As I write this (Tuesday night), I am watching the coverage from Southern California. We have close relatives in Valencia, and although they say they are safe from the blazes (the Buckweed, Magic, and Ranch fires all nearby), the fact that they are there brings the situation closer. Sometimes, it takes just that amount of personal connection to make the leap from “Oh how awful (change the channel),” to hours of concerned monitoring.
In a general sense, these are not things one can protect oneself against. If an Alberta clipper comes sweeping down and Lake Erie is still relatively warm, Western New York (and part of Ohio and PA too) will get clobbered, with possible fatalities and plenty of damage and inconvenience. Fires, blizzards, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes can show an equal lack of mercy in the parts of the world where they are most common. It seems like nature has a trick up her sleeve for all of us, no matter what paradise we think we inhabit.
I must say turning the corner to see the house burned down or in flames is one of my nightmares; I can barely imagine what the more than 500,000 evacuees are going through. At least fatalities are minimal, so far. There are things one can do to prepare—sort of— for such catastrophes (storm shelters, emergency supplies, generators, or just listening and getting the hell out). And in terms of fire, it seems there are small ways to adapt for survival. As one of the LA Times blogs Pardon Our Dust related yesterday, a family whose entire property was a charred ruin after the 2003 wildfires decided against leaving and starting fresh elsewhere. Instead, they built a fire-resistant home with a stucco exterior, tile roof, dual-pane windows, no soffits, solar panels, and an open plan that allows breezes to sweep through the house, making air-conditioning unnecessary. This process is helped by the thick walls, insulated with recycled materials. (All very costly, though I suppose I’d be horrified by any pricetag for building or buying in this area of Southern California.) But then I visited another website and read the story of another Californian who’d already taken every precaution advised and still lost a beautiful mountain home he and his family had worked on for twelve years.
On a Santa Clarita website, I found an advisory (written last year) for fire-retardant plantings, which, I must say, seemed kind of meager and sad when read in the light of what is happening. I doubt very much that growing lavender or coffee berry (rhamnus California) would have had much effect. There was also advice to clear brush, prune trees of low-hanging branches and keep wide spacing between plantings. Ironically, many native plants in CA are designed to include fire as part of their natural life cycle. A gardener whose house miraculously survived the 2003 cedar fire found that her native plants in pots had also survived, so she replanted one quarter of her scorched property with natives to give its regeneration a jumpstart and carefully nurtured the rest, successfully bringing back a seemingly dead landscape in time to join a garden tour the next season.
Some SoCal opinion shapers have taken a stop-the-madness approach. They endorse a combination of accepting the wildfire cycle as inevitable and spending money on enforcing reasonable landscape regulations rather than hiring more and more firefighters and equipment. Whatever initiatives come out of this, it seems unlikely that future fires could be averted, given the solidly-ensconced prerequisites. Everyone interviewed seems determined to rebuild, to stay where the dry tinder and hot winds would threaten them each year.
Do I know the answer to all this? I most certainly do not. All I can say is: ask not for whom the bell of natural catastrophe tolls—any one of us could be next. And I like the Washington Post title for their coverage: “Mother Nature vs. Human Nature.” Oh, and CA firefighters? Unspeakably awesome.
The image above is just a nice fall picture I had of a lightly-forested area near Buffalo.