AS WE GO TO PRESS WITH THIS ISSUE, the (now) largest fire in California’s history is burning in the northern part of the state, having so far consumed more than 290,000 acres. It’s been labeled the Mendocino Complex Fire and is as of now only about 35% contained. Just a few months ago, a different event set the record: the Thomas Fire, which burned 282,000 acres this past December and January in the southern part of California.
The real question—for California and other states that are increasingly prone to wildfire—is not who has the biggest fire or the most damage, but rather why the fires overall are increasing in frequency, size, and intensity. If your home or business is in the potential path of one of them, it will be obvious to you why it matters, but even if you’re far removed, the financial fallout from the fires and the erosion that follows them affects you.
Arelated question is liability—who should pay? Here in California, for example, fire season hasn’t even properly begun yet—September and October are supposed to be our peak months—yet the state has already spent more than a quarter of the year’s allotted budget for fighting them (the budget year begins in July). For some events, such as last year’s fires in the northern part of the state, a utility’s equipment was blamed and that utility must pay; this holds true even if the utility wasn’t negligent in any way. Pacific Gas and Electric is facing a bill of as much as $12 billion. As a recent Washington Post article points out (www.wapo.st/2KxqeVW), the utilities say they cannot continue to bear that responsibility, but insurance companies, which also don’t want to bear the costs, insist that they should.
Regardless of how a fire begins, once it gets going it’s likely to burn hotter and fiercer than it might have in previous years. The drought that’s lingering throughout many states is part of the reason; it has killed or weakened trees and brush that now provide a rich source of fuel. California’s governor and others take the longer-term view that a changing climate must change how we view the problem, including the issue of responsibility. The governor warns that if fires bankrupt utilities or cause them great financial harm, “our whole program of trying to deal with renewable energy and mitigate climate change would be adversely affected.”
Once the fires are out, of course, other dangers begin; far more people were killed in mudslides that resulted from Thomas Fire than by the fire itself, and the ongoing environmental damage is immense. At the recent StormCon conference—in Denver, CO, a state that has also experienced its share of wildfires—Mike Harding, Andrew Earles, and Ian Paton presented a version of their popular “Fire and Rain” course, which examines all aspects of the phenomenon: why fires are becoming more frequent and more severe, and what to do once they occur. I suggest taking this course when you have a chance—especially if you’re in the Western part of the country—either as a webinar or webcast (available at www.bit.ly/2OkzJKx), or better yet in person when it’s offered again.
Experts offer advice for those living in fire-prone regions—know your escape route, have your valuables and important papers at hand, keep fuel in your vehicle in case you need to evacuate, and so on—but for erosion control professionals, those are just the first steps on a long road to recovery. Unfortunately, we’re sure to face this situation many more times and in many more places.