Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Deja Vu at Lake Tahoe

Here we go again. Residents of South Lake Tahoe, the residents of the Oakland hills salute you. In 1991 we too watched helplessly as the wind lashed the flames toward our houses; some people died because they couldn't get out. At least no one has died at Lake Tahoe.

I live in the Oakland hills - in a normal urban neighborhood, not a forested glade. But every time something like this happens, I marvel again at humanity's desire to live in dangerous places, because they're pretty. Dry climate forests, where fire has been a part of the landscape for thousands of years, until we moved in and started suppressing it to protect our houses, because we like them to be nestled among the trees. Earthquake country. (Yeah, that's me - half a mile downhill from the Hayward Fault. But: our house is earthquake braced.) Flood plains. Hurricane tracks. Tornado Alley. We seem to think that because we live there it won't happen again; but it will. The only question is when.

And yet, think one more time: what constitutes a "safe" place to live?? For that matter, define "safe". We all have to live somewhere; offhand, everywhere I can think of in America has some disastrous phenom that happens at regular intervals (blizzards; droughts; heat waves). Maybe what we need is not to be safe, but to be aware that we aren't safe, and take the necessary precautions; and if the precautions aren't enough, maybe we should live somewhere else. Yes, I'm talking about you, the people who live in the Sacramento Valley subdivisions, below water level, behind 100 year old levees. What were you thinking of? The houses were affordable; but if those levees go, replacing everything you own won't be. The people who live around South Lake Tahoe are in the process of learning this right now.


  1. Anonymous3:55 PM

    Excellent comment, hedera. There is no "safe" place, at least not with the kind of certainty people seem to think they can find. Living wisely in harmony with the hazards is the best we can do. We know how to build houses hurricanes won't knock down, we know where it floods and where it doesn't, and we used to know how to recover from natural disasters as communities, with competent assistance from appropriate government agencies. The final straw, of course, was the election of Team Idiots in 2000.

    Anonymous David

  2. Anonymous9:51 AM

    My wife and I just had this conversation the other day. We are seeing quite a bit of flooding here in SW Missouri for people who have built near a river. We built where we are safe from the rivers, but not the tornados. As you said, no where in America, or the world for that matter, is safe from Nature.

  3. Anonymous3:50 PM

    Living not far from the San Andreas fault, we tell each other we don't have to worry about the California wildfires.

  4. Anonymous5:14 PM

    hedera, I really like the blog's new look. And thanks for putting a mystery to rest - I assumed your first name was Ivy.

    Here in Charlotte we have the occasional hail storm, tornado, and renegade hurricane (Hugo, 1989, absolutely wiped the power grid in this area.) The main concern here is 2 nuclear power plants within 25 miles of downtown. Needless to say, when my wage earning days are through, I'll be moving on - probably north.

  5. Dear K:

    Here's a letter I wrote to the SFChronicle a few days back about this matter:

    "6/29/07 -

    Dear Editor:

    With respect to the fire hazards associated with building homes and communities in
    forest land: The plain, sad fact is that most of the homes that were destroyed in the
    recent Tahoe area fire should never have been built in the first place. Any fool who
    builds a large home among forested terrain takes an inordinate risk, a risk that society
    should not condone by providing expensive publicly funded insurance and "safety"
    zones of clear-cutting. The real message of this Tahoe fire is that we're building way
    too many houses and communities in our wilderness areas. Simply accepting this
    pro-growth paradigm without question, and then moaning about the consequences,
    is very naive.

    Curtis Faville

    I tend to be a curmudgeon about the environment, especially when people start stammering about how terrible it all is that nature has done this unfortunate thing to them. I simply have no patience with them.

  6. After my recent vacation in England (about which much more later!), I have to add that with the weather changes we're seeing all over the world, even the normal precautions we're used to taking may fail us.

    Example: England in summer is not a place where you normally expect to see either continuous rain or flash flooding. During the 3 weeks we were there:

    * We only saw about 3 days that had no rain at all. We also only had about 2 that rained all day; but it rained almost every day, and everyone we spoke to said it had been doing this for 3 solid weeks before we got there.

    * The York area got 5 inches of rain in one hour, leading to flooding.

    * A town near Stratford on Avon got 5 inches of rain in 24 hours, still an impressive load, causing more flooding.

    * We personally experienced a downpour the day before coming home, that I've previously seen only in the Arizona desert: the rain was coming down so hard the wipers could barely cope. Traffic on the M1 (Brit equivalent of, say, I-80) slowed to under 30 MPH. This lasted for over 50 miles.

    * The day before we flew home, Heathrow had to cancel many flights because of a downpour that: flooded the runways (the impact of that on our return travel is a whole blog post in itself); flooded the single tunnel that allows ground access to the terminals (and what kind of engineering is that??); caused mudslides that closed all but one lane of the westbound M4 (again, I-80), maybe 20 miles west of the airport. A London cabbie told us it had rained so hard he had to stop his cab, he couldn't see; and these guys are among the best drivers in the world.

    Since California only got about 40% of its annual rainfall this year, we offered to take some of the rain home with us but nobody could figure out how to transport it.

    Oh, and cooper, that nuclear power plant? Driving around in Yorkshire, we came off a main motorway onto a secondary and right there at the foot of the off ramp were about 5 cooling towers. England has many more nuclear plants that we do.