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False narratives 

When we ignore facts, we do injustice to the truth and create false narratives. Attributing every natural disaster to climate change relieves society of responsibility for making tough decisions.

From the early 1970s to 2007 I fought fires, serving in Butte County with the California Department of Forestry, SLO City Fire (dispatcher), and as a volunteer with Atascadero. I fought fires overseas as an enlisted man in the Philippines, brush fires set by insurgents designed to destroy our antennae fields, and at sea and on piers with my Coast Guard reserve unit.

My interest in firefighting probably originated with a traumatic view of the December 1958 fire at Our Lady of the Angels Elementary School on Chicago's west side in which 92 children and three nuns were killed. I remember it playing live on TV and relating it to my own classmates as I attended a parochial school at the time. Twenty years ago, I designed a firestorm course and simulation for county firefighters, part of which is still used in county wildland fire drills. What does a retired Army lieutenant colonel know about wildland fires or firefighting? Not nearly enough, but I'm still learning. I study a great deal of history, and the history of pioneer America is the history of fire as much as it's the history of conflict between civilizations.

This week tragedy struck many fellow Californians with three firefighters and three civilians (as of July 29) killed in massive wildfires. Many other civilians are still missing as these fires rage. As usual, young reporters breathlessly report how these fires are unprecedented as they do most disasters (they aren't) and how climate change has brought hellfire down upon us (it hasn't).

If I told you that on Jan. 18, 1973, after a week of receiving heavy rainfall (12 inches) that we received another 3 inches of rain in 45 minutes in SLO, most would be astonished. We did, and most of downtown SLO, Madonna Plaza, and Laguna Lake were underwater. We've had droughts that devastated the SLO County ag community in the 19th century, killing half the livestock in the county, and fires that swept North County. A wildfire in 1922 burned a similar pattern as the 1994 Highway 41 Fire in Atascadero, which, at its peak, burned 600 acres a minute. The 1922 fire led to the formation of the Atascadero Fire Protection District.

The conflagrations in LA in the 1960s led to the creation of the Incident Command System used to manage major incidents by fire agencies across America, and the Malibu firestorm of 1993 burned all the way to the "Great Pacific Firebreak." Nothing stops a wind-driven conflagration until it runs out of fuel or winter arrives with snow, as it did in the great fires of Yellowstone in 1988. None of these events were ascribed to climate change.

Our fire problem is a people problem combined with politics, which means the land and wildlife always lose. We put people in the wrong places and allow them to build with the wrong materials. We risk firefighters' lives to save wildlands but more and more, to save communities placed in indefensible spaces, ignoring weather, terrain, and the realities of weather upon fire history. Wildfire is engrained in American history along with the massive loss of life and property underlying the narrative of lessons slowly learned, if at all.

Americans have experienced devastating wildfire disasters, from the Peshtigo, Wisconsin, firestorm on Oct. 8, 1871, which claimed 1,500 lives (the same day as the great Chicago Fire) to a series of fires that devastated rural communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Wildfires obliterated entire communities. The wildfire that hit northeastern Minnesota in October 1918 destroyed 38 towns over a 1,500 square-mile area. William B. Greeley, former chief of the U.S. Forest Service, stated to fire historian Stewart H. Holbrook in 1943 (Burning an Empire) that wildfire had killed more pioneers than were killed in all Indian attacks combined and destroyed more timber than all the lumberjacks had cut.

The fire that hit Cloquet, Wisconsin, on Oct. 12, 1918, killed more than 450 people outright, injured or displaced 52,000, and destroyed $73 million in property (1918 dollar value). Mass casualty wildfires have occurred more often than memory recalls, largely due to poor warning and the immense size of the fires as they swept down on communities. Firestorms in the 19th and early 20th century uprooted 4-foot diameter trees, killing people instantly in their tracks as they fled. Hinckley, Minnesota, lost nearly 500 citizens to the firestorm of 1894 whose devastation covered an area exceeding 900 square miles.

Wildfires devastated western communities, such as Wallace, Idaho (obliterated in the "Big Burn" of 1910). During that event, 78 firefighters and uncounted civilians were killed. At its peak there were 1,736 forest fires burning in Idaho and Montana alone.

Yet, with all this history, we're told it's climate change causing our current fires. Fire experts don't agree, attributing fire disasters to landscapes altered by 100 years of fire suppression, inappropriate development in the wildland-urban interface, and environmental policies preventing sound forest management. Meanwhile, real solutions are lost in the false narratives attributing disasters to climate change, allowing us to continue to do nothing. 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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