Yesterday I had a terrifying reminder of just how vulnerable we actually are. As I drove over the Mace overpass, Davis blanketed by cool smoke and noxious ash, I suddenly saw to the east, not far away, a new and fresh column of smoke rising into the air. Then I saw flames. It was close, seemingly to the west of the levee at the Yolo Basin and it appeared to have been a backburn, but it was a reminder – there is not much standing in the way of disaster should the next fire come our way.
The next major fire could be here. We saw what happened last fall in Napa, we saw recently at Berryessa, and we are seeing it now with a number of simultaneous fires, the worst devastating residential neighborhoods in Redding.
Are we ready if – no, make that when – it comes here? One of the enduring memories from my childhood, 1985, I remember the Fourth of July that year, watching flames at the end of the street in the far off distance. A week or so later, we would get the call, evacuation and heading off to friends near the cooler and less smoky coast. That night we watched flames on the ridge burn, not far from our house.
There was burnt brush at the top of our street when we returned and burnt brush at the bottom of our street. But no residential houses burned. It was miraculous in a way.
That was 1985. Things seem so much worse now, and I wonder if our home would have survived had it been now as opposed to then.
It’s not even late summer/early fall yet. And we are already overwhelmed.
The editorial today in the Bee paints the picture: “As we face yet another summer of towering firestorms and overmatched first responders, it is becoming clear that we must radically improve emergency preparation in California. Summer has been a death march and July isn’t even done.”
Overmatched is a good word. That was the sense last fall in Napa. That is the sense this Thursday in Redding. The firefighters – brave and hardworking – were overmatched and overwhelmed.
Writes the Bee, “On Thursday evening, the wind-driven Carr Fire rushed into residential neighborhoods in Redding, bringing a one-two punch of thick smoke and unpredictable ‘firenados’ that overwhelmed firefighters. At least two people were killed trying to beat back the blaze and, within hours, dozens of homes had burned to the ground.”
“There was literally a wall of flames coming into the city,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Jonathan Cox said Friday.
For so long, the specter of climate change was a looming nightmare. We debated it. It was a political football. We have our arguments for and against. The debate is over. The only question now is what we do.
The Bee writes: “This is climate change, for real and in real time.”
The Bee continues: “Still, it is sobering to witness how swiftly scientists’ worst predictions have come true, from the lethal heat wave gripping Japan to the record temperatures in Europe to the flames exploding near the Arctic Circle.”
Fire has always been a threat in California. But it’s worse now.
As the Bee notes: “Many in Redding, for example, weren’t ready for a wildfire capable of creating its own weather system in their neighborhoods. They thought flames could never jump the Sacramento River and get into the city, in large part, because it’s never happened.”
They continue: “But old rules no longer apply. Now everyone in California needs a plan to escape a natural disaster, and cities in fire zones especially need better emergency notification systems, better public education and better evacuation routes.”
There will be those who will continue the old debates on climate change. But why? The real question is how can we protect our homes, our community and our lives from the inevitability of the next firestorm?
Our council, in addition to passing ordinances limiting the use of straws, lowering the GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, and making for better sustainability, have to plan what happens if a 50-foot-high wall of flames heads eastward from the west toward the neighborhoods on the west side of Davis or what happens if the wind shifts and a fire near the basin turns westward and heads our way and threatens the east side?
How do we get out of town? Do we have enough protection? Will we be the next town that is devastated by fires coming through in the middle of the night with little or no warning?
Those who lived in Santa Rosa faced that reality last October. Residents barely had enough time to jump into their cars. Some didn’t even make that.
The Bee paints a devastating picture of what happened next – damaged cell towers, and a system tied to landline phones which residents no longer have. The result was not only chaos, but disaster: “bumper-to-bumper traffic, unwieldy lines at gas stations and, tragically, people who never made it out alive.”
The Bee notes: “In Redding, many residents reported getting robocalls and text messages on their cellphones, telling them to evacuate. The result was better, but still chaotic. Police swarmed neighborhoods, running door to door. Again, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic, as residents who underestimated the wildfire’s reach waited to leave.”
We have one advantage here in Davis – we have time to plan because, unfortunately, we saw what happened in Santa Rosa and Redding before us.
The next fire will be something along lines which we have never seen before. We probably can’t prevent it at this point, we can only make plans to survive it.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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