Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

The shock of loss, forgetting history



First, let me extend my condolences to Sharon McDaniel on the loss of her home, ("Dear Kevin McCarthy," Feb. 8). Having spent decades dealing with the tragedies of others, I'm still not used to the deep emotional scars inflicted when people loose memories, mementos, and sometimes loved ones due to natural forces. Living in a modern society, mostly well-ordered and capable of incredible technological advances, we often discount the power of natural forces.

We are regaled daily by TV newscasters regarding "the biggest," "worst," "hottest," "wettest," or "coldest" weather event according to whatever record they site. "Records" are slippery when provided without context. Fairly accurate weather records go back about 130 years, a blink in time when nature is involved. Until weather planes took on hurricanes half a century ago, we had only spotty knowledge of the actual location/intensity of an Atlantic hurricane, depending mostly upon radio reports from ships at sea unfortunate enough to find themselves in the storm.

By the mid-'60s, we received satellite reports allowing improved forecasting regarding size and location of a storm. Aircrews were still required to fly into the eye of hurricanes to determine their intensity and attempt to perceive their future course and speed. Until that happened we were at the mercy of chance and hoping that forecasters didn't miss anything. When they did, tragedies occurred, such as the Long Island Express, the great New England hurricane of 1938, for which New York Long Islanders had virtually no warning until black clouds and pounding surf surprised them on the beach. That storm had a forward motion of about 70 miles per hour and killed more than 600 people.

Warning failures aside, weather extremes are nothing new, contrary to the claims of climate alarmists. North America has the most extreme, violent weather on the planet, inflicting great misery on those subjected to the elements.

Media hype aside, wildfires are a historic feature of the American West. Contrary to claims that wildfires are more frequent than at any time in history, the 19th century is the absolute record-holder for wildland fires. The National Interagency Fire Center only shows burn areas back to 1960, which distort the statistics.

The 19th century saw repeated destruction of entire rural communities, especially in the Midwest. Peshtigo, Wisconsin, holds the unfortunate record for the single greatest loss of life due to wildfire in one incident that took place at the exact time that the Great Chicago Fire occurred in 1871. More than 1,200 people of that community perished in one terrible night.

The Big Burn of 1910 cost the lives of more than 70 wildland firefighters, resulting in the major reorganization of how America treated wildfire. The great fires of the Pacific Northwest at the beginning of the last century, combined with the rise of the Progressive Movement, changed American attitudes from indifference to decisive action regarding wildfire. Unfortunately, their policy of aggressive fire suppression created a monster that lives with us today. Natural burning was almost obliterated allowing massive amounts of wood fuel to accumulate. When fires occurred, as they always will, they're hotter and more violent, difficult, and dangerous to suppress.

California weather is deceptively pleasant until it isn't. According to climatologists, droughts lasting decades, (even centuries) followed by floods occurred well before industrialization. The mid-1800s brought first a four-year drought to SLO County that killed half the livestock, followed by floods that devastated most of what was left. In January 1973, the Pineapple Express put 12 inches of rain on SLO County within two weeks, with the final storm dumping 3 additional inches of rain on the streets of SLO in 45 minutes on Jan. 18, 1973, flooding major portions of the city.

That's in part what happened recently, fires occurring in areas not properly managed for decades, closely followed by heavy rains. Insects and drought have killed millions of trees in California. For years, forest managers pleaded for authority and resources to thin/clear brush and ground fuels. Environmental concerns and lawsuits cause interminable delays, and nothing is done. After a fire, mitigation measures are normally employed to stabilize the soil, but in 2017 there was no opportunity with a late season fire bumping up against the rainy season.

We live in an area prone to unstable soils. Highway 101 has been closed before due to mudslides and other hazards and will be so again. The tragedy that struck the Ventura/Santa Barbara area was in part due to unclear emergency warnings and long-term land-use decisions permitting civilians to be placed in harm's way, ignoring geologic history.

I'm truly sorry for your loss but no measures to mitigate the climate will lessen the hazards of living on California's Central Coast. Δ

Al Fonzi is an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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