The recent atmospheric river effectively snuffed out wildfire season, and many are breathing a sigh of relief. While wildfires burned 2.5 million acres of California this year, that is nearly 40 percent less than the year before. Take heart while you can. Given the trend line, which shows ever more destructive fires over recent years, there are more apocalyptic fire seasons on the horizon.

Now that we have a brief pause (though actually, many fire professionals argue that fire “season” is continual at this point), it’s time to take stock of what works, what doesn’t and what we need to do to prepare for the dry, hot conditions that are never far away. A pair of the region’s United Way chapters did just that last week, connecting over Zoom to discuss what we know. The United Way of the Bay Area and the United Way of Wine Country hosted the event, and the South Coast’s indefatigable Rita Mancera provided some reporting from the ground.

It’s fair to say that those on the call consider the risk going forward to be existential for many. The scale of loss is staggering. Jeff Bellisario, executive director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute noted that fire losses actually put a dent in the state’s gross domestic product. One of every eight acres in California has burned in the last decade. Health care expenses rise notably in fire season and the insurance industry is still coming to grips with what climate change means for California homeowners going forward.

And the pain is not evenly distributed. Bellisario noted that the retail sector still hasn’t rebounded in Wine Country and those low-paying jobs were held by the people who can least afford temporary housing and the cost of rebuilding. You might be surprised to learn there are actually fewer people living in Sonoma County now than there were in 2015 — a direct result of recent fires.

“Disasters drive deeper inequality,” said Kevin Zwick, chief executive officer of the United Way of the Bay Area. “For some, fire is an inconvenience; for others, it is life-changing. Every time there is a wildfire, there are more people in need.”

Nobody knows this better than Mancera, who, along with a small army of volunteers and paid staffers at Puente, behaved heroically throughout the CZU Lightning Complex fires in southern San Mateo County. The nonprofit was the economic first-responder for untold people in southern San Mateo County, providing food, housing and comfort for weeks. Mancera herself was evacuated for four weeks even as she selflessly helped others.

She has some ideas for things to address in this breath of time before climate change and a spark combine to send us all scrambling again.

t“This is a chance to get a more robust communication system,” she told those on the call. She’s right and this seems to be one of the most vexing problems as thoughtful people plan for emergencies. Most people aren’t signed up for SMC Alerts, the official emergency channel of San Mateo County. Even if more were signed up, official communication is often late and spotty throughout emergencies here. It has not always been offered in Spanish or Mandarin. One hopeful sign: Consultants for the city of Half Moon Bay have been talking with stakeholders around the city in recent days with an eye toward an effective crisis communications plan. It’s been a long time coming and it isn’t here yet.

t Mancera would like to see subsidies so that everyone can harden their homes against wildfire. Creating defensible space is one thing if you can afford to have the work done; it’s another if you work two jobs just to put food on the table.

t “We need to diversify first-responders,” Mancera said, “and not just racial diversity, but also age and gender.” She’s right. However well-meaning, young white men in uniform, some bearing guns and badges, don’t always enjoy the trust of the people she represents. A more diverse fire service would also be helpful.

t And Mancera would like to see funds that can be drawn down in a heartbeat. She took pains to say funders — from big foundations down to individual donors — were generous and quick to respond to the 2020 fires. We should build on that with a region-wide plan to cut any remaining red tape when time is of the essence.

The Coastside dodged fire season this year. We may not next year. And eventually, it’s coming for us again. Planning must be constant.

— Clay Lambert

Clay Lambert is the editorial director for Coastside News Group. After years working at regional daily newspapers, he began as editor of the Half Moon Bay Review in 2004.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

More Stories

  • 0

On June 28, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed new legislation (AB 832) that extends eviction protection until Sept. 30, 2021. Also, this budget includes a $5.2 billion California Rent Relief Program.

  • 0

Young people who play organized sports are healthier, all things considered, than their more sedentary peers. They form lasting friendships and learn to deal with adversity in productive ways. They become time management experts out of necessity. Young athletes build confidence and good habi…

  • 0

I appreciate the heads-up from Jane Northrop regarding the prospects for funding improvements to Sharp Park Road (Tribune, July 7), which I use frequently in cyclist and motorist mode.

  • 1

There is something disquieting about the notion that Pacifica nonprofits need pyrotechnics to fuel philanthropy. Profiting from fireworks sales at the onset of what threatens to be a historic wildfire season is a little like a youth sports team selling cigarettes to pay for the trip to the b…

  • 1

Newcomers to San Bruno and Pacifica are always shocked to see roadside booths selling fireworks and anyone who YouTubes “Pacifica Fireworks” will see this happening 20 miles north of where a thousand homes burned to the ground last year.

  • 0

Thank you to the city of Pacifica’s Public Works Department and the continued support of Gail Bennett and Ryann Hoffman on Palmetto Avenue’s streetscape bulb-outs. I recently weeded our neighborhood bulb-out at the mini park and Public Works picked up the weed pile. Bennett and Hoffman coord…

  • 0

When California extended the state’s eviction moratorium through September, lawmakers were acknowledging both process problems getting federal money where it’s needed as well as the scope of an economic problem that is both personal and societal.

Recommended for you