Linda Schuyler Horning: Where responsibility for fire lies |

Linda Schuyler Horning: Where responsibility for fire lies

When the Caldor Fire erupted in El Dorado County, evacuees were asked how they were doing. One replied by saying that this is what happens when they fail to manage the forest. I couldn’t help wondering who “they” are. While my heart goes out to anyone who suffers as a result of these wildfires, I feel it is important to place the blame where it belongs.

According to CBS News, the reason for Gov. Newsom’s declaration of a state of emergency for El Dorado County was intense climate change. Fire officials focused more on dry fuels, warm temperatures and strong winds that caused “unprecedented” fire conditions.

It isn’t as though we haven’t been warned. The state of California has codes in place that prescribe a 100-foot defensible space around improved buildings. They apply to all businesses and residences that are not in an incorporated city or town. The cities of Grass Valley, Nevada City and the Truckee Fire Protection District each have their own vegetation ordinances, and the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District uses fuel modification standards that apply to vacant parcels.

What about the U.S. Forest Service? Their mission is to “provide safe, efficient and economical fire management while sustaining, protecting and restoring ecosystems.“

The problem arises when funding runs short during unprecedented fire seasons. Federal and private resources used on fire suppression have skyrocketed, while efforts to thin forests and use prescribed burning have stagnated. According to an article in Science Environment (2018), the Forest Service has been borrowing money from its other programs to cover cost overruns from wildfire for the past decade.

In addition, multiple agencies and entities focus on keeping us safe. They are:

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) responds to emergencies of all types, protecting lives, property and natural resources from fire. The department’s programs work together to assess the condition of over 31 million acres of privately owned wildlands, as well as to provide emergency services to 150 local government cooperators.

The Nevada County Office of Emergency Services is tasked with coordinating between county departments and municipalities to mitigate against and prepare for all disasters. They design simulated disaster response exercises and maintain the Nevada County Emergency Operations Center.

The Fire Safe Council is a nonprofit, local volunteer organization dedicated to making Nevada County safer from catastrophic wildfire through fire safety projects and education. Programs include low-cost defensible space clearing services, chipping and green waste disposal, and assistance to low-income seniors with defensible space clearing.

PG&E has earned a reputation as being uncooperative in terms of fire safety, and their equipment has been found to be responsible for multiple wildfires in recent years. Prior to the 2018 Camp Fire, however, the utility’s regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, did not have a single staff member assigned to wildfire prevention.

Since then, PG&E has paid out $13.5 billion in compensation and filed for bankruptcy. New safety strategies include weather forecasting and fire monitoring, and line inspections that sometimes include drones and helicopters. PG&E has also begun replacing conventional power lines in wildfire-prone areas with insulated “tree wire” that’s less likely to spark a blaze.

Before we point our fingers at any one of the above entities, it may be prudent to take a look in our own back yards. How much have we done to make our neighborhoods safe? Do we participate in brush clearing, or do we turn a blind eye? Do we advocate for greater funding for fire prevention and suppression, or do we balk at the prospect of higher taxes?

A large part of the responsibility for fire safety rests squarely on the shoulders of people like us who continue to move into the wildland-urban interface while expecting all the public safety entities and infrastructure to follow us into the woods. Between 1990 and 2010, the wildland-urban interface was the fastest growing land use type in the country. The U.S. Forest Service defines this interface as a place where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.”

The use of the pronoun “they” to deflect responsibility for fire safety is convenient, but misleading. The more correct pronoun is “We.”

We are the custodians of this beautiful land on which we live. It is up to us to do what we must to ensure that we all stay safe together in this wildland community we call home.

Linda Schuyler Horning lives in Nevada City.

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