California wildfires left the disabled in peril

28 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

California town hit hard by destructive wildfire reopens.

Wildfires that have burned more than eight million acres and are still raging in the West are draining the budgets of federal agencies and forcing them to divert money from essential environmental and land conservation programs to fight the fires.COLORADO SPRING, Colo. (AP) – Fire experts say El Paso County failed to enact significant changes to land use or fire codes following a destructive wildfire that burned 15,000 acres, destroyed 488 homes and killed two people two years ago.Students in the Middletown Unified School District will head back to class Monday — more than two weeks after the Valley Fire devastated the Lake County community, devouring hundreds of homes and forcing thousands to flee.

That is why Congress needs to start budgeting for forest fires in a different way, treating them more like natural disasters rather than a continuing expense. The county has wildfire protections built into land use codes for large-scale developments, but it did not improve or extend those codes after the Black Forest fire in 2013. The 76,067-acre fire — one of the most destructive in the state’s history — was 95 percent contained Sunday, one day after all remaining evacuation orders were lifted in the affected areas around Cobb and Middletown. “I am happy to tell you that we will be starting school again on Monday,” district Superintendent Catherine Stone said in a message to students. “We are still working out some details, but we know our schools will be ready for you to come back then.” Middletown high and middle schools, along with Minnie Cannon and Coyote Valley elementary schools, will start at 9 a.m.

Though she moves slowly with a walker, Bunting managed to load her cat into the pickup she rarely drives, and wound up living in the parking lot of a Red Cross shelter. In its just-released plan to chop down trees in nearly 17,000 acres hit by last year’s King fire in the Eldorado National Forest – including logging in 28 occupied spotted owl territories – the agency trots out the same tired falsehoods. The Forest Service, a division of the Agriculture Department, says that 52 percent of its budget this year is dedicated to suppressing and managing fires, a whopping increase from 16 percent only 10 year ago. County-wide codes governing development in wildfire zones are not universal in Colorado and are not easy to enforce where they do exist, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported ( ). The remains of four people who did not escape the flames were uncovered in the scorched, fire-scarred landscape in the days after the fire tore through.

After they spend days hacking dead brush and setting defensive fires across flaming mountains, their 24-hour rest breaks are cut short when a new fire rears up. In this relentless wildfire season, when fire crews and resources are stretched thin from the foothills of the Rockies to Alaska’s wilderness, the latest enemy confronting firefighters is not flame. In truth, wildfire is natural and necessary in the Sierra Nevada, even fires that burn very hot over huge areas, and human interference after fires is harmful rather than helpful. Communication, evacuation and sheltering are key areas in which the disabled elderly, and others with what are known in government and advocacy circles as “access and functional needs,” require special attention. The codes also raise questions about property rights. “What I will say is that there are things that are important in our development code already, such as … making sure there is adequate water supply, and ensuring that when large developments are done, there is that defensible space,” she said.

It is grinding exhaustion. “Everybody’s beat,” said Paul Fleckenstein, a battalion chief who spent the past two weeks fighting a wildfire that killed four people and destroyed 1,958 homes and other buildings here in the parched mountains 90 miles north of San Francisco. “There’s nothing left to give.” Mr. The still-evolving area of disaster preparedness took hold after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — when nearly three-fourths of those who died in the New Orleans disaster were older than 60 — and captured the attention of California officials two years later after two San Diego County wildfires.

Federal agencies should have sufficient resources to deal with wildfires without robbing programs designed to protect water quality, preserve and acquire open space and which, in some cases, are explicitly aimed at making forests more resilient to future fires. Fleckenstein knew he was getting tired when he climbed into his red-striped truck after a full day defending the pine-shaded neighborhoods where the blaze had erupted on the afternoon of Sept. 12. The secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack; the secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell; and the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Shaun Donovan, sent a letter on Sept. 15 to members of Congress calling on them to treat wildfires more like other national disasters. Annually recurring fires are obviously different from, say, a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina, but the idea is that the agencies would be allowed to tap emergency funds in bad fire years when costs exceed a certain percentage of their budgets. Other counties and cities are creating wildfire hazard rating maps, broken down by parcel. “We are seeing more and more of these codes being implemented, and more and more interest,” said Mike Caggiano, a researcher with Colorado State University. “There are definitely a lot of challenges to implementing these sorts of codes, and property rights are a big issue here.

Fighting wildfires has always been draining, dangerous work, but firefighters say they now are being flung from one huge blaze to the next, using the same old axes and scrapers to fight a new species of mega-fires born from years of drought, while dealing with rising temperatures and government policies that filled the woods with tinder. Black-backed woodpeckers thrive in the most charred forests, feasting on the superabundance of insects and creating nesting holes in the freshly dead trees. In Calaveras County, where the Butte fire began to rage Sept. 9, 20% of residents are seniors, the highest proportion in the state, according to census data. They need to be effective and make sure that they work well.” Passing a new, stricter fire code takes money and staffing that not all counties have, said Andrew Notbohm, an emergency management coordinator for the Boulder Office of Emergency Management.

Lake County is not far behind with 18%, compared with 11% for the state as a whole. “If you don’t shine a light on this issue, it just gets overlooked,” said L. As the number of employees involved in dealing with fires has increased by 114 percent since 1998, to more than 12,000 people, the number of employees managing the service’s lands has fallen by 39 percent, to less than 11,000. These rodents are food for imperiled California spotted owls, who have been documented hunting in charcoal forests, using dead trees to perch upon and listen for their prey rustling below.

We know that if this doesn’t get addressed it’s going to be that much worse tomorrow.” Two years ago, Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) pressed legislation requiring that those populations be integrated into every aspect of California’s update to its state emergency plan. Heavily burned forests are great hunting grounds for the owl, but studies have proven that post-fire logging causes owls to abandon their territories. Due out two months ago, the update was delayed, Taylor said, “because we’ve kind of gone from disaster to diaster.” His office in the meantime has urged local governments through its website to better educate vulnerable residents such as Bunting, alert them when it’s time to go, help get them out and meet their needs while they’re homeless. In Lake County, the fire moved so fast that alerts and evacuation systems broke down, giving county officials no time to deploy accessible vans to ferry out those in need, as they did during two previous fires this summer. This year, Cal Fire issued a safety bulletin about the dangers of working while tired, and reminded fire leaders to follow guidelines that suggest an hour of rest for every two hours of work.

There were deaths: a 72-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis trapped in her home, and three men over the age of 65, two of whom miscalculated the fire and decided to stay put. Climate experts are cautious about linking any single natural disaster — a major hurricane or flood, for instance — to global warming, and that reluctance extends to wildfires as well.

Fish and Wildlife Service agrees – recently the agency decided to consider listing the California spotted owl as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, citing thinning and post-fire logging as primary threats to declining populations. But scientists are widely agreed that climate change is creating the conditions that are likely to make fires bigger and more intense in years to come. Then they launched a frantic search for lodging for those too fragile to stay at Red Cross shelters, for batteries to keep oxygen tanks working and more. After two or three straight days of trudging through the woods carrying 50 to 100 pounds of gear and water, they said, they keep going by telling inside jokes and through sheer inertia.

Disability rights advocates had been pressing for better disaster planning for years when the 2007 wildfire season in California provided more impetus. A report by the Pomona-based Center for Disability Issues and the Health Professions noted that the deaf community had not received emergency notifications, those with mobility issues could not be evacuated with their power wheelchairs, and shelters had trouble accommodating those with medical conditions. “Most disaster response systems are designed for people who can: walk, run, see, drive, read, hear, speak and quickly understand and respond to instructions and alerts,” the report noted.

They eat field rations, Pop-Tarts and energy bars. “Let’s go, bro’,” they say. “If I’m still going, you can, too.” “You have to keep yourself moving,” said Curtis Tinloy, 23, a seasonal firefighter who has a second job as a high school water-polo coach. “You have to keep one foot in front of the other. Thanks to a FAST team working with Red Cross and emergency officials, she received a donated power chair — two days after she was assessed but six days after arriving at the shelter. About nine million acres have burned across the country this year, about 50 percent more than the average of the past 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. But sometimes you just can’t do that.” David Lindsay, 22, a first-time seasonal firefighter, had been working for days on a Napa County fire when his team members were released to shower, sleep and wash their clothes. Their battalion chief approached them to say they could drive down from the mountain to rest, but there would be no reinforcements arriving to protect the neighborhood.

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