Riverside County has put a $100,000 price on the heads of the arsonist[s] who got beered up and set a fire that has killed four or five firefighters (one is hanging by a thread in the hospital, badly burned) and is at 24,000 acres and growing. What they did is certainly murder and they should be prosecuted if we can find them. But just because the arsonists are guilty shouldn’t distract us from all the other things that doomed the firefighters. These fall into three categories, and the second two are people behaving badly:
(A) The immutable physical linkages among pressure, temperature, and volume in a gas (air) means that when dry air slides down a mountain, usually opposite the prevailing wind direction, it gets hotter and drier. PV=nRT, and the adiabatic lapse rate is about 5 deg. F/1000 ft whether we like it (or believe it) or not. When, not if: places like California (Santa Ana), Provence (Mistral), North Africa (Scirocco), Austria (Foehn) regularly experience this hot, dry wind. Regularly.
(B) Mediterranean climate, meaning long summers with no rain, and a resulting ecology of regular wildfires and plants adapted to them.
(C) Lightning ignites fires.
II. Private choices
(A) People go into environments like the one experiencing this fire, build houses, and live in them.
(B) Other people go into these environments, whether by road or off-road vehicles, with widely varying judgment, experience, and moral fitness to be left unsupervised. Some among them will start fires, on purpose or accidentally.
III. Public policy
(A) Land use, zoning, tax policy, and road construction choices permit and facilitate human habitation of these extremely dangerous places.
(B) Emergency services, especially firefighting, are deployed to protect structures and citizens where possible when (again, not if) the fire occurs.
(C) Insurance companies, though heavily regulated in many ways, are not obliged to charge premiums that reflect the real expected cost of choices like II (A); indeed, they are under heavy political pressure to keep insurance “affordable” for people who enjoy living in dangerous places, and enjoy it even more if they can get everyone else (taxpayers and other policyholders) to pay for their risks.
There’s nothing to be done about category I, and little for II(B). But the firefighters died, heroically, trying to save a house. What was it doing there? The homeowners, whose reckless decision to live in a fire zone of canyons and steep slopes, have not been identified in news stories that treat the arsonists as the unique cause of the tragedy [update 28/X/06: now they have]; neither have the Riverside County supervisors who chose to enable citizen behavior that is certain to lead to outcomes like this, nor the state insurance regulators who enabled a systematic deception of the homeowners about the risks they were creating. Firefighters will die as long as we have buildings, but foolish land use policy will kill a lot more of them.
Fires will be set, by people (accidentally or on purpose) or by lightning. This landscape will burn. Just as surely, as my father used to say, as God made little green apples, beaches and seaside cliffs will erode, hurricanes will blow, flood plains will flood, and living in places like those entails absolutely certain disasters. Some firefighters’ doom was sealed when people moved out into the chaparral canyons, we just didn’t know which ones’.
What about earthquakes? Good question: the answer is that we do a lot better pricing the risk (bought any earthquake insurance in California lately?) than we used to, and it’s much easier to build for personal and building survivability in a seismic zone than to do the same for fires and floods. We built San Francisco in the wrong place before we realized how dangerous it was, but that’s no reason to keep making such mistakes in new hazard zones, especially at public expense.