Tuesday, October 30, 2007

California Fires & Environmentalism

A very good take on the policy around clearing brush from homes to protect them from wildfires in California.

October 29, 2007
The Environmentalist Fires
By John Berlau

Last week, CNN delayed for a few hours the scheduled Tuesday night broadcast debut of its much-hyped documentary series "Planet in Peril" due to live coverage of the tragic wildfires that have displaced more than 500,000 people in Southern California. But that didn't keep CNN "golden boy" reporter Anderson Cooper from using the tragedy to tout the program he starred in as much as he could.

Cooper constantly claimed during the week that the fires provided further confirmation of the documentary's prediction of an eco-catastrophe. Cooper said that higher temperature due to global warming may have been a factor. It was a "timely documentary," Cooper said last Tuesday on CNN's "Larry King Live", because "California certainly seems to be in peril."

But ironically, much of the reason California is in peril is due not to climate change, but to the very environmental policies championed by Cooper's documentary and our new Nobel laureate, Al Gore. While, in its statement praising Gore, the Nobel Committee said that global warming may "threaten the living conditions of much of mankind," the current wildfires show that the more immediate threat to man comes from the champions of the gnatcatcher, kangaroo rat, and the Delhi Sands Flower-Loving fly.

Environmental mandates have made fire safety for humans take a back seat to the well-being of the aforementioned California creatures, as well as that of every bug and rat lucky enough to be listed as an "endangered species" under federal and state law. For over a decade, environmentalists have hamstrung Californians in their efforts to clear the dry brush that is providing the fuel for this massive fire. If any of these endangered or even "threatened" species are found in shrubs or bushes on public or private property, it becomes very difficult to give this vegetation even the slightest haircut. This is true even if city codes require firebreaks to be built.

An example of the legal strait jacket that homeowners faced in the areas hit by the fires is the "brush management guide" on the City of San Diego web site. The confusing instructions state that vegetation within 100 feet of homes in canyon areas "must be thinned and pruned regularly." But then, the same sentence goes on to state that this must be achieved "without harming native plants, soil or habitats."

Then in fine print at the bottom of the page, the real kicker comes in:

"Brush management is not allowed in coastal sage scrub during the California gnatcatcher nesting season, from March 1st through August 15th. This small bird only lives in coastal sage scrub and is listed as a threatened species by the federal government. Any harm to this bird could result in fines and penalties."

Coastal sage scrub is a low plant ubiquitous near coastal California that grows like a weed under almost any condition. And since gnatcatcher nesting season lasts almost six months, there could be much buildup of sage scrub that becomes hard for homeowners to control. Especially since the maintenance rules severely restrict the use of mechanical brush-clearing devices even when gnat nesting season is over.

The tragedy is that this shows that not much has changed even after previous warnings from experts that environmental rules were on a collision course with fire safety in California and many other places, because they prevented the removal of "excess fuel" for fires from dense stands of trees and vegetation. Southern California homes were lost in 1993 after the federal Fish and Wildlife Service told homeowners that mechanical clearing of brush would likely violate the Endangered Species Act. The reason: it could alter the habitat of a newly-listed endangered species called the Stephens kangaroo rat.

Some exemptions were made, and clarifications were issued, but landowners still face the lingering risk that the simple act of building a firebreak can send them down the river if an endangered species is anywhere near their property. California's Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, which had been created after wildfires in 2003 by then-Governor Gray Davis and whose members included Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., as well as state legislators of both parties, concluded that "habitat preservation and environmental protection have often conflicted with sound fire safe planning."

But did this bipartisan finding or any of the documented harms to fire safety from environmental rules make it into CNN's exploration of possible causes of the current fires? Not a gnatcatcher's chance. Instead, climate "expert" Cooper told viewers Wednesday night that the wildfires were "symptoms of a planet in peril. Fire, drought, deforestation; it's all connected."

Yet the data show that temperature for areas hit by the fire was well within average ranges, and came nowhere near the record highs. On Monday the 23rd, for instance the high temperature in Escondido was 84 degrees, and the high in Santa Ana was 87 degrees. According to temperature statistics from the National Weather Service, the mean high in both cities for that date is 79 degrees. What's more, the record high for that date is 102 degrees in Escondido (in 1929) and 103 degrees in Santa Ana (in 1965). So tell us again, Anderson, how global warming is to blame, when the weather where the fires struck was not nearly as hot as it was more than 40 years ago and almost 80 years ago!

What about those harsh Santa Ana winds? Well, they are pretty strong. Here's one writer's description: "It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch."

Woooo! What a great description of the winds last week. Except that this passage wasn't written last week, last month, or last year. It was written by detective fiction master Raymond Chandler to describe the Santa Ana winds of about 70 years ago. It's in the opening paragraph of his famous short story "Red Wind," first published in 1938. So rough winds are nothing new under the California sun!

What's really changing the "climate" in Southern California is that there is more fuel for fires, since much less of the brush, as well as disease-infested trees, can be cleared, thanks to environmental mandates.