Our View: Doing nothing will only increase the risk
Admit it. Even when you heard word of the fire burning toward Empire Mine State Park — one week ago this afternoon — or even actually spotted the flames flying high into the sky, you just knew our firefighters would quickly contain the blaze.
And, of course, once again they did.
Western Nevada County’s community is absolutely blessed by our brave firefighters, as well as the equipment and resources afforded to them in protecting us from the threat of wildfire. But a dense forest overgrown with heavy brush, a fifth-year of drought, dead and dying trees infested by bark beetles and people lighting fires to keep warm in homeless camps all combine to create a clear and present danger of catastrophic fire in this community.
Law enforcement apprehended a suspect they referred to as a “transient” on arson charges in the aftermath. It’s certainly not the first fire that can be traced back to an encampment and it very likely won’t be the last. But how many close calls must we face before we, as a community, take action to help reduce the threat?
And make no mistake, there are steps that can be taken.
Many say we must bring those who literally live on the edge of our society out of the encampments, those who are trespassing on private or public property where fires not only pose a threat to the community but also real-life liability to the owner.
But then what?
Can we provide enough shelter to cover their heads as our nights turn cold? Can we provide the substance abuse support or the mental health services necessary to begin a journey toward recovery, whatever that might mean for each individual? Can we find solutions for those who’d rather not take steps down that path, considering it’s quite difficult to help those who don’t want to be helped?
Those questions must be part of the conversation, as homelessness is a mere symptom of the extreme strife some face in our society, whether based in addiction, mental illness, unemployment or a shortage of affordable and attainable housing options.
What if we sought to provide some form of housing first — such as the tiny villages or shelters that have been suggested — funded by our tax dollars, rather than leaving most of the heavy lifting to our local nonprofits? Sounds expensive, but have we fully considered the costs already incurred in services provided by law enforcement officers, emergency room staffs, businesses, private property owners and, of course, all those firefighters continually being put in harm’s way?
What kind of cost would we face with catastrophic fire, the kind we’ve seen all across California? Our homes? Our livelihoods? Our lives?
There is much that can be done to mitigate the risk. And it’s not being “anti-homeless, anti-people or anti-human” to bring that conversation forward seeking actual solutions. And certainly the threat extends beyond the human element.
We can help dismantle the danger posed by identifying high-risk camps, by creating defensible spaces, and by providing needed social services. It will take the kind of coordinated collaborative community effort we have regularly seen in volunteers with the Fire Safe Council, the Yuba River cleanup and the Random Acts of Kindness Event. And it will take making the issue a top priority, perhaps even putting some “rainy day” funds to work while we hope for rain to return and help diminish the risk, even for a short while.
When will our elected officials place this issue, this clear and present danger, on their agendas for a front-and-center frank discussion that will evoke ideas on which they can take action?
Will it take another close call?
Or will take an actual disaster, like the blaze that broke out nearly 30 years ago this month — burning 33,700 acres and 312 structures, 148 of which were homes — as it swept through a 52-square-mile swath from the San Juan Ridge to Lake Wildwood and beyond? It’s worth noting the infamous 49er Fire, estimated to have resulted in $22.7 million in damages and $7.5 million to fight, was also sparked by someone living on the edge of our society.
Surely, such devastation would likely lead to something being done.
But with proactive, rather reactive, leadership perhaps we can turn big-hearted town-hall forums into tangible measures to mitigate the risk and costs of catastrophic fire.
Let’s not let another year go by before asking our leaders what they have done to help, when the real question is “What have we done?”
Because doing nothing is only increasing the risk.
The weekly Our View column represents the viewpoint of The Union Editorial Board, a group of editors and writers from The Union, as well as informed community members. Contact the board at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.
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