As Californians sift through the cinders of this week’s deadly wildfires, there is a growing consensus that the state’s war against such disasters — as it is currently being fought — cannot be won.
“California has lost 1.5 million acres in the last four years,” said Richard A. Minnich, a professor of earth sciences who teaches fire ecology at the University of California, Riverside. “When do we declare the policy a failure?”
Fire-management experts like Professor Minnich, who has compared fire histories in San Diego County and Baja California in Mexico, say the message is clear: Mexico has smaller fires that burn out naturally, regularly clearing out combustible underbrush and causing relatively little destruction because the cycle is still natural. California has giant ones because its longtime policies of fire suppression — in which the government has kept fires from their normal cycle — has created huge pockets of fuel that erupt into conflagrations that must be fought.
The long-term battle is one that fire experts suggest cannot be won, even with the better building codes and evacuation plans that have become a staple of government here and across much of the West. As the events of this week illustrate — at least 480,000 acres burned, 1,575 residences destroyed and 7 people killed — the cycle roars on with higher stakes, greater risk, and the grim certainty that it will happen again.
The California state fire marshal, Kate Dargan, said discussions had begun at the highest levels of government on some of the toughest proposals: curtailing population growth on the wildland margins or a sweeping overhaul of how the public lands are managed for fire danger. But decisions are perhaps 5 to 10 years away because of the enormity and complexity of the task.
“In the meantime,” Ms. Dargan said, “we’ll have more people living out there, and if averages hold, we’ll have two more catastrophic incidents like this before the decisions get made.”
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