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Sonoma County Gazette
For the Planet by Tish Levee

Fires and Climate Change

Oct 23, 2017
by Tish Levee


How does one begin to write about these devastating fires? The evacuations, the loss of so much of our community, and so many lost lives? I’m a climate journalist, so I write about climate change, but how do I begin to do that when so many of my friends have lost everything – when I’m grieving for the destruction in my county.

Well, for now, I’m not going to. Instead I’ll first talk about this month’s theme –gratitude. What are you grateful for? I’m grateful for all the firefighters and first responders, many of whom came from far way; for being personally safe; for how few people died, considering how terrible these fires were; for how our elected officials pitched in; and for the many people who’ve opened their hearts – and often their homes – to survivors and firefighters. I’ve so much to be grateful for; I need to remember that going forward.

Secondly, I need talk about how, as we recover, we can start planning to rebuild a more resilient and fire-resistant community.

Currently, large areas of the countyespecially Santa Rosa, have been leveled to nothing but rubble. As we move forwardand we willhow can we work together to make effective communities? Because of the immense devastation, we actually have an opportunity to create better communities. But if instead, we just rebuild everything the way it was, we’ll have missed an opportunity to make our environment safer in the future.

We know that the warming accompanying climate change is a big factor in the frequency and intensity of the “natural” disasters we’ve been experiencing this summer and fall: hurricanes in the southeast US and the Caribbean, and Ophelia reaching further east than any hurricane as it devolved into a tropical storm battering Ireland; fires raging across Montana, Idaho, western Washington, Oregon, Northern California, Portugal and Spain; and now, the fires whose names will be seared into our consciousness foreverTubbs, Nun, Atlas, and the rest. We know we can’t totally prevent this kind of destruction; there’ve always been fires, hurricanes, and floods, but they’re getting so much worse. They’re coming more frequently, and the effects are more deadly.

So, what can we do? First, we can learn from our history. These fires closely followed the path of the Hanly fire, which in 1964 raced from Napa to within 100 feet of Community Hospital on Chanate, where the winds finally shifted. The tail end of it burned through grassland to Mendocino Avenue to stop, right across from Journey’s End. Much of that area then was part of theFountain Grove Ranch; it was grasslands. Later we developed it into housing, business, shops, and the Fountain Grove Parkway, despite the warnings of environmentalists of the problems we could face.

Rebuilding, without acknowledging the lessons of history, and the reality of how much more the climate now can make the situation worse, means we’ll miss an opportunity to change our future in relation to these disasters. We need to rethink how we rebuild, now as we begin clearing the rubble.

Not only can we rebuild so that our communities are more resilient, we can also use this as a time to seriously rethink our housing needs. Already several jurisdictions are looking at ordinances to increase “granny units.”

Some ideas for rebuilding are roofing buildings with tile, preferably solar tiles; under-grounding utilities; planning defensible perimeters around large swaths of housing; and using smart landscaping, while reducing hardscaping such as concrete.

Where to start now. Sonoma Ecology Center’s Caitlin Cornwall shared some talking points about the wildfires developed by the North Bay Climate Adaptation Initiative (NBCAI), a consortium of several agencies and non-profits, at (email me for a copy). They stressed that we must first realize how vulnerable burned-over land is. Yes, we need rain, but it can make a bad situation worse. Most importantly DO NOT seed. This site tells you why and what to do instead.

Long term, we need to think about how climate change affects us. Droughts; warmer, longer summers; tree die off (102 million trees in California since 2010); and increasing heat waves are just some of the impacts of our burning more and more carbon. Next month I’ll talk about some strategies to reduce carbon emissions and to “suck” carbon back out of the atmosphere. Until then, Be Safe!

© Copyright Tish Levee, 2017


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