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San Diego’s Natural Disaster Wasn’t Entirely Natural

by Colin Fisher on Oct 27, 2007

The catastrophe in San Diego is not entirely a natural one. As with Katrina, it’s also the work of humans.This week, two massive wildfires ignited in the San Diego County backcountry and began their march toward the Pacific Ocean. They consumed more than 278,000 acres and have only slowly been brought under control. Between the two immense burn zones sits San Diego, the nation’s seventh largest city. This disaster is San Diego’s own little Katrina, but instead of being inundated with water, the city is surrounded by smoke and fire.

Certainly nature played an enormous role in events this week. For centuries, Southern California has burned, especially in October when hot, dry Santa Ana winds blow out of the eastern deserts. The winds parch the already dried landscape. In these conditions, one gets the feeling that the indigenous scrubland as well as the exotic palms and eucalyptus actually want to burn. A spark will put them out their agony.

Some argue that these horrendous fires on the Southern California coast are the unnatural by-product of 20th-century fire suppression. While it’s certainly true that the legacy of fire suppression has led to larger areas to burn in western mountains, the connection is far less clear in the scrublands along the coast. Even before vigorous fire suppression began early in the last century, enormous firestorms blew across the coastal landscape. In 1889, for instance, a conflagration burned 800,000 acres in Orange County.

Others will argue that these fires are the result of “unnatural” climate change. Today, the Western United States is, on average, hotter and drier than in earlier decades. Since the mid-1980s these conditions have led to an increase in large wildfires in mountain forests. Yet fire ecology on the California coast is far different. On the coast, a clear link between human-caused warming and wildfires is much more difficult to establish (although such a link can’t be ruled out).

The most visible human role in these disasters is unwise development in the backcountry, the so-called wildland-urban interface. Instead of building vertically, Southern Californians have largely built horizontally, moving eastward, into the scrub coastal mountains, the birthing ground of the area’s largest fires.

Defending homes on the wildland-urban interface is both difficult and expensive. Even more important, these homes are where Southern California conflagrations frequently begin. Rather than lightning, it’s people (usually accidentally but sometimes intentionally) who start the greatest number of fires. Most often a spark results in a small fire. But when the October winds are howling, as was the case this past week, even a downed rural power line can start one.

Local politics also plays a role in this “natural” disaster. San Diegans have failed to learn the lessons from the terrible firestorms that ravaged the county in October 2003. At the time, San Diego had no unified county fire department. The city, the county, and outside agencies failed to work in concert. The city had a small fleet of antiquated fire engines, no firefighting helicopters, and not enough money for radios, batteries and emergency fire shelters for its firefighters. At the time, the city, arguably the most fire-prone major city in the United States, ranked 40th in the nation in firefighters per capita.

This time, firefighters have again fought heroically. Generous citizens are offering time, money and supplies. Inter-agency communication is decidedly better. And the city owns a firefighting helicopter.

But little else has changed. There’s still no unified countywide fire department, and San Diegans refuse to tax themselves (or even out-of-town hotel guests) to bring fire service up to national standards. The city and the county remain underequipped and understaffed.

This summer, the Republican mayor, Jerry Sanders, tried to slash the number of brush clearance officers to two, in a city that covers 330 square miles. On Oct. 22, all of San Diego’s fire engines were outside the city fighting the wildfires, save one. Before the arrival of large-scale relief from the outside, putting out a grease fire in a downtown restaurant would have seriously strained city resources.

Wildfires, even occasionally very large ones, are part of the natural order of things in Southern California. But by allowing reckless development and by underfunding fire departments, San Diegans are suffering from a disaster that is partly of their own making. It’s a lesson for the whole country.

Colin Fisher is an associate professor of environmental history at the University of San Diego and a writer for the History News Service.