Fire, Fury and Flood

Wildfires, Mudslides and Death Ravage California in 2017-2018
Thomas Fire rages in California 2018
Thomas Fire raging in December 2017.

Californians have had to contend with the deadly scourge of wildfires and their destructive aftermath ever since migrants first began pouring into the state en masse more than a century ago and settling in fire-prone habitats such as coastal sage scrub and chaparral.

These two vegetation communities dominate much of the landscape in the southern and coastal regions of the Golden State. Fires are an integral part of the ecology of scrub and chaparral habitats, and they burn every few years despite our best – and often misguided – efforts to tame them. Fire prevention, control, management and suppression have sometimes only aggravated the situation.

While wildland fires, and the drought cycles and Santa Ana winds that feed and fan their flames, have been part of California long before humans arrived on the scene, in recent years an ominous new term has made its appearance: “the new normal.” The new normal refers to hotter, drier conditions and larger, more intensive and catastrophic wildfires: big fires morphing into so-called megafires.

As the already hot, arid climate of the American Southwest grows even hotter and drier, states like California are getting parched more frequently by drought. At the same time, subdivisions to house California’s ever-growing human population of 40 million and counting are penetrating ever more deeply into fire-prone habitats.

Risk and vulnerability are expanding exponentially.

The net result is a dramatic increase in the size and intensity of California wildfires, accompanied by a depressing increase in the damage and destruction they cause, including loss of life. The year 2017 saw both the largest wildfire in California history – the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties – and the most destructive – the Tubbs Fire – in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties north of San Francisco.

The Thomas Fire burned 281,893 acres (440 square miles), surpassing the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County to become the largest in California history. Denuding the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara and Montecito of their dense, protective layer of chaparral exposed steep slopes to the pelting raindrops of winter storms, promoting massive erosion, and increasing the vulnerability of communities below to flash flooding, landslides and mudslides.

The Thomas Fire thus set the stage for the lethal flooding and mudslides that engulfed Montecito and claimed 21 lives (with two others still missing and believed to be dead) in January 2018. Members of CAPS’ own board and staff were personally affected, having to be evacuated and, in one instance, losing a home.

the Santa Ynez Valley
Santa Ynez Mountains above Montecito, October 2016, pre-Thomas Fire.
Tables 1 and 2 illustrate just how the size and damage of wildfires in California have exploded in the last two decades. Table 1 – Ten Largest Wildfires in California History – shows that all of the five largest wildfires in state history, and seven of the top ten, have occurred just since 2000. Table 2 – Ten Most Destructive Wildfires in California History – shows that four of the five most destructive wildfires in state history, and seven of the top ten, have also happened in the 2000s. Destructiveness is rated by the number of structures (e.g., homes, buildings) destroyed by a given fire.
wildfire table chart
All in all, in 2017, California was scorched by nearly 9,000 wildfires, which in total burned some 1.2 million acres (1,845 square miles), about equal to the size of Delaware. More than 10,800 structures were destroyed, and at least 46 lives lost. Unfortunately for Californians, the immediate future is likely to see more of the same, only more so, driven by two potent, underlying trends: 1) California’s continuing, immigration-driven population growth and related sprawl into the countryside and 2) a drying, warming climate. Neither of these persistent, forceful trends shows any sign of tapering off. In the coming decades, wildfires are likely to grow even more massive, destructive and deadly.
Montecito, CA mudslide of 2018
Mudslide engulfs Montecito home, January 2018.

The economic, environmental and human cost of wildfires to all Californians, including individual residents, businesses, and local, state and federal governments, will continue to skyrocket; we will all pay more to prevent wildfires and mitigate their damages. For lost lives, there can be no compensation. To really address the root causes of the wildfire predicament would require Californians to face up to the perils of both overpopulation and anthropogenic climate change. The state’s liberal Democratic leadership is all gung-ho about the latter but all hung-up on the former, because this would mean acknowledging that immigration levels are too high. Apparently, Democratic politicians would rather sacrifice the well-being of their state’s residents and environment than forego their fierce commitment to open borders and the perpetual population growth this engenders.
Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, California
Entire neighborhoods of Santa Rosa destroyed by the Tubbs Fire.
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