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Lynne Plambeck: Re-thinking ‘let it burn’ philosophy

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: September 9, 2009 4:29 p.m.
Updated: September 10, 2009 4:55 a.m.
The Station Fire is still burning in the Angeles National Forest.

It has scorched more than half the forest, destroying watersheds on both sides of the San Gabriel Mountains that will flood and silt up this winter.

Much of the local wildlife will not survive. Even if they manage to avoid the flames, they will die slowly of burned paws, starvation or thirst in the next month.

There is nowhere for them to flee. Our forest is surrounded by urban areas where they will not be welcome.

News sources announcing the Station Fire as arson added, “Most wildfires are caused by human activity, and government statistics show that people were faulted for 5,208 wildfires in Southern California in 2008, the highest number since at least 2001. Between 2006 and 2008, Southern California was the only region of the country to see a significant jump in the number of wildfires blamed on people.”

This was not a natural fire. It was arson with a human cause just like the 5,208 other fires that occurred in Southern California over the past few years.

Did we “let it burn” just the same? Was it stoppable when it first broke out?

If we had sent in the helicopters and planes right away, could we have kept it under control?

Or did our agencies think we should use it to clean out the forest?  

The cost to the California taxpayers has topped $40 million; the cost to our forest is devastating.

But fighting an out of control fire is not the only cost.

What about those doctor’s bills for the asthma attacks as a result of the hazardous air quality?

What about the costs of flood control this rainy season?

What about silt removal and the degradation of our drinking water quality?

These additional unaccounted costs are likely to be huge.

And what about our natural area parks?

Are they all to be burned because they are fuel?

Why are we trying to establish green areas around our cities only to use them to back-burn against wildfires?

The careful burning of selected areas on wet days with no wind is undoubtedly necessary.

But such areas must be carefully reviewed to ensure they don’t destroy watersheds and irreplaceable wildlife.  

Such burnoffs still won’t stop an arson fire on a red flag day or in a Santa Ana wind.  

Perhaps it is time to look at new preventive actions.

Why not close off the forests and natural areas on red flag and Santa Ana wind days?

Extra law enforcement and road closure staffing must cost less than fighting a wildfire, destruction of homes, floods and medical expenses.

Why not organize teams of neighborhood forest-watchers to report suspicious behavior?

Like organized neighborhood watch teams of residents, many hikers and forest enthusiasts would undoubtedly be very willing to help with such an effort.

Watch teams work wonders in neighborhoods; they might help our forests as well.

Would more monitoring of particular areas prevent such fires?

Would volunteer “watch” campers or Conservation Corps volunteers at campsites and picnic areas help reduce human-caused fires?

We must also reform land use regulations that allow housing to sprawl into high fire hazard zones.

It is ironic that the county just approved the Lyons Ranch project on Aug. 26, allowing senior and other housing to be built in a high fire hazard zone next to a wildland area that has already burned several times in the last few years.

So will we destroy the adjacent Towesley Park in the future to protect these new housing units from wildfire?

Our urban forests, surrounded by urban development, are not like a large wilderness area.

A fire on a red flag day or in Santa Ana winds should never be allowed to just burn. It is too dangerous.

Although it may not be possible to stop it, a fire on a red flag day should receive immediate and extensive resources, not just aimed at protecting housing, but aimed at completely extinguishing the fire.

It will take hundreds of years for our forest to recover, if recovery is possible at all. For natural areas that have burned several times in recent years, lost oaks and wildlife may never return.

We urge the county and Forest Service to convene public meetings to collect ideas for preventive action.

We need to stop arson and careless destruction of our forests.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.


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