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The Seeds of Disaster: California Wildfires

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On Memorial Day, I went with a friend on a short hike up the Santa Monica Mountains. We started later than I would have liked and there was a parade that blocked our drive, but when we got there, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled with fear. Everything about the mountains screamed disaster.

Yet, I had friends who could go calmly and coolly on hikes in the early summer and into the early autumn. They still found it refreshing. One person met online fairly sneered with ridicule of my fears and went along with his weekly hikes in the mountains of Altadena. I thought of him when there was a fire, August 26, on that very trail. I was at work and the firefighters had to help hikers and their dogs to safety. Just two weeks ago, my friend told me he was going up a different trail in the Angeles Forest. That was before the closure due to high fire danger.

I see nothing refreshing in seeing disaster as I walk up a trail. The state of the vegetation in the Pasadena area, drier than that of the Santa Monica Mountains, was a red flag. Even earlier, though, red flags were waving.

I had followed the Wildflower hotline on the Internet, and the forecast for the season wasn’t good. It was too dry, at least too dry in the mountains and deserts, and too dry in our forests. It wasn’t too dry on the lawns in front of houses or on the hundreds of golf courses in California.

We had a drought from 1987-1992 in California. People were urged to give up their lawns, to plant like one lived in a Mediterranean climate or arid desert area, and not like the moist and gray England. The term xeriscape came into common use among gardeners, but didn’t penetrate that deeply into the gardening practices of Californians it seems. People were urged to give up sprinklers in favor of drip irrigation.

There was some penetration. One could see it even at places like Disneyland, but even with this warning, we were still wasteful and careless.

Few people in California, particularly Southern California, know about World Water Day. Water is not as widespread a concern here as is smog and traffic emissions. You can get coverage for Earth Day, but coverage for World Water Day is rare and not very popular even more than a decade after its inception by the United Nations.

Water is California’s least covered major story. We have ignored it. Even as we entered into a perfect drought season, we only got polite reminders and requests to conserve water.

The seed of disaster is the arrogance Southern Californians have shown toward the ecological system. We can pretend we are in England with our vast lawns, or in Scotland with our golf courses, but pretending doesn’t make it so. We can waste water as if it were an infinite resource, but as we have seen from space even the ocean is finite.

The plants native to California were drought tolerant, but the California lifestyles are not. Some native plants were meant to burn and some require fire to germinate.

Now, as people begin pointing fingers at each other, they resist seeing how it’s not just the government to blame for not making it clear how desperate our situation was. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, and even until recently, it was hard to get environmental news published in the general media.

The environment wasn’t news because it took too long to develop. It wasn’t like an action movie with a sensational photo, celebrities, lots of noise, and a quick and happy resolution. It was a long, depressing dirge in some minds, but really it was like a slowly developed crime novel where the criminals were just your average citizen, living a life of ignorance, paying more attention to celebrity gossip or political scandals than to how we were killing ourselves.

It’s not just Californians. It is also a problem in Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. In North Carolina, the governor is reluctant to impose water rationing. “Here’s what local leaders should do if they haven’t already: Ban watering the lawn, power-washing the patio or washing the car unless it can be done with recycled water. Residents should take short showers the navy way — wet down, cut the water off, soap up, rinse off. Elapsed time: a couple minutes, max. Every other day take a sponge bath. Leave the bed sheets on longer. Wear that shirt another time or two before sending it to the wash. Flush the toilet only when necessary. And save water and money by cutting the use of electricity, which requires considerable water to generate.”

There are already cities with water rationing such as Chester County, South Carolina. Other cities such as Asheboro, North Carolina have restrictions as well, and yet the Carolinas aren’t a semi-arid desert. States such as Nevada and Arizona have limits on watering lawns.

When will California start setting limits?

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