Tracking the Thirstbelt fires

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You can track wildfire size and containment status on InciWeb, a US Forest Service aggregator from various Federal agency databases. They additionally provide a Google Earth feed of fire data. However, I think it's still somewhat incomplete, since it lists only 162,000 acres in 7 active incidents in California, while the media is variously reporting numbers as high as 600,000 acres in 12 fires.

The question is why we insist on calling this a "natural disaster". Fire is good (and necessary) for many natural ecosystems - it's just bad for humans. Additionally, we generally wouldn't think the fire was a problem if there weren't humans in the way. Pop quiz: How many active forest fires are there in Montana right now? (Answer: 16 listed in InciWeb.) How many acres do they cover? (Answer: 411,000.) In Montana, it's not a "natural disaster", it's just natural. And, guess what, it's natural in California, as well. But because humans have gone and put themselves in the way of a (very predictable) natural phenomenon, it becomes a human disaster.

Let's check in with respectable media sources. From the Christian Science Monitor, 10/24/07, California's Age of Megafires. In addition to a drier-than-usual year,

The trend to more superhot fires, experts say, has been driven by a century-long policy of the US Forest Service to stop wildfires as quickly as possible. The unintentional consequence was to halt the natural eradication of underbrush, now the primary fuel for megafires.

Three other factors contribute to the trend, they add. First is climate change marked by a 1-degree F. rise in average yearly temperature across the West. Second is a fire season that on average is 78 days longer than in the late 1980s. Third is increased building of homes and other structures in wooded areas.

"We are increasingly building our homes ... in fire-prone ecosystems," says Dominik Kulakowski, adjunct professor of biology at Clark University Graduate School of Geography in Worcester, Mass. Doing that "in many of the forests of the Western US ... is like building homes on the side of an active volcano."

To put it simply, "If you build your home in fire-prone areas, you should expect to rebuild your home in a few years when it burns down." It's just like Florida and hurricanes - it's not a surprise if you're paying attention. But, much like Florida and hurricanes, I expect that residents won't get wise to the trend until their insurance companies do. (Or, like Coloradans and lawns, they won't catch on until the water utility does.)

What remains to be seen is, when does that happen? How many times does Malibu burn up and blow away before it stays gone?

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google demands it

(Have to bulk up hits on my new word - just one mention won't do!)


I've been informed that I've got a cousin (first, once removed, iirc), who's now the proud owner of a smoking heap of rubble in San Diego. Does that make me a preachy, sanctimonious jerk?

No, honestly I was pretty much that even before the fire hit my monkeysphere.

At the Human-Nature

At the Human-Nature interface, when things go poorly it's always nature's fault, duh. Nature needs to learn to compromise a little bit and stop being so flammable and windy and ground shaking and dry in the places we want to live. The problem is that people want to live somewhere warm and pretty. The solution is a pipeline from Lake Michigan to California.

Anyway, if insurance companies are running the numbers right, and regulators are letting insurance companies charge the right rates and not making us poor dumb schmucks in the midwest foot the bill, the market will take care of itself. Same goes for water and energy, I guess. Eventually people will be priced back to the north and east. Of course, by then a 5-lb bag of flour will cost $20, but hopefully we'll be dead already. Buy land!


Thems a lot of "ifs" you got there. I'm sure the regulators, under pressure to save the burning land dwellers from the rapacious and evil insurance companies, will sneer at such dirty tricks as "risk analyses" and prevent insurance companies from charging people in risky environments what they should be paying.