Here’s a rundown of typical newspaper headlines as summer morphs into fall:
“Monster wildfire ranges in Northern California.”
“Hurricane Florence thrashes coast of Carolinas.”
“Tracking more storms in the Atlantic.”
All you need to do is move the names around, and you have what is essentially taking place every summer and fall in the United States. And the costs are staggering.
Just as Hurricane Florence pummeled the Southeast, experts were rolling out the numbers from last year’s three catastrophic hurricanes in the U.S., all occurring within a 30-day period.
Thousands were killed and the final bill is about a quarter of a trillion dollars. The meter’s still running because Puerto Rico has yet to recover from Hurricane Maria’s devastation. There’s no count yet on cost estimates to clean up after Florence, but because it struck highly-populated areas along the Eastern Seaboard, the bottom line will likely be staggering.
Skip back a few months and you will find that 2017 was also one of the most destructive in terms of wildfire damage, with estimates topping $10 billion, much of it happening right in our back yard with the Thomas fire and subsequent mudslide destruction in Montecito.
There are a lot of reasons why big storms and monster fires are taking such an massive toll on many regions of the United States, but none more relevant than the fact that, even knowing the risks involved, Americans are drawn to high-risk areas as moths are drawn to flame.
We call big wildfires natural disasters, but too often they are anything but natural. More than four out of five wildfires are human-caused, mostly having to do with a person or persons doing something mind-numbingly stupid in the midst of dry forests in what seems to be our perpetual drought.
Do motorists actually think about what they‘re doing when they toss a lit cigarette butt out the car window? Do campers understand the inherent danger of breaking camp and leaving glowing embers behind?
That’s what causes fires. What causes costs to escalate is another matter. California’s chronic drought conditions help provoke bigger fires, but when it comes to loss of life and property, that’s an issue directly related to our inclination to turn wildland areas into urban meccas.
Californians’ inclination to choose to build where there are scenic views is understandable. We all appreciate stunning vistas. But those places are also the most vulnerable to wildfires, as has been proven time and again.
Santa Barbara County has a close relationship with such urbanization problems. The Painted Cave Fire in the early 1990s destroyed more than 500 homes in the Goleta hills. Images of Montecitans burned out, and then flooded out of their homes earlier this year are heart-wrenching.
The same principle applies with monster storms — their targets are the homes built in vulnerable areas, such as the Outer Banks in the Carolinas, or low-lying communities in the Mississippi Delta.
When the fires and storms are gone, and the rubble cleared away, we rebuild in those same areas. For proof, drive down Highway 101 into Goleta and see homes in the swatch destroyed by the Painted Cave conflagration. When the next big fire or storm comes, those new homes could be gone, too.
Albert Einstein’s definition of stupidity goes something like this — doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result. In a 12-step recovery program, it is stepping in the same hole, again and again.
One would think sentient humans could figure this out, but maybe not.