Unsprawling the suburbs
Last year, The Los Angeles Times editorial board repeated the call for increased fire resiliency, but argued that it was foolish to pretend that housing regulations would eliminate the danger created by building and rebuilding in high-fire-risk areas. “Cities and state agencies are talking about ‘managed retreat’ — or relocating threatened homes — from communities facing coastal erosion or flooding,” the board wrote. “Why is there not a similar policy discussion in areas that repeatedly burn?”
One reason, as Mr. Newsom put it, is that the notion runs counter to California’s “pioneering spirit.” Another reason, as the Times editorial board wrote last year, is that California’s sprawl is driven in part by soaring housing prices that have pushed people out of cities. Prohibitions against building in fire-prone areas would therefore entail building denser, affordable housing in urban economic centers.
To the Times columnist Farhad Manjoo, the challenge that lies before the state is nothing less than a transformation of its way of life. “Californian suburbia, the ideal of much of American suburbia, was built and sold on the promise of endless excess — everyone gets a car, a job, a single-family home and enough water and gasoline and electricity to light up the party,” he writes. “But it is long past obvious that infinitude was a false promise. Traffic, sprawl, homelessness and ballooning housing costs are all consequences of our profligacy with the land and our other resources.”
Updating the fire safety curriculum
While some devastating fires are caused by negligent utility companies and natural causes, most are caused, intentionally or unintentionally, by people. In Washington State, for example, people have started more than 1,300 fires so far this year. The Seattle Times editorial board argues that climate change has only increased the need to cultivate a more rigorous ethic of fire prevention among the public.
“Vigilance about fire safety must be an everyday concern. From cigarette butts tossed on the roadside to campfires and fire pits, each outdoor spark is a threat to bucolic wild lands, property and life during these long parched weeks,” the board writes. “Every Washington resident and business shares this responsibility. Schools and public-safety bulletins should urgently spread this gospel. The message must be amplified each summer.”
Thinking beyond the West Coast
In the coming decades, no part of the United States will remain unaffected by climate change. As Abrahm Lustgarten writes in The New York Times Magazine, Americans have been conditioned not to respond to climate threats as people in the rest of the world do, possessed of a boundless faith in the capacity of money and technology to domesticate nature. But across the country, he says, not just in the West, the gap between what the climate can destroy and what money can replace is growing.
Florida officials have already acknowledged that safeguarding some roadways against rising seas will be unaffordable. In recent years, the Southeast has had to contend with what may be the emergence of its own dangerous annual fire season. And for the first time, the nation’s federal flood-insurance program is now mandating that some of its payouts be used to retreat from damage-prone areas. The insurance, real estate and private-equity industries are beginning to register the risk, he writes, and “it will soon prove too expensive to maintain the status quo.”