Living With Wildfire:
California Reimagined

Californians can learn to survive wildfire in a warming world. It will mean big changes in how we think and live. Here are stories of people leading the way in communities across the state.
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Embers fly as wind and flames from the Camp fire tear through Paradise, California on November 8, 2018. - More than 18,000 acres have been scorched in a matter of hours burning with it a hospital, a gas station and dozens of homes. Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
Embers fly as wind and flames from the Camp fire tear through Paradise, California on November 8, 2018. - More than 18,000 acres have been scorched in a matter of hours burning with it a hospital, a gas station and dozens of homes. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

We Can Make California Wildfires Less Horrific. Will We?

We Can Make California Wildfires Less Horrific. Will We?

7 min

As California wildfires scar more lives and char more property year after year, residents must now grapple with the distinct possibility of opening their front door one day to the sight of a raging inferno.

To be sure, fire has always been a part of life in the state, and it always will — many landscapes are actually unhealthy without periodic blazes. What's new is the increasing scale of catastrophe and the corresponding toll on human life.

The fires of 2017 were the worst on record, that is, until the fires of 2018. Of the top 20 most destructive California wildfires, 10 have occured since 2015. Of the top 10, seven have burned over the last four years. (See sidebar.)

Does It Have to Be This way?

"That's the great question," said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, before thinking for a moment. "No. In a lot of ways, it could be better."

The situation can't be fixed easily or quickly, not even in the next decade or two, Stephens says. "But you can change the trajectory of where we're headed."

Californians could have safer homes, healthier forests, cleaner air and a drastically reduced risk of catastrophic fires.

While this future requires sweeping changes in fire management, state and local policy, and individual behavior, California has a history of making bold changes and coming out the better. Stephens thinks the state can do it again.

"If this became a priority for health, for our kids, our grandkids and everybody else, it would just happen. It's not like something that's impossible," he said. "It's going to take time, but we really need to think about this and move a little bit decisively."

Here, in eight stories, we examine some of the issues Californians will need to grapple with if we're going to adapt to the increasing wildfire threat. We're calling the series "Living With Wildfire: California Reimagined."

Can We Make Sure It Never Happens Again?

The Camp Fire that ripped through the communities of Paradise and Concow last November was the deadliest blaze anywhere in the United States in 100 years. It killed 85 people, more than the Loma Prieta earthquake, and left a path of ash and ruin that stunned people across the state. The devastation was so severe, the obvious question is:

Can we prevent it from happening again?

Many may think a California constantly aflame is the state’s inevitable future. But it seems worth remembering that transformations around public safety rarely come easily or unprompted.

Americans were in a similar moment in 1912, after the sinking of the Titanic. It wasn't the first time a ship had gone down, but the disaster was so high-profile, so shocking, that the public demanded immediate action.

"From the moment the ship sank, it became clear that there hadn't been provision to save everybody's life on the ship," said Steven Biel, a Harvard Historian and author of "Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster."

The sinking of the Titanic prompted swift safety overhauls for the shipping industry. Untergang der Titanic ("Sinking of the Titanic") by Willy Stöwer, 1912

The shipbuilders, from their perspective, took safety seriously. In fact, they’d installed more than the required number of lifeboats on board. But that number was based on a vessel’s tonnage, not on how many people it carried.

"And so there was a huge outcry about this," Biel said. "And that's really what led to change."

Within two years, new safety regulations were adopted worldwide, a common — and not unreasonable — reaction to catastrophes.

"One of the things about the story of disasters is that we don’t want them to be meaningless," said Biel. "We want some good to have come from this … so that supposedly this kind of thing, whatever the disaster is, will never happen again."

Collective Safety Versus Personal Freedom

If California is to do all it can to prevent disasters like the 2018 Camp Fire, it will mean working through some contentious issues. Are there some locations where we shouldn't rebuild? Should we fine homeowners who don't clear vegetation? Can we agree on how to manage forests?

Grappling with these questions will call on Californians to evaluate competing priorities. In some cases, personal freedom and property rights may be pitted against collective safety and the common good.

That debate also played out during the years the country came to grips with its cigarette problem. The first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health in 1964 identified smoking as a cause of lung cancer. The first major studies demonstrating a link between second-hand smoke and lung cancer were published in 1981. Yet, smoking in public places such as restaurants persisted for many years.

"People simply took it for granted that the indoor spaces were going to be contaminated with tobacco smoke," said James Repace, an anti-smoking advocate who helped pass some of the first nonsmoking bills in New England in the late 1970s.

"At the time, the thought of telling people they couldn’t smoke wherever they liked was unthinkable,” Repace said. That started to shift when public information campaigns taught people about the dangers of breathing tobacco smoke. "You know, you might have the right to smoke, but you don't have a right to let your smoke make other people sick."

Grassroots pressure and the political will to change led to prioritizing public health over individual desire.

"So it did take a generation," said Repace. "But with respect to climate issues, we don't have a generation. Time is running out."

California state Sen. Bill Dodd, whose district includes areas burned during the 2017 Wine Country fires, already sees an attitude change among his constituents. Dodd says the once unpalatable idea of fining homeowners who don't maintain what fire officials call "defensible space" around their homes is seeming more reasonable to those who lived through recent conflagrations.

"Instead of government intrusion in their life," said Dodd, characterizing the public's change of thinking, "this is something where we all have to work together to protect not only your land, but your neighbor's land as well, because if you don't, that puts your neighbor in harm's way."

Americans have made great strides toward solving a host of problems. The air used to be dirtier, rivers more polluted, food-safety regulations nonexistent. Acid rain once fell from the sky and the ozone hole continually grew. These issues, if not totally behind us, are vastly improved.

"There is hope for our ecosystems to be more fire resilient, better adapted to climate change," Scott Stephens said. "So there really is hope, a way to step forward."

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