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Don Rogers: What smoke, fire portend

Wildfire is reshaping more than our landscape, wrecking more than our summers.

The smoke is the least of it, of course. The pets living in harnesses, go-bags by the door, thinking twice about that road trip this time of year.

Seems as many homes burn down as can be built in our state where housing runs short and ever more expensive. The Dixie Fire, the Tamarack, the River, which ran for an afternoon and evening into Chicago Park. And this is only midsummer. The fall furies still loom.



The millennium brought a leap. Fires before were less, smaller. You can see the historic chart’s line tilt sharply up, awe in veteran firefighters’ voices. We’ve gone up by multiples since the mid-‘80s in acreage burned, largest fires in history to date. Civilian deaths.

And along with fire trends: Global warming as measured in degrees and carbon dioxide concentration. Drought cycles. Weather pattern changes. Relative humidities, fuel moisture, length of warmer seasons, shorter snowpack span. It’s all there along with the direct wildfire data.




Not only here, but France, Italy, Greece, Turkey this year, Australia last year, Siberia every year. The Amazon. Oh, the Amazon. But that’s tied to another issue no less serious that aggravates a potentially existential problem for humanity, which is not the say the end of the world. The world will be fine. The question is whether we’ll continue to be a part of it.

Meantime, these new signals in smoke and flame are not promising.

SOONER OR LATER

We are slow learners; that much is clear. Rededication to putting out all fires, keep ’em small? Insurance rates tick up for good reason, but house prices soar much higher, faster under the demand in prime fire country? New subdivisions break ground even as others go to ash?

Paradise is busy rebuilding, betting on the future following the loss of nearly 20,000 structures and 85 lives in 2018. We’ll see about Greenville, freshly overrun.

Surely the 88 structures taken out last Wednesday by the River Fire will be replaced to fanfare and glad tidings about our resilience. All this will be heartwarming, sure, but how much of the rebuilding will increase resistance to the next fire? Or should we just count on the lottery chance of avoiding déjà vu in the decades to come? Or next month? The season is yet young.

Governments, associations, industries touched by fire seem to be shifting priorities. Land clearing is becoming a bigger deal, at least on private property. Construction materials and design surely will account better for wildfires in the future. Cities and counties may at last begin more seriously to factor exposure, evacuation routes, protection measures something like with flood zones.

This feels like turning a train of supertankers, fitting an engine to an iceberg. But I do see awareness beginning to flicker, and can even foresee surprising progress in the fullness of time. Assuming we don’t forget by the rainy season, should we be so blessed.

Assuredly Mother Nature is making up for lost time and our lapse in letting the vegetation overgrow over the past century plus, only not so much with a gentle kiss.

The whole Middle Fork of the Feather River from East Quincy to Oroville burned last year, and the Dixie Fire sprang from deep in the Feather River Canyon all the way into Lassen Volcanic National Park. This pair of giant fires has cleaned out nearly a million acres, along with settlements in the way.

Soon enough, overgrowth in California may no longer be such an issue — a few more seasons like this year, last year, the handful before that. Those to come.

ROOM TO GROW

California’s biggest fires in history — 2020’s August Complex of a million acres in northern coastal counties, and the Dixie Fire north of us around 520,000 acres — are not the biggest ever. Only what’s been recorded since 1932, a generation after beginning a questionable policy to keep ’em all small, which led to the rampant overgrowth.

They’re not the biggest fires in U.S. history. That designation goes to the Great Fire of 1910, which consumed 3 million acres across the northern Rockies; and the Great Michigan Fire at 2.5 million acres and Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin at 1.3 million acres, both starting on Oct. 8, 1871, the date of the Great Chicago Fire. An estimated 2,500 people perished in the Peshtigo blaze.

Canada’s Great Fire came in 1919 at 5 million acres, surpassed in 1950 with the Manitoba Fires in 1989 at 8.1 million acres, then the 2014 Northwest Territory Fires at 8.4 million.

Australia’s brush fires topped out in 1939 at 5 million acres, and Siberia in 2003 reached 47 million acres in the endless taiga.

California fires may well have razed as many acres before record-keeping. Fire has sculpted our landscape for eons with our weather, our droughts, our winds, our vegetation genetically inclined to burn. There’s room and potential for them to grow in this modern era, as temperatures rise and wildfire’s fuel dries.

In other words, this isn’t some passing pandemic. Anyway, the infection in this case mainly is … us.

Don Rogers is the publisher of The Union, Lake Wildwood Independent, and Sierra Sun. He can be reached at drogers@theunion.com or 530-477-4299


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