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Living at the edge

Yes, fires are part of life in California. No, that's no excuse for bad zoning, sprawl and a lack of preparedness.

October 27, 2007

For a disaster as predictable as this week's wildfires, there was far too little of the kind of long-term readiness required to prevent or minimize the worst of the damage.

At the federal level, millions of dollars have been cut from fire protection for communities abutting wilderness, money that could have been used, for example, to clear brush. A June report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office faults various agencies for failing to devise any sort of strategy, or even a list of options, for reducing wildfire destruction, even though the GAO has been calling for such a plan since 1999. President Bush's offer of aid was swift and appreciated, but solace is less helpful than preventing devastation in the first place.

The state of California has moved sluggishly to fulfill the recommendations of a blue-ribbon committee that called four years ago for 150 new fire engines, with a corresponding increase in firefighters. Only 19 engines have been ordered. But then, exactly how much outside help do locals deserve when they operate fire protection on the cheap? Even the disastrous Cedar fire of 2003, which leveled 5,000 buildings, couldn't persuade tax-allergic San Diegans to fund a county fire department. Orange County has been losing reserve firefighters for years, and five years ago moved them from the front lines and into support roles.

Credit goes to communities that cleared wide fire breaks along their perimeters and installed architectural and landscape features that deter fire. We've learned a lot in the last decade or so. But it's not enough, especially given that we know the threat of cataclysmic fire will intensify. As climate change makes drought the norm in Southern California, more will burn. The GAO report notes that wildfires from 2000 to 2005 consumed 70% more acreage annually than fires during the 1990s.

The dollar toll and the disruption and devastation that marked this last week will rise even more dramatically if municipalities continue to approve dense development in remote reaches and inaccessible, fire-prone canyons and forests. Therein lies the most conspicuous failure of regional preparedness: the zoning and development decisions that have allowed growth in these areas.

Southern California is stoking a cycle of fire destruction. Cities cheering for new revenue support housing projects on untouched open space without taking into account whether the region has enough water and power for them. The residents of these tracts commute farther, increasing carbon emissions, contributing to global warming and worsening drought.

Zoning changes must reflect present realities and must serve to protect, not exploit. The state cannot sustain new housing projects where there is no additional water, power or fire protection for them. We're already stuck with the many tracts that never should have been built, but it's wrong for taxpayers statewide to shoulder the costs of these mistakes. People who opt for the delights of living on the edge must be required to accept the price. And Southern California cities and counties should move quickly to zone out sprawl.

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