The wildfires of California

San Diego.  From the air, they appear as patches of bright red orange in the dark gray mist of the Southern California skyline.   They remind me of the kaingin (slash-and-burn) clearings in the Philippine countryside.  I count about five of them as the plane I boarded in Lima, Peru approaches the Los Angeles airport.   They don’t look menacing from afar, but one cannot miss their ominous closeness to the city lights. They are the wildfires of California.


Not entirely unexpected when dry strong winds from the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains sweep down the Pacific coast, California’s wildfires are particularly severe this year.   Authorities have counted 16 fires in LA and San Diego, stretching from Santa Barbara County north of LA to the Mexican border in San Diego.  Ten thousand firefighters have been deployed to contain the fires that keep on re-igniting because of the shifting winds that blow in all directions.


Those in LA have been contained, but four huge fires continue to rage in some of the most populous neighborhoods of San Diego county, where about 300,000 Filipinos live.   Six people have died and about 1,350 homes have been destroyed. Half a million people have been advised to evacuate through a reverse 911 call system, and a state of emergency has been declared in the whole county.   Damage to property has been estimated at $1 billion so far.


The older sections of San Diego City itself, where luckily my two sisters and their families reside, are unaffected.   But the whole city is in a disaster mode.  Classes and offices are suspended for the rest of the week, and many stores have closed. TV stations have switched to live reporting, giving out information on the level of containment of the fires, the kinds of government assistance available to affected residents, and the various forms of response of concerned individuals and voluntary associations.


This is America at its best — the government is on its toes and civicmindedness is fully activated.   The overall government response has been described by the media as an example of “how to do things right.”  The sub-text of this phrase refers to the lingering memory of the incredible incompetence that marked the handling of the 2005 devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.


By an interesting coincidence, the so-called Cedar Fire of 2003, which is on record as the most destructive of the fires to hit California, occurred exactly four years ago.   The point that this seems to underscore is that this year’s fires are not going to be the last, and that future wildfires could be bigger despite the extensive fireprevention campaigns.   Some experts suggest that, ironically, the very success of such campaigns could lead to the kind of fuel buildup in these dry mountains that produce wildfires of even greater catastrophic proportions.


But here perhaps lies precisely the problem.  Each time I come to California, I cannot help but marvel at the fabulous location of new housing projects being offered to the state’s 30 million residents.   I note with fascination the new neighborhoods that have colonized habitat previously thought unsuited for human settlement.  Perched on barren hills, million-dollar homes command stunning views of the surrounding landscape.   They seem inaccessible, but in fact they are connected to highway arteries by partly paved back roads. No wonder California has the highest concentration of powerful SUVs in the world, the perfect mode of transport for terrain like this.


The relative isolation creates the privacy that is highly prized in a mass society like the United States.   But it comes at the cost of occupying spaces in a unique ecosystem whose vicissitudes include forest or brush fires when subjected to human contact. The record shows that humans cause 9 out of 10 wildfires.   Only ten per cent are due to natural causes like lightning.


No one knows exactly how the first of the sixteen fires across the state started.   Investigators are looking at an arson angle, while others suspect that the fire might have been set off by sparks from a power line that had been knocked down by strong winds. In the hills of Southern California, the surface growth can become so dry that flying embers from a small fire elsewhere could spark an uncontrollable wildfire in no time at all.   Combined with the effects of a long drought, high temperatures, and strong warm winds, the dry brush becomes a tinderbox.


Like the seasonal typhoons that sweep through our archipelago every year, wildfires are thought to have a function in the dynamics of ecosystems.   They are not singularly harmful. The seeds of the giant Sequoia trees, for instance, are known to remain dormant until their seed coating is broken by fire.   Fire may also have the long-term effect of improving habitat for wildlife, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  It can enhance the porosity of surface soil, thus improving the capacity of the land to absorb moisture.   All of this gives no comfort, of course, to those who have watched helplessly while flames crept into their homes like a horde of pests.


From a larger perspective, what we have here is no less than a fascinating, if tragic, reminder of the complex problems arising from the encounter between human beings and their natural environment.   It is humbling to see that not even the most technologically advanced country in the world has figured out the full ramifications of this encounter.


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