Sunday, December 9, 2007
by Guy McCarthy
SAN BERNARDINO, Dec. 6 -- Whatever the weather brings in the next few days, there will be plenty of people here afterward to clean up the mess.
No matter how much toxic burned material drains into Grass Valley and Green Valley lakes, the leaders of San Bernardino County and their network of experts will figure it out.
No matter how many rocks tumble onto mountain highways, how many wrecks tie up the freeways, or how much mud ends up on the streets, workers are ready.
In the meantime, the trials of the past seven weeks have again exposed the soft underbelly of laissez-faire land use planning across Southern California. The costs are being shared by taxpayers and some insurance policy holders nationwide. They deserve explanations.
Local, state and federal hearings have been conducted to try to find out what happened and when. Another list of recommendations will surely be trotted out, and many of them will be ignored -- again.
Nevertheless, quests for accountability may produce solutions to reduce impacts of the next disasters, whatever forms they take.
With that in mind, perhaps there are a few lessons leaders across Southern California can learn from people here in San Bernardino County.
More than 25 years ago, a young firefighter named Jim Wilkins made a 60-minute documentary about the 1980 Panorama Fire and its aftermath, "San Bernardino Under Siege." The program aired several times on public television and has been used extensively as a training film. Hundreds of firefighters across Southern California have had their first view of urban firestorm conditions thanks to Wilkins' documentary.
This important historic record should now be required viewing for all decision-makers at the federal, state and local level -- anyone who has a vote in disaster-related matters in California -- because it shows that firefighters more than a quarter-century ago already knew about the factors that elected leaders and land use agencies are now forced to grapple with yet again. If leaders in Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and the Nation's Capital choose to ignore this piece of history, they are missing a significant part of the picture.
Wilkins lives in Wrightwood. The fire chief who cleared Wilkins to complete the documentary, Duane Mellinger, lives in north San Bernardino.
The chart pictured at the top of this post is from NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS WR-261, "Climate of Southern California," published in January 2000. It's a simple diagram based on at least a century of observation, showing where predictably strong winds blow through Southern California. Click on it to see detail.
Titled "Three main Santa Ana wind corridors into the Los Angeles basin," the image tells us what we already know. So what are we going to do about it?
It's not a stretch to suggest that known Santa Ana wind corridors should at the very least be included in local land use policy. The winds are so foreseeable they hardly qualify as a disaster.
In the San Gorgonio Pass, which NOAA refers to as Banning Pass, the winds are so strong and so consistent that scientists and investors figure it's lucrative to literally harvest the winds. The forest of spinning fans in one of the largest wind farms in the world is a landmark millions of motorists drive through every year.
How does it make sense to build homes in the same wind corridor? This is the same region where five Forest Service firefighters died trying to protect a vacant home above Cabazon in October 2006.
A suspected arsonist has been charged with five counts of murder in the firefighter deaths. Even if we could somehow kill all arsonists overnight, fires are still going to ignite in known Santa Ana wind corridors. Keep on building there if you want to. Expect insurance companies to take a dim view on claims in the future.
More detailed wind maps and studies are available. The author of several studies, Ivory Small, still works for NOAA in San Diego.
Testimony by Calfire Director Ruben Grijalva last week to a Department of Interior appropriations subcommittee uses the word "watershed" at least 17 times. Since the state is finally getting around to pounding the message home, here's a little perspective.
In April 129 years ago, a one-armed explorer named John Wesley Powell submitted to Congress a "Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States."
Wallace Stegner, one of the West's leading literary voices, wrote that Powell "proposed surveys and political divisions not by arbitrary boundaries but by drainage divides" -- "so that watershed and timber lands, foothill grazing lands, and valley irrigated lands could be managed intelligently without conflict."
There was too much common sense in a notion like that. In 1889 and 1890 the constitutional conventions of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming would not listen to Powell's pleas for rational thinking, Stegner wrote. That's one reason we have so many square edges in our Western state maps.
Watersheds are not shaped like geometric squares. They are the shape of the land we live in.
Watersheds form natural funnels for all the elements that make this fire-erosion country -- water, rocks, winds and flames. A watershed is a rockshed. A watershed is a windshed. A watershed is a fireshed.
Forest managers in the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit get it. They are already titling documents "Stewardship Fireshed Assessment."
It's not too late to learn a few tricks from Powell, Stegner and Tahoe foresters. That is why a regional board like the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority has more credibility on certain issues than any number of city and county government agencies.
Individual counties, especially San Bernardino where we are so familiar with the notion of watersheds, have already mapped these individual features. It is time to look harder at recognizing these basic geographic features for what they are -- natural political boundaries, the foundation and framework for whatever humans attempt to do within them.
MOUNTAINS NEED A HAIRCUT
The mountains also need somebody like the Rev. Al Sharpton to pound another simple message into the public consciousness.
"If a tree is brown, cut it down. If a tree is brown, cut it down."
That means cutting down up to 10 million sick, dead and dying trees in the San Bernardino National Forest alone. At roughly $100 a tree, no government agency is going to pay that bill. So what do we do? Sit on our hands and wait for the next big fire?
It's time to get creative. There are standing armies of restless teenagers in valley neighborhoods, yearning for action. Make one year of forestry service compulsory for all teens in Southern California. Under scientifically-trained forest crew bosses, this vast labor pool can chew through all the vulnerable standing fuel from Mount Baldy to Idyllwild, and beyond.
Prefer inmate crews? Go for it. Mobile wood-cutter camps are an affordable alternative to expensive prison buildings, and would help relieve inmate overcrowding so often cited by county officials. And don't forget to harness the recovering methamphetamine addict population. Former tweakers like the outdoors, too.
The only practical alternative to hand-cutting each and every dead tree is to light the forest on fire and let flames do the work. Pick your poison. We've already tried doing nothing for decades, and we can see the results.
If a tree is brown, cut it down.
NO MORE SUBSIDIES
If local voters, like so many residents of San Diego, don't want to pay for their own fire protection, that's fine. But they should not expect the state or federal government to step in to fill the void.
Pay your own way, or move out of fire country.
Taking the point further, if people want to live at elevations where they are within a mile of chaparral species, they should provide their own fire protection. Period. Nobody else should pay. Brush clearance in chaparral hills and vulnerable forests should be spelled out plain and simple -- anything less than 100 yards doesn't cut it. You want to live in it? Start cutting it. And pave that 100 yards with rock or asphalt.
That's a phrase from memorial leaflets and websites about the crew of Forest Service Engine 57, who died Oct. 26, 2006 in the Esperanza Fire in Riverside County. One way to make sure people never forget is to put their photos on the cover of every land use and real estate handbook in Southern California.
That is what is really at stake here. Homeowners, investors, builders, and government officials who take fire protection for granted, placing the burden of protection on under-funded public safety agencies. Arsonists can light fires. But it takes nature to make a firestorm, and it takes property owners and land use agencies to build homes in wind corridors with known fire histories.
RESPECT YOUR ELDERS
The recorded history of San Bernardino County is relatively brief, but it rests on a foundation of people whose ancestors are still here -- Serrano, Cahuilla and particularly Yuhaviatam, the People of the Pines. If stewardship of mountain forests continues to prove too much for local, state and federal governments, the people who these lands belonged to in the first place may be willing to step up to the challenge.
Regardless of politics, the ancestors of Yuhaviatam and other tribes should be included in discussions of forest management in Southern California. Some of them can be found among the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in north San Bernardino.
Video at http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=45IRISH