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Editorial: Fire is a part of California; state must prepare

More can be done with zoning, building codes and creating defensible spaces

October 28, 2007, Sacramento Bee

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made sure last week that no one could accuse him of ignoring the Southern California wildfires. But what the governor does in the post-disaster period will be far more crucial in preparing the state for even worse blazes in the years ahead.

More than ever, the governor needs to lead a rethinking of how California can minimize the loss of lives and property from fires. He needs to insist on a collaborative effort to reduce buildup of fuels in fire zones, and do it without undermining real environmental protections. He needs to drill down on whether local governments are taking responsibility for their own fire protection, instead of depending solely on state and federal help.

To some extent, these priorities were examined by the Governor's Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, which produced a 247-page report several months after the 2003 fires in Southern California.

But go back and read this report. You'll find it dodges some crucial issues such as the need for stronger land-use restrictions in fire zones. It also seems overly weighted toward a militaristic approach that California can defeat fire on the battlefield, if only we throw enough equipment, soldiers and dollars at this enemy.

The reality, of course, is that fire is a part of California's natural landscape, and we will never have an army that can fully snuff it out. The test for California is to find a better coexistence with fire giving equal balance to fuels management, land zoning and firefighting capability.

Once the current fires are extinguished, the governor needs to reconstitute his blue ribbon panel and broaden its focus. In particular, this new panel needs to make recommendations on the following topics:

Local financial responsibility: Following the 2003 Cedar Fire, former San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman pleaded for $100 million to build needed fire stations. Four months later, voters rejected a proposal to boost hotel taxes to pay for fire protection, and since 2003, only one fire station has been built in that city. California requires local governments to pay a share to receive flood control dollars. It should do the same for fire protection.

Land-use: Over the past decade, cities and counties have allowed tens of thousands of homes to be built on ridges and canyons that, as political scientist Steven Erie puts it, are a "fuel tank" for fires. The state needs to better map fire zones, and require local governments to limit building in the most dangerous of areas.

Defensible space: The previous blue ribbon commission urged stable funding for fire safe councils local groups that help and empower residents to create defensible space around their neighborhoods. The governor and Legislature need to rise to this challenge.

Building codes: Smart investments in landscaping and building materials helped certain subdivisions survive this year's fires. Such investments should become standard.

Lastly, the governor needs to bring environmental leaders and fire officials together on ways to manage brush and dead trees through thinning and prescribed burns. Politicians who espouse a vast rewrite of federal environmental laws for fuels reduction are fooling themselves. The governor needs to break through this impasse, and find common ground.

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