As We Watch California Burn Yet Again It’s Time to Say Yes to ‘Save Our San Diego Countryside’

by on October 28, 2019 · 1 comment

in California, San Diego, Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

California’s burning (again) with Governor Newsom declaring a state of emergency for Los Angeles and Sonoma Counties in the wake of twelve fires raging across the state.  Smoke swept throughout the Bay Area and parts north and delayed flights into San Francisco. Schools were closed in the affected regions, and close to two million people suffered through pre-emptive power shut-offs to try avoiding yet more blazes.

In Los Angeles, residents agonized through hellishly hot fall temperatures and respiratory problems while blazes in San Diego county broke out in Valley View and Ramona, reviving traumatic memories of apocalyptic fires past for many.  In San Diego county, the damage has been minor so far, but the hot, dry, windy conditions ensure that another firestorm is always just around the corner.

Despite all the dramatic news stories about evacuations, property damage, and existential peril, the underlying feeling one gets is that folks are starting to become used to this yearly ritual of destruction.  As the world warms, these catastrophic scenes are the new normal.  Complain about the late fall heat, watch fires on TV, call to check on friends or family if they’re in harm’s way, and keep driving to work on the crowded freeways.   This is how we live in the Anthropocene.

As Thomas Fuller and Kendra Pierre-Louis observe in a New York Times piece published last week, “A Forecast for a Warming World: Learn to Live with Fire”:

All this is happening after three straight years of record-breaking fires that researchers say are likely to continue in a warming world and which raise an important question: How to live in an ecosystem that is primed to burn?

“I think the perception is that we’re supposed to control them. But in a lot of cases we cannot,” said John Abatzoglou, an associate professor at the University of Idaho. “And that may allow us to think a little bit differently about how we live with fire. We call it wildfire for reason — it’s not domesticated fire.”

According to the National Climate Assessment, the government report that summarizes present and future effects of a warming climate on the United States, fire is a growing problem. Climate change will lead to more wildfires nationwide as hotter temperatures dry out plants, making them easier to ignite.

Of course, even if we somehow find a way to collectively respond to the climate crisis in time to prevent the-worst case scenarios, we have already altered the environment enough that some forms of adaptation are necessary.  What would seem completely untenable–crazy in fact—would be proceeding along with business as usual as if nothing has changed at all.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we are doing here in California, in San Diego in particular, as we continue to allow exurban sprawl into our backcountry, building planned communities in tinderboxes that will inevitably burn and give us the next TV disaster.  Then it’s burn, rebuild, repeat in what is an increasingly reckless and irrational cycle.

But here in San Diego County, it doesn’t have to be that way.  While we may have to learn to live with fire, we can do much better when it comes to how we build for the future.  In the past, developers spent big money to defeat measures that would have curbed unrestricted sprawl into fire prone areas of our backcountry.  Now, however, we have another chance to restore some basic sanity to the way we live in the face of the ever-increasing risk of fire.

Coming up in March 2020, the SOS (Save Our San Diego Countryside) Initiative will be on the ballot. This much-needed measure will prevent sprawl by giving San Diego County residents a voice in how and where development happens in our region.  If passed, it would require voter approval of changes to San Diego’s General Plan that would increase housing density in rural and semi-rural areas.

This would stop politicians elected by developer money from amending the General Plan without a vote of the people.  It would also encourage saner development in line with the General Plan that calls for 60,000 new units of affordable housing closer to urban infrastructure and transit that would not require a vote.  What would be restricted? Luxury mega-projects built far away from infrastructure in fire-prone areas.

San Diego County has seen big money defeat similar efforts in the past, but now, as we watch California turn into an inferno once again, perhaps reason will prevail.  It’s time we stop our history of insane development, save our countryside, protect the local environment, and not let moneyed interests make the future of our region any more perilous than it already is.



{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Chris October 31, 2019 at 11:55 am

I’m not optimistic either way. Whether it passes or not there will be consequences on either side.


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