Wind, Fire and Water; Nature vs. Irresponsible Humans

Numerous stories have bombarded all news media recently dealing with weather.  Funny how such a huge subject is rarely featured in the news unless there is either a hidden agenda or something profound takes place in a major television market.  I am sorry to be cynical, but I have studied weather and enjoyed making amateur forecasts for years.  Weather is not something that fills the gap between news and sports for some of us.

There ARE some absolutely huge weather related situations going on and I feel it necessary to balance the hype with some sobering truths.  If “global warming” or “climate change” were taken out of all the stories floating around, and just the facts regarding the situations were presented; there would still be plenty of news to get good ratings.  But, the current trend is to somehow tie every single weird weather event into the global warming debate.  This is not fair nor can the facts sustain doing this.

Many years ago I lived in California for two years.  The first year (1976-77) there was “the worst drought in the history of the state”.  The news featured stories of dried up reservoirs and mountains with no snow.  Restaurants could only serve water if requested and all the lush green lawns were brown due to watering restrictions.  This was not last week, this was thirty years ago. 

The second year (1977-78) ended up being one of the wettest and snowiest on record.  I shall never forget driving down to California from Oregon and seeing a huge reservoir that was woefully low one year earlier filled to capacity because of all the precipitation.  One year the ski resorts were crying they were about to go out of business, and the next year they had so much snow people couldn’t drive up to ski.  The winter of 1977-78 nationwide was one of the worst winters in history.  The headlines everywhere warned of the coming “ice age”.

I do not wish to belittle the horrible tragedy that happened in San Diego and other southern California locations with the wildfires.  But, there have been Santa Ana winds for ages.  After dry winters, there have been major fires when there were intense Santa Ana winds.   Certain things are just to be expected if one chooses to live in the California “paradise”; fires, earthquakes, mudslides, droughts, floods and an occasional Santa Ana windstorm.

In 1970 the population of San Diego was 696,769 and for the county it was 1,357,854.  In just 30 years, by the year 2000; the city of San Diego’s population had doubled to 1,256,951 and the county had more than doubled to 2,813,833.  When an area undergoes this kind of rapid population growth, there are bound to be environmental problems.  Without a doubt, the biggest problem comes in moving more and more people farther and farther out into areas that had been “wilderness” previously.  When asphalt and cement replace dirt and vegetation, there is bound to be some problems come up.

In an average year, the coastal portion of San Diego receives about 10 inches of rain.  The coastal mountains to the east of the city usually receive substantially more rain in an average year.  Last year (2006-2007), San Diego received 3.85 inches of rain which was only 36% of normal.  What is worse, the mountains did not receive much more than the city. 

The additional factor causing the fire situation to be so critical was the humidity levels at or below 10%.  When there is no humidity, vegetation is dried out, winds barrel in approaching 100 miles per hour; all it takes is one smoldering cigarette butt or a careless spark from a welder and the inferno begins.  There is no stopping, or even slowing down, a fire with plenty of dry fuel and winds of hurricane velocity.

Earlier this summer fires burned out of control in Idaho and Montana for weeks.  The same scenario resulted in the same results.  The big difference was the lack of population and the corresponding lack of property damage.  The fires in southern California will end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars.  Amazingly, this is about the same amount as if a category 2 hurricane hit the area.  Seeing images of burned homes is heartbreaking, but it is no different than seeing images of homes destroyed by tornados, hurricanes or earthquakes.  A destroyed home is a disaster no matter how it happened.

People who insist upon living in areas prone to natural disasters MUST accept the responsibility of potential loss.  Anyone living next to the ocean cannot expect someone else to pay to rebuild their home after a huge storm or tsunami.  Anyone living on a fault line cannot expect someone else to pay to rebuild their destroyed home when it is finally ruined by the “big one”.  People who want to live in high risk areas need to have insurance to cover potential losses; no matter how much it costs.  It is not fair to expect the government or private charities to always rebuild after a major disaster.

Southern California is a high risk area, especially parts near what’s left of the forested mountains.  People who want to live in areas prone to fires (and later mudslides) should have to use materials in building that are fire retardant and do things to set up natural firebreaks around their homes.  Our society is not very good at taking personal responsibility for much of anything, especially where homes are built and how they are built.

The frightening part of this whole discussion lies in the potential for identical fires in the future.  Many of the areas hit hardest this week in the Malibu area were just devastated by major fires a few weeks ago.  Many areas that were burned a few weeks ago were just starting to recover from serious fires only a few years ago.  Unfortunately, these same areas will continue to face fire dangers every year after a dry winter.  It just goes with the territory, literally.

The bigger issue in all this lies in the upcoming water crisis.  That subject is far too involved to get into at this time, but I will address it soon.  I think if people understood how serious the water situation is, they would quit being so afraid of many other doomsday scenarios.   There is only so much fresh water available and when it is gone, it is gone until the next big rainstorm.  Water has been squandered more than any other natural resource, and very soon humanity will pay dearly for wasting one of the two things needed for life.  Without air and water people cannot live.  Both of these things have been polluted and squandered mercilessly. 

I sincerely hope and pray that people who know little about the weather don’t get distracted from the real issues environmentally, which are pollution and inexcusable wasting of natural resources.  Whether the climate is changing as radically as many are saying now, cannot be proven conclusively by anyone.  What can be proven is that there has been a rash of strange weather events in the past year.  Something is causing the weather to “misbehave”, and that much is for certain.  Whether the root cause is global warming, natural earth cycles or solar issues; something is causing the weather to change in a radical fashion.

Rather than make weather a political toy, people should be seeking answers on  how to preserve and steward what we have left.  This is the issue that needs to be debated and publicized, not just scaring people with wild projections which are based on computer models and speculation.  Instead of worrying about melting icecaps, why not figure out how to capture the water and store it for the future.  Instead of pointing fingers at everyone else concerning emissions and other minor things; why not be working feverishly to harness the sun’s power, desalt the oceans and figure out how to fit the billions of people on this earth into the parts of this planet capable of sustaining life.  We can help this earth if we will not turn the entire subject into just another political football.


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