Video taken from the Dumbo ride at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, shows smoke and ash from a 6,000-acre fire nearby casting an eerie pall over the Magic Kingdom on October 9. Anaheim Fire and Rescue said the fire, dubbed Canyon Fire 2, had affected 6,000 acres, and was 5 percent contained. California Gov Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency for several counties in the state. Twitter/egracescanlon and JackieEbule via Storyful
Video taken from the Dumbo ride at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, shows smoke and ash from a 6,000-acre fire nearby casting an eerie pall over the Magic Kingdom on October 9. Anaheim Fire and Rescue said the fire, dubbed Canyon Fire 2, had affected 6,000 acres, and was 5 percent contained. California Gov Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency for several counties in the state. Twitter/egracescanlon and JackieEbule via Storyful

Editorials

On fire from Disneyland to Wine Country, California must rethink disaster risk

By the Editorial Board

October 10, 2017 03:30 PM

UPDATED October 11, 2017 10:54 AM

Puerto Rico is in ruins. Thousands are displaced in Houston. The Gulf Coast is bracing for a fresh round of hurricanes.

Now, epic wildfires are incinerating California. At least 17 people were reported dead Tuesday, with tens of thousands evacuated and more than 150 missing, as 17 fires swept the state from San Diego to the Oregon border. “Apocalyptic” is the word that kept coming to mind, and not just because of the post-fire hellscape that is now parts of the Wine Country or the eerie orange skies over Disneyland.

Climate change is doing what scientists predicted – amplifying storms and lengthening wildfire seasons. As it is, the U.S. Forest Service has spent more than $2 billion this year on fire suppression, the costliest fire season since 2015, when the last record was set at $1.7 billion. If it wasn’t clear last year – or the year before, or the year before that – it is obvious now that a new normal is at hand.

So just as Hurricane Harvey must prompt a rethinking of zoning policies in cities such as Houston, this fire season has implications for development in California. The housing crisis won’t make that easy, by any stretch.

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Given that, it’s ironic, if not delusional, that the Trump administration would pick this, of all weeks, to move to repeal Obama-era limits on greenhouse gases, which drive global warming. Campaign promises to end the supposed “war on coal” notwithstanding, rolling back the Clean Power Plan is, in a word, nuts.

So is Trump’s proposed 21 percent budget cut to the Department of Agriculture, which includes the forest service. And his proposed 12 percent cut to the Department of the Interior, which helps pay for firefighting. And his 23 percent cut, also proposed, to the federal budget for volunteer fire departments, which in rural areas are the first line of defense.

Preparation for natural disaster, however, cannot just be a question of federal spending. Californians have long known how much damage can be done even in an ordinary fire season. Every year, Santa Ana winds set some part of Southern California ablaze – Irvine, La Canada, Malibu. This week’s fires are hardly the first to threaten Anaheim Hills.

And yet, every year, rising housing demand forces development ever further into wildfire country. Northern California communities aren’t immune. The horrific 1991 fires in the Oakland hills were among the worst in state history, burning 2,500 homes and killing 25 people, and a 2012 state study focusing on the impact of climate change warned of firestorms like the one that this week consumed Santa Rosa.

Our Changing Climate,” from the California Climate Change Center, warned that earlier snowmelt, higher temperatures and longer dry periods during a longer fire season would increase wildfire risk, as would changes in vegetation. But the biggest factor would be human, the report added, “especially in San Francisco Bay and Southern California counties,” as suburban development continued to exacerbate hazards from climate change.

So just as Hurricane Harvey must prompt a rethinking of zoning policies in cities such as Houston, this fire season has implications for development in California. The housing crisis won’t make that easy, by any stretch.

But even in places that once seemed secure against fire, floods and other disasters, insurers, local governments and state lawmakers now need to factor extreme weather into policies from firefighting to flood protection. If the past couple of months are any indication, this state’s future isn’t going to disaster-proof itself.