Vol. 22, No. 5,514 - The American Reporter - September 7, 2016



by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
November 3, 2003
On Media
THE LESSON OF THE FIRES

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LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- For the past week I have been watching television news coverage of the California brushfires. Not once did I see or hear mention of the one central fact about these fires that is critical to how we ought to understand and respond to them.

We did see towering flames. In my case, I saw towering flames in three different languages as I watched first in Italy, then in Austria and Germany, and finally in two areas of the United States. The main difference seemed to be geographic precision. That is, the European news programs referred broadly and somewhat vaguely to the southern California fires, the news programs in Ohio referred a little more precisely to parts of San Diego and Los Angeles Counties, and back home in L.A., there were specifics of particular neighborhoods and freeways.

We saw endangered houses, refugee centers and aerial bombardment of the flames in every language.

There was, however, one core concept that appeared to be missing from all of the coverage I saw. It is this: Fire is a completely natural component of the ecological life cycle of the hillside environment in Southern California. It should not have been surprising that there are fires going on. There have been many fires even in the recent past and we should expect fires of similar type in the future. The World Wildlife Fund describes the California coastal chapparal on its Website.

Note this remark from that Web page: "The sages and other evergreen plants and trees here can grow with very little rain. By late summer, the dense chaparral is so dry that it often catches fire. But where it occurs naturally, this process helps clear out old vegetation, adds nutrients to the soil, and enables the seeds of many species to germinate."

The National Geographic Website (HTTP://www.nationalgeographic.com/wildworld/profiles/terrestrial/na/na1202.html) offers a similar observation: "The California Coastal Sage Scrub and Chaparral is specially adapted to survive fires. Many plants sprout from their base after fires, and some species have seeds that only germinate after burns. Natural fires used to occur about every 20 years."

In other words, fire is natural to this environment and aids immensely in the process whereby the hillside ecology is rejuvenated from time to time. In the days prior to human settlement, fires may have been started by lightning strikes, and as one botanist explained to me, probably then burned for weeks or months. Television news has been concentrating upon the ignition source, that is to say arson or accident, instead of the fact that any little spark will set the whole thing off, and one way or the other, natural or artificial, there is going to be a spark.

The region of California coastal sage and chaparral is huge (abstracting here from the National Geographic Web site): approximately 14,000 square miles, or twice the size of the state of New Jersey.

The lesson that housing developers and home buyers have routinely ignored for many decades is that these fires are inevitable. Building houses in the middle of steep canyons covered densely with dry brush means the constant risk of destruction due to fire. We have seen fires hit wealthy urban areas such as Laurel Canyon (connecting to the Hollywood area), Coldwater Canyon (approaching Beverly Hills), and Topanga Canyon. They have cleared the hillsides above Pasadena, Santa Barbara and Ventura.

It is not at all surprising that these fires occur. Perhaps it ought to surprise us just a little that the building industry and the zoning boards that are supposed to control new construction continue to allow new housing developments in these areas, but that has been the political reality.

Perhaps the fires of 2003 will be a wakeup call to the building industry and to the local governments that have accepted construction in natural wildfire areas. They have had such calls many times before, but this year's message is bigger and vastly more expensive.

This should have been the message that the fires delivered, but our television news writers let this one slip.

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