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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Dangerous risks of fire and water

California and Long Island are linked by their inability to know when to say when.

In California, where development has extended into heavily

In California, where development has extended into heavily forested areas prone to wildfires, where the Camp fire, seen on Nov. 8, has destroyed more than 17,000 structures and killed nearly 100 people, officials and experts are talking about when to say when. Photo Credit: AP / Noah Berger

Images from the fires of California seem endless, and are endlessly devastating.

Walls of flame closing in on roads clogged with cars and people, trying to outrace the fire.

Aerial videos of neighborhoods reduced to ash and rubble.

White-clad figures moving slowly through a ghostly landscape charred gray, searching for cadavers.

All eerie, but eerily familiar in their conveyance of destruction and despair.

We saw much the same here six years ago, when superstorm Sandy savaged Long Island.

We saw neighborhoods submerged in unfathomable amounts of water, boats tossed like sticks into strangers’ yards, streets and houses clogged with thick layers of sand, and mounds of rubble piled up to rooflines.

Now we hear in California the same strains we heard back then in the voices of victims. The bewilderment. The shock. The sorrow. The resignation. The determination to return.

Fire and water.

Elemental opposites. But they’re really just opposite sides of the same coin.

Both essential to life, both occasional conveyors of death. And both, now, sparking the same kind of conversation.

In California, where development has extended into heavily forested areas prone to wildfires, where the Camp fire has destroyed more than 17,000 structures and killed nearly 100 people, officials and experts are talking about when to say when.

On Long Island, where development has extended into coastal areas prone to flooding, where Sandy destroyed or damaged more than 95,000 structures, officials and experts — though not nearly enough of either — are talking about the same thing.

Among those urging “drastic” new solutions in California is Stanford University professor Bruce Cain, a specialist in state regulatory processes. Cain told the Los Angeles Times that ideas that must be considered include “a strategic retreat from communities that are never going to be safe.”

We’re grappling with the wisdom of retreat here, too, because we also have communities that are never going to be safe. Some houses ravaged by Sandy have been bought out and returned to nature. Smart leaders in East Hampton Town are considering strategic retreat as the way to guarantee Montauk’s survival.

The conversation is simmering elsewhere, too, kindled by similar devastations. In the Carolinas, it started after Hurricane Florence roared through in September. In the Florida Panhandle, it began after Hurricane Michael hit last month. In the aftermath of last year’s Hurricane Harvey, the third 500-year flood to submerge Houston in three years, more than 3,000 homeowners applied for buyouts that would return their properties to nature and help restore the floodplain that once helped to store stormwaters.

Now talk is starting in California, where nine of the state’s 10 largest fires have occurred since 2000, five since 2010, and two this year alone. Some homeowners have lost houses at least two times.

One idea offered by Cain, the Stanford professor, is to withhold government fire insurance from owners of homes burned more than once. Substitute “flood” for “fire” on Long Island. Buyouts also have been mentioned.

Another California idea noted by Cain as likely to be stymied is true here, too — letting the state oversee development in danger zones, which is likely to meet resistance from local governments. Because local governments have been unable or unwilling to act on the truth that humans never win the war with Mother Nature, a fight now made more difficult by a changing climate. We must learn how to say when, not keep going to battle.

Fires in California. Floods on Long Island. It’s the same problem, in the end.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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