California is burning, in our second year of record wildfires with peak season still approaching. Higher temperatures and droughts fueled by climate change are turning the Golden State into a tinder box.
But the danger from these blazes can’t be blamed on environmental factors alone. Reckless county governments and irresponsible developers are making terrible decisions that put more and more people at risk.
Sprawling new communities across California are literally adding kindling to wildfires. This is especially true of commuter towns built on the outskirts of suburbs, often in fire-prone areas. Whole communities are in harm’s way, it’s more difficult to put out blazes and there’s no sign of a change in course.
In Los Angeles County, several large projects are planned in hazardous places. A new community called Centennial,roughly twice the size of Santa Monica,would be built in “very high” and “high” fire hazard areas in the county’s remote northern corner.
San Diego County is considering a range of risky projects, including Lilac Hills Ranch, a large development close to the 2017Lilac Fire, which burned 4,100 acres and destroyed more than 150 structures.
Northern California is hardly immune, according to geographer Stephen Strader, who found development in fire-prone areas such as Mendocino and Lake counties, where the Mendocino Complex Fire recently became the largest in the state’s recorded history.
Many of California’s habitats have long been prone to fires. Chaparral, sage scrub, forests and grasslands have adapted. Wildfires provide important nutrients to the soil and trigger reproduction in various plants.
Those same landscapes that make wildfires common also make our state a beautiful place to live and create lucrative opportunities for developers. But their profits come at a terrible cost.
Leap-frog developments require new infrastructure, encourage more sprawl and gobble up open space. They push into increasingly remote areas in and near forests, grasslands and the arid deserts of Southern California. And these projects in wildfire-prone areas increase the risk of fires started by power line sparks, burning cigarettes and vehicles.
And once fires start, they’re harder to contain. These developments are often far from existing infrastructure and roads and have less access to fire departments and emergency responders. These fires kill and injure residents and firefighters. They traumatize thousands of families forced to evacuate their homes. Even people far from the flames suffer from smoke and air pollution.
While we can curb risks in these communities by improving emergency services, if we really want to keep Californians safe, we shouldn’t permit counties to allow this development in the first place.
We can’t stop wildfires in California. But we shouldn’t put more people in danger by building new communities in the path of these dangerous blazes.