Glen MacDonald is director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, and is a professor of geography and of ecology and evolutionary biology. His op-ed appeared Aug. 29 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
A wildfire erupts on the western flanks of the Sierra Nevada and Gov. Jerry Brown declares a state of emergency for San Francisco because of the threat to the city's power and water. Traveling 150 miles in the opposite direction, smoke has made the air in Reno unhealthy to breathe. The Rim Fire, as enormous and as far flung as its effects are, should not be viewed as an isolated incident. In the western United States, there are 28 large fires burning and more than 3.75 million acres of land have been consumed this year.
California's Rim Fire and the earlier Black Forest Fire in Colorado should send city dwellers an important message: even distant wildfire is part of their lives.
Approximately 95 percent of all Californians live in urban areas and are more vulnerable to wildfires than ever before. One of the most pervasive signals of climate change in the West has been warmer temperatures and earlier spring snowmelt, resulting in a longer fire season. That, together with misguided forest management policies of the 20th century, which tried to eliminate the natural cycle of wildfire, has produced dangerous accumulations of overgrown trees and brush. The extra fuel is feeding many of the conflagrations.
Our love for forest and other wild landscapes, coupled with astronomical real estate prices in urban cores, has led to expansive residential development on the edges of our wildlands. Today, fully one-third of U.S. homes lie within such interfaces, where vegetation and topography make them more susceptible to wildfire.
If we think about the sprawling transportation, power and water systems that support our cities, the functional urban-wildland interface could be seen to extend hundreds of miles. To support the millions of people living in the great mega-cities of the West such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City or Denver, we have built gigantic, and sometimes fire-vulnerable, infrastructure to capture and transfer water and energy from the wildlands to the urban cores.
San Francisco and Los Angeles have the unenviable position of being at the vanguard of this strategy. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, built in 1923 in the western Sierra, feeds San Francisco. The Los Angeles Aqueduct, built in 1913, exploited water in the Eastern Sierra and Owens Valley. It is ironic that, with the Rim Fire threatening Hetch Hetchy, San Francisco finds itself at the forefront of demonstrating the flaws of 20th century policies, which built the sprawling urban West and stoked greenhouse gas emissions. They relied on a colossal transfer of water and energy to feed that growth.
While cities now recognize the importance of developing local resources and fostering conservation to meet energy and water demands, San Francisco is far from significantly decreasing its 85 percent dependence on distant Hetch Hetchy for water.
Once San Francisco was a leader in water recycling. In 1932, San Francisco built the first water recycling facilities in California, but alas, the city closed that facility in 1978. Today the only public recycled water comes from San Mateo County to irrigate the Harding Park and Fleming golf courses. San Francisco had better pay attention to what is happening in its extended Sierra Nevada hinterland.
Studies of climate change and fire suggest that the annual area burned in the Sierra Nevada could triple with modest warming. At the same time, tight economic conditions and a popular groundswell for less government are producing a situation where the state is imposing mandatory landowner fees to support state's rural firefighting, and the U.S. Forest Service has seen $212 million in congressional sequestration cuts.
What is the role of cities in meeting these challenges? Obviously smart and sustainable growth planning and decreasing carbon footprints. Initiatives such as the California Fire Service and Rescue Emergency Mutual Aid Plan, which has brought city firefighters from San Francisco and Los Angeles to fight the Rim Fire, are important. Fighting fires once they start is expensive though.
The real solution is sound forest and wildland management practices, but this will take considerable money to implement on the scale needed. The political will to develop and fund sound fire policies in the 21st century must come from the San Francisco and other cities, because Western cities everywhere are on the wildland fire front lines.