For California natives like me, the wildfires are a real gut punch. As of this writing, the wildfires are the deadliest in the state’s history with 63 fatalities, and more than 600 people are unaccounted for. More than 10,000 buildings are gone, and more than 230,000 acres have burned.
In the now obliterated community of Paradise, several fleeing locals couldn’t outrun the flames and burned to death in their cars. As one survivor said, the scene was “exactly like any apocalyptic movie” she had ever seen. The fires have been devastating for 10,000 horses, house pets and wildlife. Los Angeles County Animal Care & Control said about 700 animals, including 550 horses, nine cows, and at least one tortoise, are now in the agency’s care.
Thousand Oaks, which just suffered a mass shooting and 12 deaths, is coping with the Woolsey Fire, 35 percent contained as of November 14. It has moved south, nearing other outlying Los Angeles suburbs. Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott ominously predicted the week could bring more ruin to Southern California, particularly San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
The California that I grew up in during the 1950s is gone forever, replaced by an overcrowded, sprawling state that makes expeditious wildfire control nearly impossible. I left in 2008 when I could no longer abide California’s paralyzing traffic, relentless development and the never-ending urban sprawl. California was unrecognizable to me.
Lessons that California’s leaders should have learned from past fatal wildfires haven’t sunk in. Wildfires are difficult to control, but slower growth could minimize destruction. California’s exploding population has created an insatiable housing demand. The state which had roughly a 10 million population when I was a youth is now home to nearly 40 million residents, and demographers anticipate 50 million by 2050.
The new populace spawned what’s called “Wild-Land Urban Interface” or inter-mix, low-density housing built on hillsides amidst highly flammable vegetation. Last year, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jonathan Cox called increasingly popular inter-mix construction a “recipe for disaster.”
Cox explained that areas in California that 20 years ago would have been undeveloped are today inter-mix communities. The vast inter-mix square acreage plus the frequency and intensity of fires turn homes into tinderboxes, and makes access for rescue crews difficult.
Fire codes require inter-mix housing have fire-resistant roofs, noncombustible siding and 100 feet of clearance between vegetation and structures. Still, Cox said, fighting tactics for vegetation fires and for structure fires are fundamentally different. The challenge becomes greater when fires are on slopes and hills.
California’s leaders, outgoing Jerry Brown, Governor-Elect Gavin Newsom, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris remain 100 percent committed to more growth, and to more building to accommodate that growth. Last year, Brown signed 15 bills that will accelerate development. While the legislation is designed to ease the affordable housing shortage and not necessarily written for inter-mix construction, some of the bills eliminate public hearings and environmental impact studies. Wherever open spaces can be found, Sacramento wants to see building. During his campaign, Newsom advocated for more housing development, the last thing California needs.
California life has become so untenable for so many that moving out will be an increasingly attractive option – one way that California’s population could finally stabilize.