Human habitat destruction. Fire can eliminate and type-convert human communities as well as natural communities.
The Impact of Wildfires on Human Communities
Or how middle class neighborhoods with connections to the natural environment can be type-converted to upper income enclaves of concrete and homogenized landscapes by wildfire
Human habitats, as well as natural communities, can be seriously compromised by wildfire events. One of the reasons so many fire fighting resources were deployed around the rural town of Julian during the 2003 Cedar Fire was the recognition of how a destructive fire would threaten the community's continued existence and seriously compromise its intimate connection with the surrounding natural environment.
During the 1993 Old Topanga fire in Los Angeles County, the community was not as fortunate a Julian. 323 homes were destroyed. The impacted area was rebuilt, but the important question is how and in what manner did the rebuild change the community?
Many of the homes prior to the 1993 fire were relatively affordable (by California standards) and housed primarily middle class families. Today, all that has changed. According to a recently retired Los Angeles City firefighter, many of the new homes are multi-million dollar estates. "It used to be all you saw up there were old Volkswagon vans. Now you have to dodge BMWs and Porsches when trying to negotiate the streets," he said. Changes of a similar type have occurred in the Scripps Ranch Community in San Diego. Modest homes burned down by the 2003 Cedar fire have been replaced by enlarged, lot covering replacements with goats being used to eliminate the surrounding, native shrublands (see photos below). Are the social and natural resource costs of eliminating surrounding habitat exceeding the assumed benefits of wildfire risk reduction? Is 200 feet+ of bare dirt a reasonable strategy for a community of new homes that has been built under strict fire safety codes? Will the community be able to keep up the yearly maintenance required to control the annual crop of highly flammable, alien weeds that will now take over the bare zones?
Beyond the now enlarged, dirt strip there still exists a remarkable, natural habitat than can improve the quality of life of the families who live in the new homes. Unfortunately, as nature is pushed further away, children will not have the opportunity to experience the natural world in a manner that was once a crucial part of growing up. Without such intimate contact with roadrunners, ceanothus blooms, and kangaroo rats, how will the children view nature when they are adults?
For more information on the importance of wild nature in the human habitat, see Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods. You might also want to check out the Urban Wildlands Group website. They are dedicated to the conservation of species, habitats, and ecological processes in urban and urbanizing areas.
The herd munching through three-year-old post-fire chaparral. Photo: Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council (SRFSC).
Before the goats. Photo SRFSC.
After the goats. Photo SRFSC.
This photo illustrates one of the reasons areas in the Middle East became desert. It was because of centuries of abusive land practices. Goats on the left, no goats on the right. Both areas had been burned in San Diego County's 2003 Paradise Fire. This photo was taken four years after the fire.
Firestorm 2003 – Another Point of View By Toni Colombo Scripps Ranch Resident
Many articles and TV news pieces over the last couple of years have tracked the effects of the firestorm on Scripps Ranch residents who lost their homes in the fire. Rightly so. Everyone is interested in the effects the fire had on those who lost all their material possessions and what they went through emotionally and financially. Nothing like it had been seen before. Yet, in these past two years, no one in the local media has given voice to homeowners who didn't lose their homes, but lost their neighborhood.
All of the families in Scripps were told to evacuate the morning of October 26, 2003. The scene was surreal, from the eerie orange sky, to the traffic of cars trying to flee the area. It all seemed like something out of a movie. But this was for real. For several days, no one knew if they would have a home to go back to.
We've read about many who lost their homes and some of the stories were heartbreaking. But what happened to those who came back to find their homes still standing? What did they feel seeing the neighborhood after the fire? What happened to those who couldn't open their windows for months because of all the soot and dust? How did they manage to live in an area that looked like a war zone for one year and a construction zone for another? There was no support group for those who had to drive in and out of the devastated area to get to and from their own houses each day. No one asked how heart breaking and sad they felt seeing this scene day in and day out for over a year. How did parents cope with the fears of their children who had a difficult time sleeping because they were afraid the fire "would come back for them"? How did they manage to keep all the ash and then construction soot out of their homes when they had adults and children with asthma or other breathing problems? For one year they lived in an area that gave them the feeling of "post traumatic stress syndrome". Then they lived in a noisy, messy, dirty, and sometimes dangerous neighborhood for another year (How many flat tires? How many construction trucks driving too fast? How many strangers in the neighborhood? How many cars broken into?).
New homes were built that changed the face and feel of the neighborhood without a thought that the new larger size of the houses might make things worse for the area should there be another fire. Home Owner's Associations that two years ago would challenge the hue of "white" paint proposed for repainting an existing home, now allowed architecture and colors that look so out of place in the neighborhood as to cause people to drive by just to "gawk" at how in the world anyone would build THAT house in THIS neighborhood. Homeowners have been allowed to build any style home with any color they wanted, and yet those whose homes survived continue to risk fines for putting up a basketball hoop in the driveway for their kids. Priorities are clearly maligned.
A majority of local fire officials and local ecologists have stated that the catastrophic, wind-driven fires of 2003 are likely to happen again. Yet most of the homes were rebuilt larger than the original size with no regard for defensible space. Some of these homes now extend all the way to the property line that butts up against the very wildlands that brought the fire to their doorstep in the first place. State and county codes require 100 feet of brush clearance and 30 feet of weed clearance around homes for defensible space, yet the buffer around these homes is no longer in their yard but instead in public open space. Our taxes and homeowner’s association fees must now go to extending the defensible space around these mini-mansions and damaging our precious few natural resources. What little landscaping these homes do have is often being revegetated with invasive plants listed under the “Do not plant these” list of several natural resource and fire safety brochures.
Members of the regulatory HOA's have said off the record, "We can't be portrayed in the media as causing the "victims" of the fire any more anguish. Besides, they will probably sue." No one has mentioned that people in most of these homes were warned 5, 10, even 15 years ago, that this was high fire danger area and that wood shake roofs, open eaves and old wood fences were hazards that should be replaced. There was no accountability for the lack of response to these warnings.
Everyone who did not lose their houses in Scripps Ranch were told "Wow, you were so lucky." What can you say to that? No one wants to lose their memories or live in temporary housing. Therefore, many of those who were lucky and blessed to keep their homes and possessions were the first to step up to the plate to help. They were the ones who went to St. Gregory's Church and not only volunteered their time and belongings, but a lot of money also. St. Gregory's Church took up a collection for the fire victims and not only did these people whose homes were still in tact contribute, but many of their family and friends from other areas sent contributions as well.
Families that didn't lose their homes felt "blessed" in so many ways. Yet, they lost their neighborhoods and life as they knew it. Their children had to go to other neighborhoods to Trick or Treat for two years. Christmas was dark without the usual holiday lights and traffic. They walked along streets strewn with debris, lots with only swing sets standing, trees partially burned and the smell of ash a constant presence. There was a sadness that was felt each and every day, but couldn't be avoided. Everyone told them how lucky, how blessed they were. And they were and are lucky and blessed. It's just that they have not been allowed to voice the ache in their hearts for what was lost and if you didn't lose your house and material possessions then it is assumed you didn't lose anything at all.
It is good to see the neighborhood streets come back to life with people and especially children. Joy is felt for all the families moving back “home” or buying the newly built houses. There are just different opinions as to whether we are better off now than we were two years ago.
To be truly prepared you need a solution that goes beyond 72-hour survival packages. The book, Ready or Not, explains the priorities of shelter, water, fire, and food as well as providing you with simple survival techniques and enough tools to deal effectively with any emergency situation. More details at the Ready or Not website.