Destined to burn: Living in California means ignoring risk of disaster

Destined to Burn is a collaborative story package by journalists from USA TODAY Network-California, McClatchy, Media News and The Associated Press. The goal is to put a spotlight on policy issues that can reduce the loss of life, destruction of homes and businesses, and devastation to California’s natural beauty inflicted by wildfires.

SACRAMENTO, California — In the winter of 2009, my wife and I found a house that looked like a great place to start our family, a three-bedroom in a hilly subdivision surrounded by dry brush just outside the Redding city limits.

By that point, I’d covered wildfires for the Record Searchlight newspaper for three years. I’d seen fire after fire ignite during Shasta County’s blast-furnace summers in the brushy chaparral that dominates the landscape.

In 2008, a freak early summer lightning storm ignited more than 86,500 acres in the area, prompting the evacuation of dozens of families. I stood in that very subdivision where we now wanted to live as residents watched a churning smoke plume on the other side the Sacramento River canyon. The fire didn’t jump the river that day.

But as my wife, Cara, and I toured that same subdivision, I told her, “This neighborhood is going to burn to the ground some day.”

We bought the house anyway.

The quiet streets, the running trails and the fishing opportunities minutes away in Lake Shasta outweighed the risk.

How very Californian of me.

If there’s one consistent thread in California’s history, it’s that we often ignore the profound risks that come with living in this big beautiful state — the earthquakes, the mudslides, the wildfires, the floods, the droughts and, yes, even the volcanoes.

It’s been like that since our founding.

Gov. Leland Stanford took a rowboat to his inauguration in January 1862 because Sacramento was swallowed by the same floodwaters that would turn the Central Valley into a vast inland sea stretching from Red Bluff to Bakersfield.

Despite the billions we’ve spent on dams and levees, it’s only a matter of time before it happens again.

“It’s still going to flood some day,” Jeffrey Mount, a watershed expert with the Public Policy Institute of California, told me a couple of wet winters ago after Hurricane Harvey. “There’s still going to be that rare large event, which will overwhelm us.”

Half a million Sacramentans go about their lives largely oblivious to the threat.

I grew up in Mt. Shasta, a small alpine community near the Oregon border. The city is named after the massive active volcano that looms above it. When Shasta inevitably erupts, lava, debris, ash and boiling steam and gases could wipe my hometown off the map.

But, man, what a great place to grow up.

When I was a boy, I would bike out to the meadows by my house. I’d spend hours fishing, barefooted up to my knees in creeks frigid from the melting snow pouring off my mountain’s glaciers.

I’d like to live under Shasta’s shadow again some day. Never mind that my home would stand on ashy soil flecked with pumice and obsidian, reminders of the eruptions of centuries past. Never mind the charred marks on the big cedars and pines, scars from wildfires that burned through Siskiyou County decades ago. Never mind that my great aunt’s home was one of the few left standing in her neighborhood after the Boles Fire burned through the Siskiyou County city of Weed in 2014, torching 157 homes.

I get why more than 2.7 million Californians are living in places that could erupt in a catastrophic inferno any summer, or those who move to California even though we could build as many as 1.2 million new homes over the next 30 years in the areas with state’s highest fire risk .

I get why they’re rebuilding Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, which first burned by the Hanly Fire in 1964 before it burned again in 2017’s Tubbs Fire. And why they rebuilt Harbison Canyon in San Diego County after it was leveled by the Laguna Fire in 1970 and again by the Cedar Fire in 2003.

I get why Cheri Skipper, whose Harbison Canyon home burned in the Cedar Fire, wanted nothing more than to move back in while it was being rebuilt, despite the trauma she endured and the anxiety that still has her obsessively looking for smoke and checking local fire-watcher websites.

“All I wanted to do was to go home, put my head on my pillow and look out the patio and see my view,” she told me as she gazed out at the green hills festooned with wildflowers after recent rains. We both knew this summer the vegetation will be brittle and dry , her canyon a wind tunnel for the Santa Anas.

What I don’t get is how surprised people are that these big, destructive fires keep happening.

The “new normal” is what officials keep calling it, but last year’s “record breaking” 1.9 millions of acres burned wasn’t really a record at all. If anything, we’re approaching something closer to an “old normal.”

UC Berkeley researchers estimate that prior to 1800, about 4.5 million acres of California burned in a typical year. That was before we started monkeying with our climate and infesting our wild places with non-native, fire-prone vegetation. We spent a century trying to put out every fire that popped up to protect the state’s lucrative timber stocks and the ever-expanding sprawl.

Some environmentalists argue we should stop moving to these places and rebuilding them when they burn down. They tell cities to focus on infill and building up urban centers in a sustainable way. Stop encroaching on nature. Fair enough. That certainly is the safest alternative.

But that’s not going to happen if California’s history is any guide. Plus, what do you do about the folks who already live in dangerous communities? Tell them they should move? Tell them firefighters aren’t going to try to save their homes?

Californians aren’t totally oblivious to the dangers. There is an active debate over how much new development we should allow and where we should allow it. There’s common ground in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s and President Donald Trump’s executive orders to thin the forests after the Camp Fire. Of course, the devil is in the details. It remains unsettled how much logging, intentionally-set “prescribed” fires and other wildland management strategies California and the federal government will undertake.

The reality, though, is there’s only so much that can be done when you live in a state that wants to burn.

Before too long, before it’s too late, we’ve all got to have a clear-eyed understanding of the risks of living in the hundreds of lovely communities like Redding, Paradise, Malibu and Santa Rosa that have encroached into the forests and chaparral. The price you pay to live there is that in any fire season, you and your family could burn.

Prepare accordingly.

Adopt the mindset of J. Lopez, one of two firefighters I spoke to recently whose homes survived major wildfires burning in adjacent wildlands. They still chose to live there knowing they’ll almost certainly go through another one. That’s why they’re zealots about evacuation planning and minimizing the risk to their properties by clearing the vegetation around their homes.

“On Sunday, I got up in the morning, and two minutes later I’m walking in the forest. How cool is that?” said Lopez, an assistant chief with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “But it’s understanding what you’re moving into and embracing it. You’re not going to change it. Nature is always going to win.”

It did in Redding.

Last summer, I found myself driving through the neighborhood where my wife and I had bought our first house. I was on assignment for The Sacramento Bee the morning after the Carr Fire and its infamous “firenado” roared through western Redding, burning 1,079 homes.

Home after home was burned to wood skeletons along the streets where I once walked our puppy and pushed our girls in strollers. Just outside the subdivision, a woman and her two grandchildren burned to death.

Out of sheer luck, our former home, which we had since sold after I changed newspaper jobs, was still standing.

Despite the heartbreak and the terror and the loss, my old neighborhood will rebuild, and the region will be a fire trap again as soon as the chaparral grows back. Yet, if I still lived in that neighborhood, I’d almost certainly want to stay there. Those trails. That fishing. The peace and quiet. I miss them still.

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