California wildfires remind columnist of destructive force of Mother Nature

Cupertino, Calif. – As much as we celebrate Mother Nature, seems lately we’ve been trying to stay out of her way.
Earthquakes in China. Tsunami in Myanmar. Flooding in Costa Rica. Tornadoes and wildfire just about everywhere. What’s up with all this calamity?
  In our region of the world, we are more vulnerable to the latter in the spring. And it has been an especially devastating season in our area as well as throughout Missouri for tornadoes. Deadly to be exact.
But the spring wildfire season is also upon us. Dead vegetation, combined with the low humidity and high winds typical of the season, make wildfire a greater risk. Each year, about 3,700 wildfires burn more than 55,000 acres of forest and grassland. The sad thing, though, is that many of the incidents are a result of arson.
One saving grace this year is that, for the most part, the region has had an abundance of moisture. In some instances too much rain, causing … well, flooding.
Such is not the case in other parts of the country where drought is creating extreme threat from Mother Nature in the form of wildfire.
All this week I’ve been involved in a creative workshop in northern California. The big news in the area has been a raging wildfire near Gilroy, Calif. Knowing the implications and impact of fire in our own state, I have been curious about both the comparisons and differences in the circumstances.
Certainly, wildfires are a dangerous event whether in Missouri or California but the differences are far more striking in complexity in the west.
“People will often get complacent,” said Saratoga Fire District Battalion Chief Joe Parker. “They’ll watch TV and think, ‘Oh, that’s terrible. I’m glad it’s not happening here.’ Well, it could be happening here.”
Well, guess what, it happened there.
The fire near where I was studying in the Santa Cruz mountains this week consumed 3,000 acres and destroyed 20 homes as of Friday. I couldn’t help but think back to the fireman’s comments about, “It can’t happen to me…”
How many times have he seen or heard of a wildfire in the west, shaken our heads and thought, “Oh, how sad to see those poor people lose their homes…” Well, this week while in this community, I’ve gotten perspective. Not only have I seen it on the tube, but seen in first hand on the people’s faces.
Even the people who did not necessarily lose their homes to the fire, were affected. Numerous residents were notified they might have to evacuate their homes. Although most never did, it was a wake-up call.
“You know how it is when you have something down on your to-do list,” one said. “You always mean to get to it, but sometimes you just don’t.”
People can take what they have for granted, especially in California towns with beautiful scenery and great weather, but this specific fire and other worldwide natural disasters should remind people that what they have could all be gone in an instant.
“What we need to remember is that if the firefighters hadn’t acted as quickly and decisively as they did, we may not have just lost our homes, but maybe our whole downtown,” he said.
Here’s the universal truth: people need to be more prepared for the fire season and take the proper steps to ensure that if a fire started on their property it would remain localized and not spread to neighboring homes.
Okay, here’s the encouraging part of my point. The folks here in northern California are prepared. It could be said that they’ve learned the hard way. But I’m proud to know that back in Missouri, the same kind of precautions are in place thanks to a network of partners.
Partnerships are important to Missouri’s Conservation Department for instance, and this is nowhere more evident than in the area of fire protection. Every year, the agency provides approximately $375,000 in matching funds through the Rural Community Fire Protection Program to help rural fire departments upgrade equipment that is used to protect private property as well as forests and other public resources. It also offers used firefighting equipment to rural fire departments on loan or for purchase at discounts of up to 50 percent.
In Southwest Missouri, the threat of wildfire is even greater. Tons of fallen limbs scattered in the woods are a grim reminder of the disastrous 2007 ice storm. As the fallen timber dries, it becomes fuel for future fires. Couple this with an increasing population and extensive home construction throughout the Ozarks, and you have the recipe for the next perfect storm: widespread, severe wildfires that could cause millions of dollars of property damage, injuries and even loss of life.
In the past, people often set fires to convert woodlands to pasture for cattle. Today, improper or unsafe debris burning is the leading cause of wildfire in Missouri. Most residents who burn debris never intend for their fire to get out of control, but in 2006, more than 1,500 escaped debris fires burned more than 17,000 acres of the Show-Me State.
What can you do?: You can help reduce the threat of wildfire by using simple alternatives to burning. Or, if you must burn, do it safely.
Citizens can also partner with the Department to protect forests and grasslands from fire. Always check with your local fire department or District Forester for local burning conditions before attempting any open burning, and report suspected forest arson by calling toll-free at 1-800-392-1111.