Calif. wildfires reclaim land

Policies questioned as homes encroach on danger zones

October 28, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

SAN DIEGO -- As Californians sift through the cinders of last week's wildfires, there is a growing consensus that the state's war against such disasters - as it is currently being fought - cannot be won.

"California has lost 1.5 million acres in the last four years," said Richard A. Minnich, a professor of earth sciences who teaches fire ecology at the University of California, Riverside. "When do we declare the policy a failure?"

Fire-management experts such as Minnich, who has compared fire histories in San Diego County and Baja California in Mexico, say the message is clear: Mexico has smaller fires that burn out naturally, regularly clearing out combustible underbrush and causing relatively little destruction because the cycle is still natural. California has giant fires because its longtime policies of fire suppression - in which the government has kept fires from their normal cycle - have created huge pockets of fuel that erupt into conflagrations that must be fought.

The main problem is that many Californians are obstinate about the choice they have made to live with the constant threat of fire. Even officials favoring change concede that it could take a decade - and more wildfires - before it happens.

In San Diego County, three of four homes built since 1990 are in the dangerous zone where open spaces and housing meet. These are the most vulnerable and exposed places in fire season because wildfires generally start in national forests, recreation areas and other public lands.

Nine fires continued to burn in a four-county area of Southern California, and officials said 20,575 homes were in danger.

California State Fire Marshal Kate Dargan said discussions had begun at the highest levels of government on some tough proposals: curtailing population growth on the wildland margins or an overhaul of how the public lands are managed for fire danger. But decisions are perhaps years away, because of the scope and complexity of the task.

Meanwhile, Dargan said, "we'll have more people living out there, and if averages hold, we'll have two more catastrophic incidents like this before the decisions get made."

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