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George Boardman: Enjoy the wildland-urban interface while you can

This past weekend marked the unofficial start of summer, but the living won’t be easy unless you think a war footing evokes the good old summer time.

Yes, the masks will be coming off and Nevada County will escape the colored tiers come June 15, not that anybody’s paying attention anyway. The county fair and other events will spring to life, and locals will start complaining about all of the trash and people along the South Yuba River. Merchants will anxiously await tourists seeking the elusive perfect ceramic rooster.

But there’s also the prospect of a disastrous wildfire season, perhaps worst than last year’s record-setter. There are stories practically every day about yet another controlled burn, residents are urged to memorize the Ready, Set, Go! handbook and go over the defensible space check list, Cal Fire has staffed up, and the governor is calling for another $2 billion to fight fires and reduce combustible material.



The feds are also adding more money and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is hiring, just in case there’s another Paradise in our future. Is your go bag ready? Do you know two escape routes from your home? Do you know where you’re going to stay if you can’t go home for a week, or worse, have no home to go home to? Pondering those questions doesn’t make for sound sleep.

We can trace this dilemma to a series of human errors, a lethal combination of poor forest management since arrival of the white man in the West, the desire of people to live in wilderness areas, and climate change. To paraphrase the bumbling philosopher Oliver Hardy: This is a fine mess we’ve gotten us into.




The problem started in the 1800s when whites migrated West and decided they knew better than the native peoples how to manage our magnificent forests and grass lands. Our predecessors let nature take its course when lightning strikes regularly burned the undergrowth. They even set grass fires on their own, both to control the undergrowth and drive animals to their hunting grounds.

The landscape was far different than it is now. Early white arrivals in the Lake Tahoe area could easily walk or ride among the trees; try doing that today without a machete. Our desire to control nature by fighting wildfires has resulted in an unmanageable overgrown landscape just waiting to burn.

California is trying to address the problem with more controlled burns, creating a partnership with the federal government that aims to reduce fire risks across 1 million acres annually. But as The Union’s resident expert on fighting wildfires has explained in these pages, it is too little and poorly timed for the fire season.

Outfits like the Sierra Club and others that championed the suppression of wildfires now point to climate change as the villain. We’re told that replacing fossil fuels with wind, solar and battery power that will move California toward a carbon-free electric grid is the way to go.

But as the power blackouts of last August showed us, we don’t produce enough power now to meet our needs. Wait until we have to charge all of those electric cars and run our houses without natural gas. Meanwhile, last year’s forest fires were the second largest source of carbon dioxide in the state, surpassed only by transportation, according to the California Air Resources Board.

All of this is necessary to protect the more than 32 million homes that have been built in the West’s “wildland-urban interface,” academic and planner speak for forest sprawl. Residents of Nevada County know this up close and personally. Despite the dangers, we appear to want more of it.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing elected leaders is our lack of affordable housing. The solution, of course, is more housing that more people can afford. Other than granny units and apartments than can house poor people, we don’t seem to be interested in high-density housing.

But the demand for housing continues to grow. How else are we to grow our economy that will attract younger people and keep the ones we have? We are told that the coronavirus pandemic has motivated people who can do it to work remotely, and they want to do it in houses outside urban areas. But every new house that encroaches on the wilderness just creates a new fire threat.

People with money want to escape from people, not embrace them. Builders will gladly produce those homes in the wilderness if planners allow it. Meanwhile, the state is requiring Nevada County to add 2,062 units to its housing stock by 2027 to meet its share of the regional housing need.

Where is the water that housing will need? We learned last week that the Nevada Irrigation District is buying water from PG&E to provide a safety cushion in the event of another meager rainy season. The utility everybody loves to hate is the alternative to the Centennial Dam.

Some people say we live in a state of denial. Here’s Vishaan Chakrabarti, dean of U.C. Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, writing recently about all Californians who want to live in rural areas:

“Area residents might rightfully claim that the unprecedented magnitude of the fires is caused by global climate change, which has indeed resulted in drier ecosystems and higher winds. For the science-impaired, our burning orange skies … insist that this is all normal, claiming we just need better forest management, perhaps using a good rake.

“But no amount of deflection or denial can justify further home construction in the wilderness, whether you drive a Tesla or a Tahoe to get there …. We must ban sprawl while providing much needed dense new affordable housing to replace it.”

That will be the day. In the meantime, enjoy our wildland-urban interface while you contemplate the human follies that landed us where we are today.

George Boardman lives in Nevada City. His column is published biweekly on Tuesdays by The Union. Write him at boredgeorgeman@gmail.com.

 

Observations from the center stripe: Quiz edition

ONLY TWO members of California’s Republican congressional delegation voted against the anti-Asian hate crimes bill that had bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. I’ll bet you can guess who they were…SOMETHING TO think about: The COVID-19 virus is always looking for new hosts, and it will zero in on people who aren’t vaccinated…WHY DOES the “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do” crowd even care that others choose to wear masks?…I’LL BET there’s nothing important enough on their cell phones that requires people to hog the gym equipment while they scroll through their messages…TOO MANY drivers treat their turn signals like Christmas lights: They turn them on once a year…


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