California is once again in the news. As always, bad news puts the state’s latest crisis above the daily newspaper’s fold. Instead of stories about homelessness throughout the state, particularly acute in San Francisco and Los Angeles, or Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandated COVID-19 shutdown that affects most of California, this time the headlines screech about a searing heat wave, dangerous lighting strikes and destructive wildfires. Add rolling blackouts to the mix, and the brew is treacherous.
The latest California report is grim. Even as more than 13,000 firefighters battle to contain the roaring blazes headed in multiple directions, no end is in sight. Cal Fire representative Steve Kaufmann confirmed that by mid-August, approximately 12,000 lightning strikes started 585 fires in California that torched 1.1 million acres, and forced thousands to flee their homes. At least seven have died.
For decades, wildfires have endangered Californians and their property. Not surprisingly, California, the nation’s most populous state with nearly 40 million residents, has the most wildfires, and is at the most extreme risk for future fires and property damage. California needs to act immediately to diminish the continued threats that wildfires represent. And the first step is for federal and state leadership to acknowledge that California simply has too many people that consume too many resources. Unmanaged development in California, and the population growth that goes with it, has been non-stop for decades. Ten of California’s most destructive wildfires have occurred in the past decade, a pattern consistent with the state’s population growth.
Consider that, in 2020, California’s 40 million population represents a doubling from the 20 million in the 1970s. Gradually, people in search of housing spread out and, ultimately out of necessity, find or construct homes in more sparsely populated areas. Those previously unoccupied wilderness areas are more susceptible to wildfires. Once the fires begin in remote regions, they’re harder for firefighters to access. The Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology division, estimates that at least 25 percent of Californians now live in what the center calls fire-prone locations. Jon Keeley, a U.S. Geological Survey research scientist, said that population growth makes wildfires more deadly, and more likely: “More people on the landscape means more opportunity for a fire during one of these wind events.” The National Park Service agreed that too many people is the leading cause of wildfires; 85 percent are human-caused.
Sacramento has actively worked against slower, more prudent growth. In 2017, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed 15 bills that eased new home construction. Brown touted the new legislation as an important step to end California’s affordable housing crisis. But Brown neglected to note the inevitability that a significant portion of new homes would be constructed in areas not environmentally suitable for housing. A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analysis confirmed that development in wildfire-prone regions has dramatically increased. The report found that between 1990 and 2015 home construction within the perimeter of recent wildfires increased from 177,000 to 286,000. More development to accommodate an exploding population is, at best, a fleeting, band-aid solution that kicks the real problem – too many people – down the road.
By 2050, California’s population will exceed an unsustainable 50 million, a 25 percent increase from the current level. Try to imagine the apocalyptic vision of a California with 10 million more people, all of whom will need, to name a few essentials, housing, water, electrical power, transportation and education. As a general rule, late night television doesn’t provide viewers fountains of wisdom. But last year, comedian/activist Bill Maher said that “there are just too many of us” and advocated for a lower population and reduced resource consumption. Maher correctly concluded, “We don’t need smaller carbon footprints; we need less feet.”