Californians Should Learn to Live with Wildfires: San Diegan Geologist

California firefighters will continue to face strong fires as the state heads into its fourth year of severe drought, and some people are arguing that Californians should learn to live with the fires.

An opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times argues that Californians need to learn to live with wildfires because our efforts to fight the fires have only made the situation worse, particularly when it comes to forest fires. 

One local geologist agrees with the approach, saying now that fire season has become a year-round occurrence, it’s time for locals to change the way they look at fires. 

“We’re seeing more and more fires, larger and larger. That will continue; it’s not climate change or global warming,” said Dr. Patt Abbott, a geologist and former San Diego State University professor, told NBC7. “That’s recovering from fire suppression policy we had through most of 20th century.”

Policy that states fires should be put out right as they happen allows vegetation to keep growing, Abbott said. When Santa Ana winds come through, fires grow quickly.

“We cannot stop them then; the amount of acreage for the big ones wouldn’t have been as big if the smaller ones had been allowed to burn, particularly in areas not directly affecting any human structures,” Abbott said.

“I hate to be negative, but it’s like, no gain. It’s like all those efforts all they did was lead up to making the Cedar Fire,” Abbott said.

Since the 2003 and 2007 wildfires, city officials said, state and local codes have changed. 

Property owners are now mandated to have 100 feet of defensible space as a part of their brush management, said City of San Diego spokeswoman Lynda Pfeifer, and the city inspects more than 12,000 private parcels to make sure it meets requirements. 

In Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones, buildings have to meet elevated standards in case of a wildfire. For more info on the city's brush management policies, click here. 

Abbott urged people to think more about smart growth, including how and where communities build.

“When someone goes out and buys their 40-acres and puts their cabin in the middle of dry vegetation that will burn….It’s not fair to put firefighters in positions to save buildings that were fundamentally built to burn,” Abbott said.

Lee Swanson, spokesman for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, said it’s important to distinguish between fires that burn in brush, and the more common grass fires in Southern California. 

He said people should try their best to build with fire-resistant materials in low-risk areas and create defensible space by thinking brush and trees around houses.

The City of San Diego has been mandating and advocating similar proactive measures for more than two decades, Swanson said.

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