Virginia Moran: We need real comprehensive fire policy in California
July 5, 2018
In 2003, I lost my home in the Cedar Firestorm, one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit California.
Months before, my 41-year-old fiance died from a heart attack. Facing the loss of everything I loved, I was then forced to say goodbye to my mother, suffering from dementia. I couldn't care for her anymore so my brother took her back to Ohio where she died a few months later.
The losses were almost too much for me.
In addition to the phenomenal emotional toll, I was changed in another way: I was now a "fire victim," thrust into fire policy and politics.
Fire affects nearly every aspect of life in California. Make it an election issue. Ask candidates what they are going to do about fire?
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As a biologist, though I knew we were eliminating wildlife habitat, and it's humans who put homes on top of their homes, I still participated in a neighborhood "brush clearing" project weeks before, sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management. We did what we thought were all the right things to prevent fire. Turns out, a 200 mph wall of fire could care less if your chamise is gone, especially when it reaches a home made of wood and other flammables. No fire safety "expert," my insurance company, said one thing to us about fire safe roofs, shoring up the house to be fireproof, and why would they, when federal/state legislation, the entire fire safety emphasis, is on only one thing — forestry and "vegetation management."
It was seen as this great partnership! Shore up the forestry industry and make people safe at the same time (emphasis was on the forestry industry)! After over a decade using this approach, thousands of homes, an estimated 70 percent of which did some kind of vegetation management for fire, have still burned down. People call me, some crying, "I cleared but my house burned down," because the real "fuel" on the landscape is our homes. They are made of wood. Asphalt composite roofs are made of oil. The stuff in our homes is flammable. Of course your house still burned down even if you did chop out your manzanita!
News flash: It's not working, at least for the growing number of citizens in this state devastated by fire. It has helped the forestry industry.
Is it the responsibility of our state/federal governments to shore up an industry over and above public safety? Because this is what is happening. Fire safety in California is in the forestry department, forever tying the two together. Despite how self-righteous Californians get about "democracy," California can be one of the least democratic states when it comes to passing regulations/fees/taxes; they can be passed by our legislature, governor with no public process.
The combining of fire with forestry did not involve any public comment process. The passing of PRC 4291 did not involve any public comment period. Call it an "emergency" and you can pass a lot in California, point being, fire policy in California is terrible. It is failing. It is nonexistent.
California government has grown callous to its own citizens when it comes to fire. The loss of thousands of homes every year has become normalized. This is disconcerting especially for a state so self-righteous when it comes to telling other people to be compassionate.
Forestry and fire must be separated. We need a state Department of Fire Prevention that assists fire victims and looks at ALL solutions for preventing/fighting fire, including (gasp) structure protection. We need incentives for fire-safe roofs, installation of gravity-fed water tanks, training general contractors to build with the new fire-safe materials. Offer statewide Fire Safe Fairs to showcase the many options out there now.
Fire affects nearly every aspect of life in California. Make it an election issue. Ask candidates what they are going to do about fire? If they say they are going to clear more vegetation, per another bunch of homes burning down, point out the obvious fact this isn't the solution (at least for public safety).
Counties have quietly removed steep slope ordinances allowing more homes to go into fire dangerous areas, including Nevada County that "relaxed" its steep slope protection ordinance in 2004. A new home on my street on a steep slope has cedar shingle siding! PG&E should point out this hypocrisy. It is definitely not all their fault (and the idea that PG&E can account for every single tree along its lines, to me, was a ridiculous ruling though it is time PG&E considered burying the lines).
Already, more fire victims this year. It's time for California to take fire safety seriously.
Virginia Moran lives in Grass Valley.