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Fires force Californians to face up to a changing landscape

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Via Financial Times

On the scorched hillside above the Stuhlmuller vineyard in Sonoma county, California, the fires were still smouldering on Friday.

The tracks of bulldozers and piles of brush marked the impromptu breaks carved by firefighters, and a yellow hose was lying along the vines. This, said range manager John Gorman, marked the last line of defence in a battle to prevent the Kincade fire from crossing the ridge and sweeping on into the town of Healdsburg.

The biggest conflagration in this year’s autumn wildfire season has brought a new twist in the fires’ threat to California’s way of life. In the process, it has revealed how much attitudes still need to change as Californians learn to live with the realities of climate change.

A gleeful Donald Trump, not one to miss the chance of stoking a personal feud with Democratic governor Gavin Newsom, has been quick to pounce. “Every year, as the fire’s rage & California burns, it is the same thing-and then he comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help,” the US president tweeted on Sunday: “No more. Get your act together governor.”

Mandatory Credit: Photo by ETIENNE LAURENT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10462551l) Firefighters work at containing the Maria fire spreading in the hills near Ventura, North West of Los Angeles, California, USA, 01 November 2019. Media reports say that the fire that broke out overnight has already consumed more than 7,000 acres of agricultural land and that authorities have issued mandatory evacuations for many homes in the region. Maria Fire in Simi Valley, Ventura, USA - 01 Nov 2019
Firefighters at work in hills near Ventura, north-west of Los Angeles © Etienne Laurent/EPA

Two years ago, wildfire in this county in northern California’s wine region destroyed 10 per cent of homes. “It was apocalyptic — cars were melting in the street,” said Peter Rumble, who led the county’s emergency response for part of that time.

Despite covering more than twice the area as the largest of those fires, the Kincade blaze has destroyed far fewer homes, revealing improvements to the local response. But the fire also brought home a frightening new threat, as winds whipping at more than 90mph sent burning debris flying.

Patches of fire damage running along the line of hills across the valley from the Stuhlmuller vineyard mark the fire’s path as it leapt large distances. Fanned by the gale into an uncontrollable blaze, the area covered by the fire went from 17,000 to 40,000 acres overnight, Mr Rumble said.

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To prevent power lines igniting fires because of strong winds, PG&E, California’s largest electric utility, cut power to an estimated 2m customers at the height of the wind storm. The blackout, lasting at least 36 hours and sometimes much longer, spread south to the towns and suburbs surrounding San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Disbelief and outrage have been widespread — led by Mr Newsom, who has pronounced the utility’s response “unacceptable”, in part because of the company’s perceived failure over decades to protect its infrastructure.

A vehicle burned out by the Kincade Fire sits at the Garden Creek Vineyards in Geyserville, California, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. While the extreme winds were forecast to ease, wildfire risks will remain high through Friday, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
A burnt-out car at Geyserville, California © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The shock from the rolling blackout has made action by the state more likely after three years of escalating wildfire damage, according to many experts. “It was much more widespread and in urban areas,” said Severin Borenstein, head of the Energy Institute at the Haas business school in Berkeley. “It’s having much more political impact [than previous fires],” he said.

Yet co-ordinated action will be hard. Most regulations on land in the state are made at the local level, said Van Butsic, a land use expert at the University of California, Berkeley, making the response fragmented.

Mr Borenstein points to a patchwork of changes that will be needed, from limits to construction in some areas, to requirements for homeowners to keep wider vegetation-free buffer zones around their homes.

The rolling blackout has added a new dimension, revealing the need for new regulations to make sure more homes and businesses have back-up power and promoting the development of microgrids that are insulated from wider shut-offs.

Animation showing how the Kincade wildfire spread in California

The biggest challenge, however, will be to change attitudes in a state whose way of life has been endangered by the risking risk from wildfires.

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Californians have long revelled in their natural abundance: the endless sunshine and space to expand, turning desert into a lush garden in defiance of persistent water scarcity.

If the suburban sprawl and backyard swimming pools of the 1950s and 60s marked a high point of middle-class prosperity, the current economic boom has been marked by new trophies: second homes in the Sierra foothills, and the ranches and vineyards of a new landowning class.

“We’re seeing more of the dotcom types who are coming here and buying up land,” said Stephanie Larson, an expert in range management in Santa Rosa, the largest town in Sonoma county. “Then they leave it be, because they think: It’s nature.”

Evacuees sit inside an evacuation center in Santa Rosa, California, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. While the extreme winds were forecast to ease, wildfire risks will remain high through Friday, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
An evacuation centre in Santa Rosa, California © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The benign neglect has led to a build-up of brush that made the area more vulnerable to wildfire. Air quality regulations ended the controlled burning that once kept brush under control, said Ms Larson, and though there is renewed interest in the practice, the need for multiple permits, some of which can take a year to obtain, have hampered action.

“We created so many rules to keep us environmentally sound, it backfired on us,” she said. The anger caused by PG&E’s efforts to clear trees from about 2,500 miles of its power lines this year has also heightened the tension between most Californians’ cherished environmental consciousness and the needs of fire control.

Californians are also finding it hard to give up patterns of development that have contributed to the risks. There is little evidence that the fires have led to less construction in exposed areas, said Mr Butsic. His research, yet to be published, shows that 90 per cent of homes destroyed by wildfire are rebuilt within ten years. After another decade, the number of homes in affected areas exceeds what it was before the fire.

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The new attention that wildfire is likely to bring to future development comes at a critical time. “This will have a major impact in a state that is short of housing and looking for new places to build,” said Steve Levy, a regional economist.

A firefighter sprays water on a leveled home as the Hillside Fire burns in San Bernardino, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. Whipped by strong wind, the blaze destroyed multiple residences. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A firefighter sprays water on a destroyed home at San Bernardino © Noah Berger/AP

Solving the housing crisis, while also adapting to climate change, will take a new self-image for California that supports a more sustainable way of life, according to experts such as Mr Butsic.

“People in their 20s and 30s have a little bit of a different idea of the California Dream,” he said. “There are a lot of people who would be very happy with a two-bedroom apartment in a city that they can afford.” Denser development like this, rather than the familiar Californian sprawl, is also “environmentally better in almost every other way”.

Meanwhile, on the Stuhlmuller vineyard, close to where a flame was still flickering in a patch of charred of oak trees on Friday, the land is being prepared for three new houses.

Basic facilities for the homes are already in place and there are no regulations that stand in the way of construction, said Fritz Stuhlmuller, a member of the family that has owned the land for nearly 40 years.

“We have water, sewage and power,” he said. “They can’t stop us.”

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