Cachuma Lake may have moved from the fire into a frying pan.

Only a few months ago the lake — South County’s primary water reservoir — was days from being a mud puddle after several years of drought.

Then the winter rains came, and kept coming, raising water levels at Cachuma. Then came the Whittier fire, a monster that scorched Cachuma’s southern slope so completely that the U.S. Forest Service has warned Santa Barbara County officials that another wet winter could cause havoc with the lake’s ecosystem.

Intense wildfires burn away important ground cover, and when that cover is removed, heavy downpours will further scour the fire’s footprint. In the case of the Whittier fire’s burn print, if heavy rains come, Cachuma Lake would be the natural place for debris to pile up. It would be a mess.

From drought, to downpours, to devastating wildfires — a cycle that seems to plague regions such as ours.

The county Board of Supervisors was warned at a meeting last week that if the big rain events do happen, highways 101 and 154 could be overwhelmed by rivers of storm runoff in a downhill rush to the sea.

At this point, most agree there is little to be done about the situation. Last week’s meeting was simply putting local residents and governments on notice — in other words, be prepared for a worst-case scenario.

A speaker at that board meeting promoted the notion of prescribed burns as a way to avoid such dire situations. He suggested “Mother Nature needs to be managed.”

Folks who believe in karma probably shuddered when hearing those words, in large part because the counterpoint to managing Mother Nature is that you don’t mess with her.

The debate about controlled burns goes back many decades, and is likely to continue on that journey of uncertainty, because there are so many valid pros and cons about forest fires and controlled burns.

The debate over controlled burns intensified four years ago, thanks to the Rim fire, which destroyed more than 400 square miles of back country in the Stanislaus National Forest in Northern California. Prescribed burn proponents said the Rim fire could have been little more than a nuisance, except for the accumulation of decades of underbrush and other ground cover, parched by the drought, that could have been eliminated with a controlled burn.

On the other hand, controlled burns can and do get out of control when the weather unexpectedly changes. That happened in Los Alamos, N.M, a few years ago when the wind changed directions, and a controlled burn broke free, blackening more than 45,000 acres and destroying 235 homes.

The debate moves beyond the pros and cons of controlled burns. Some experts believe wildfires are an inevitable element of a region’s ecosystem, or stated another way, Mother Nature being allowed to do her thing.

It’s a tough call, because fighting massive wildfires costs a lot of money. In that context, a pre-emptive controlled burn could not only save millions of dollars, but could also save lives and personal property.

Managing Mother Nature has a certain appeal, but the fact is Mother Nature can be and often is unpredictable and capricious, finding ways to outwit and upset man’s best-made plans.

That will be especially true as the planet’s climate changes. Longer drought episodes that scrub the land, leaving it vulnerable to flooding and mudslides from more and heavier winter deluges. We can’t see humans effectively managing that cycle.

If you have thoughts about the pros and cons of managing Mother Nature, please share.

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