After the fires, how do we choose to live?

We’re at the cusp of historic change in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco and north of Santa Cruz. For over a century two historic trends have merged to create the CZU August Lightning fires, destroying many homes and properties.

For the past one hundred years, residents of the Bay Area and elsewhere have built summer homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains, there to enjoy cool temperatures and vast panoramic vistas. Over the years, many of those summer cabins have been upgraded to year round residences, most of them on narrow winding roads through the forest, subject to washouts, landslides, and fire.

Over the same period, fire suppression, largely to protect the increasing number of homes, has increased fuel loads in the forest, as small, patchy fires that have historically removed undergrowth and grasses have been curtailed and largely eliminated.

The August 15 thunderstorm set hundreds of small fires throughout the area, that caught hold in the abundant fuels accumulated over decades. They rapidly merged into the large fire area now being brought under control by 1600+ firefighters and their large and complex agency administrations.

We’ve come to this point over a century of thoughtless, unplanned growth and development, spreading fragile homes and businesses into wild areas without considering the natural processes at work in the non-human world. It’s a hard lesson to learn, and at this point a lesson not to be ignored.

Nevertheless, thoughts and plans are turning to “repopulation,” allowing home and business owners to return to assess the damage to their properties, including in many cases complete loss. Local government officials are already reassuring property owners that assistance for rebuilding will be readily available and the skids will be amply greased to ease the permitting process.

This is the point where a pause and a good rethink would be in order, before the rush to return to the status quo. Is it smart government policy to encourage property owners to rebuild their destroyed buildings in areas that will remain fire prone and would require extensive clearing, road building and fire protection into the future?

Isn’t this a good opportunity to reassess the effects of historic human population growth and infrastructure development in wild lands?

Isn’t now the perfect time to look to the future and consider the human world that we have built and the effects the way we live have on the natural world that surrounds us and on which we ultimately depend?

Wouldn’t it be better, for all life, for humans to live cooperatively, humbly and respectfully with natural processes, such as drought, precipitation, temperature… and fire, that govern the non-human world, and increasingly, as we have recently learned, the human world as well?

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” ― Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

2 thoughts on “After the fires, how do we choose to live?

  1. I hope people see that a reassessment of ways of living and building in forested areas is necessary. Because of the bushfires here in Australia last summer there are now rigid building codes in place. It means rebuilding has become very costly but does ensure houses won’t burn so readily. Unfortuntely there has been very little progress in lnking these vast fires to climate change. The pandemic and the ensuing panic have claimed people’s attention. As a result people who are in fire prone areas are already being warned of the possibility of major fires again this summer.

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  2. Whether or not climate variability is a factor in modern forest fires, fire suppression and human encroachment into wildlands are well documented causes of increased forest fires in North America. This is sufficient to justify a reevaluation of the way we live and our relationships to the natural world.

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