibly for an official agency) accepted full blame for the failure of its levees during hurricane Katrina. The Corps is spending $4 billion to rebuild the system to resist future hurricanes.
But what can San Diego do to resist future fires, especially if the danger is growing worse because of climate change? Evidence shows that temperatures have risen 1 degree over the past 15 years in the western states, and rising temperatures mean earlier snow melt-off, shorter springs and longer fire seasons. According to the National Forest Service, nine of the worst fire seasons in the past 50 years occurred in the past decade. Whereas 15 years ago, a 100,000-acre fire was exceptional, today we are seeing 500,000- acre fires routinely (the Cedar fire and this month’s fires are in the 300,000-acre range).
Firefighters have given up trying to stop these huge fires from burning down forests. Officials reiterated constantly last week that as long as the Santa Anas blew and smoke and heat kept aircraft grounded, firefighters could only wait for the elements to improve. When they finally did improve, the primary job was to save houses, not forests.
Will all these houses be rebuilt? Should they be? With the forests burned out and the land barren, one could argue that building can now go even deeper up the mountains and into the canyons, and that semi-rural areas will become even more inviting for our county population, growing by 40,000 people annually. Insurance rates will increase for people in fire zones, but insurance companies, with record sales and profits last year, can easily afford a $1 billion quadrennial charge to cover fires in San Diego.
One problem with destroying the eco-system to accommodate more sprawl into the hills is lack of water. The rise in temperatures and earlier springs means not only longer, more frequent and vaster fires, but lighter snow-packs in the mountains and less water to put the fires out. Well before the fires, the Metropolitan and San Diego water systems announced 8 percent rate increases this year, with heavy users paying penalties.
San Diego’s future, especially with a growing population, is linked to slowing the rate of temperature rise, now one degree each 15 years. If we are to expect 300,000-acre fires every four years and less water to fight those fires, we have to begin to reverse the trends that have made last year and this the worst fire seasons in history. Just as New Orleans cannot survive without fixing the problem that caused its destruction, San Diego cannot thrive if it must face $1 billion fire ravages every four years — or, as warming increases, even more frequently.
The evidence on global warming is decisive. Al Gore got all the attention for the Nobel Peace Prize, but half that prize went to the IPCC, the panel of scientists — including three from San Diego’s Scripps Institution — that has worked together for two decades to amass evidence on global warming. The dissent from the consensus on global warming is now so marginal as to be dismissed as either crackpot, as in Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear;” or delusional, as in Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg’s claim (Denmark is long on water and short on fires) that temperature is rising but that it doesn’t matter.
San Diego cannot afford to hitch its future to novelists or Danish dissidents. The evidence that Mother Nature has given us in the past 1,460 days is too powerful, and for those who might want to think that these fires are just our bad luck, I would point out our fires are symptomatic of what’s occurring throughout the American West. If San Diego gets more attention it’s because we are the biggest city living in a fire belt. Ketchum, Idaho; Yellowstone Park, Santa Barbara, Malibu, Phoenix, Tucson have all had big fires in recent years, but nowhere else did a half million people have to be evacuated.
The thousand families who lost their houses will soon start rebuilding, though maybe some won’t choose the same spot. Some families lost houses they had rebuilt after the 2003 fires, and perhaps twice will be enough for them. But even as we rebuild, we need a sober assessment of whether we should continue to force our way ever deeper into the mountains and fire zones as global temperatures continue to rise and water resources become scarcer.
The solution is one for governments more than for individuals. Just as global warming cannot be stopped unless governments cooperate, the rush in San Diego to build deeper into the fire zones cannot be stopped unless the 18 cities and 17 unincorporated communities in the county act together. When the fires strike, as we’ve seen twice in four years, they can spread everywhere. Only the dying winds kept them from burning to the coast this time, as in Malibu. Next time we may not be so lucky.
Results may require coercion. In an action likely to be repeated throughout the European Union, France last week began debating measures to impose special duties on imports from countries — notably the United States and China — that have not signed the Kyoto Treaty on global warming. “It is not right,” President Nicolas Sarkozy, told an audience that included Al Gore, “that our industries, which have adopted measures to meet Kyoto standards, should be subject to competition from industries that are exempt.”
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.