Devastating wine country fire must force a new look at prevention

Flames from a wildfire consume a home Monday east of Napa.
Flames from a wildfire consume a home Monday east of Napa. AP

California’s iconic wine country, a source of pride and pleasure for so many of us for so long, now must become the focus of an intensive assessment, both of the scope of the devastation and of the cause of the fires that have so far claimed 31 lives.

In the coming weeks and months, public officials, prodded by citizens and civic leaders, must analyze specifics, not the least of which will include where and how we build houses.

A 2013 study by the Center for Insurance Policy and Research found that nearly 2 million California homes were in what is known as the wildland-urban interface. That’s about one in every 7 houses in the state, and in the years since, the risk has only grown.

Understanding that fire has a habit of striking in the same places, policymakers need to determine whether development in fire-prone places should be further restricted – it probably should be – and whether building codes and brush clearance requirements must be tightened. Emergency communications must be improved, given that few people have land lines and cell service failed as the fires spread.

Sacramento lobbyist Darius Anderson, a Sonoma County resident and owner and managing member of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, announced he is taking a temporary leave to advocate for the region and is enlisting other political and business leaders to help in the rebuilding effort.

Anderson told an editorial board member that they will focus on short and longer term needs that may include changing laws where necessary. We encourage discussion and hope action will follow soon that will help not just the wine country recovery, but other high risk areas that have less political clout.

Causes of this week’s conflagration remain to be determined, but strong wind knocked down numerous power lines. A PG&E spokesperson described it as a “historic wind event that swept across PG&E service area.”

“These destructive winds, along with millions of trees weakened by years of drought and recent renewed vegetation growth from winter storms, all contributed to some trees, branches and debris impacting our electric lines across the North Bay,” PG&E said in a statement.

Cal Fire is developing maps detailing fire zones, and is expected to deliver them in early 2018 to the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees utilities such as PG&E. The commission will develop a strategy for limiting fire risk from power lines. Based on history, that process could take years. The wine country fire should add urgency to that undertaking.

The question of whether to bury power lines already is being posed. The answer is not simple. Burying power lines will shield them from wind, but buried lines are subject to flood damage and are tougher to repair than downed power lines.

And burying power lines is costly. Should apartment dwellers in urban areas not prone to wildfires be expected to pay to bury lines in more rural areas and in affluent foothill developments? We doubt it. But if power lines are to remain above fire-prone ground, there must be better ways to protect them from falling trees.

As a natural phenomenon, the needs of a wildfire are basic. They require a certain meteorology – dry air, high pressure, wind, preferably gusting downhill. They also need fuel – dry grass, dry chaparral, houses – and a spark.

We cannot control weather and we have limited sway over geography. But certain ingredients vital to fire are within our domain. Understanding what we can do better, and then summoning the political and financial will to do it, is one way we can honor the memory of those who perished this week.