There were 2,843 single family homes destroyed and another 437 apartments lost.
The death toll was 25 people with another 150 injured.
If you think it sounds like a Bay Area disaster, you’re correct. It wasn’t, however, an earthquake. It was the Oakland Hills Fire. The year was 1991 and California was in the fourth and what would be the final year of a serious drought.
Fast forward 15 years. California is now in the fourth year of a severe drought with some experts predicting a minimum of two to three years or more of the same.
Both the water situation and dry conditions are much more intense today. There are also 8 million more Californians. That means more housing has been built, often next to dry open space, in timber dry wooded areas, and canyons subject to severe winds that feed firestorms.
We are clearly in trouble. Big trouble.
California is a virtual powder keg. We got a taste of what lies ahead in February when the Round Fire charred 11 square miles in the eastern Sierra northwest of Bishop and destroyed more than three dozen homes and buildings. This is at a time of year when snow flurries are the norm and not raging wildfires.
In October 2013 in year two of our current severe drought, the worst wildfire in recorded Sierra history and the third largest wildfire ever in California charred 402 square miles and threatened Yosemite National Park. The Rim Fire took nine weeks to contain and virtually drained two lakes that supply domestic drinking water for much of Tuolumne County as helicopters retrieved massive bucket after bucket of water to try to slow down the advance of flames.
And to think that we are immune from such infernos because we live in the San Joaquin Valley and not the hills, mountains or rugged coastal canyons is wishful thinking. Back in June 2008 when we weren’t in a drought year, tinder dry vegetation along Intestate 5 coupled with dry winds combined for a massive fire that destroyed a dozen homes and damaged 21 others in a neighborhood along the freeway in Stockton.
In short a fast-moving fire given the drought conditions and the high winds we get can easily fuel a fiery disaster in Manteca, Lathrop,or Ripon.
We need to do everything to reduce our chances of marrying a devastating drought with a devastating fire season.
All recreational fires need to be banned indefinitely whether they are camp fires in the Sierra, the high desert, or in the valley.
Controlled burns, wherever feasible, need to be conducted in forests to reduce the build-up of fuel that is the byproduct of years of aggressive fire suppression strategies.
Weed abatement needs to be on par with water conservation efforts.
Manteca several years ago went from two annual weed inspections to just one to save money. It is time to restore the early fall weed inspection that was dropped and step up enforcement of weed abatement rules more aggressively year round and not wait for a citizen to complain.
As for those who show no willingness to conserve water by cutting back their lawn irrigation to just enough to keep grass alive which means not having a lush green look, they must be dealt with. The water they are wasting could be critical for health and safety needs especially as the reservoirs that will need to be tapped to help suppress wildfires on the Stanislaus River watershed could cause domestic water supply systems in the foothills to dry up. What water we don’t use is reflected in Sierra reservoirs not being lowered as fast.
Every drop counts.
As Californians we are in this together whether we live in Sonora, Manteca, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Jose, Delano or Beverly Hills.
While we should strive not to let trees, shrubs, and grass die we need to remember the food that a typical person consumes during a year take three quarters of an acre foot of water to grow.
It is prudent to cut back now instead of when things get worse and our options become more limited. Lush grass is a sign that you are putting yourself above the common good of the community. Once the water is applied, it’s gone. And while run-off may help those further downstream it does no good for those upstream or those in Manteca, Lathrop, and Ripon.
Cutting back now on watering pays bigger dividends instead of waiting until you are forced to do so this summer.
It’s been a long, dry four years. And this summer will be more of the same except even drier.