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Furious fires, fateful floods

A firefighter battles a blaze that threatens homes

A firefighter battles a blaze that threatens homes in the Cascadel Woods neighborhood of Madera County, Calif., on Sept. 7. Credit: AP / Noah Berger

The wildfires consuming our Western states have produced a grim catalog of destruction.

It’s measured partly by numbers — the scores of fires raging in California, Oregon, Washington and eight other states; the 5 million-plus acres burned already, nearly as large as the state of New Jersey; the speed of the fires, with one in Oregon consuming in just one day an area roughly equal to Smithtown and Brookhaven towns; the dozens of lives lost and the hundreds of thousands displaced; the blanket of smoke and ash that at one point left Portland, Seattle and Vancouver with the worst air quality of any major cities in the world.

It’s also measured in images — towering walls of flames, apocalyptic landscapes left in their wake, videos shot by terrified residents snaking through escape routes ringed by fire, despondency on the faces of those who lost loved ones, homes and prized possessions, which continues even if the TV cameras have moved on.

Over the years, the fires have grown stronger, more unpredictable and more ruinous, much like the storms that have battered the East and Gulf coasts. Failing to respond to these glaring red flags of fire and water will condemn us to endless devastation.

We must change our behavior.

We need to live in different places. We need to build better. We need to know when to retreat. We need better forest management practices and better coastal management policies. And we need to tackle climate change.

Each step is necessary. None alone is sufficient. Time is not on our side.

Follow the science

Begin with climate change. It might not have directly caused these disasters, but science is clear: It set the table and exacerbated the damage. Rising temperatures and drought conditions killed 163 million trees in California’s Sierra Nevada forests and dried out fallen wood on forest floors, creating tons of potential kindling. It is irrational and negligent to suggest, as President Donald Trump did recently, that science doesn’t know what’s going on and that it will "start getting cooler" soon, reducing the fires.

Trump is correct that decades of forest mismanagement has played a part. Suppressing any fire that might clear out dead branches and excessive undergrowth, and failing to do controlled burns, helped set the stage for a spark.

Western tinderboxes are so fragile that fires have started from sparks from downed power lines, a flat tire, a fence post being hammered, a piece of metal dragging beneath a trailer, and a pyrotechnic device at a party. We must be smarter.

Making matters worse: Humans are putting themselves in harm’s way by moving into these woods. There were 25 million more Americans living in what’s called the urban-wildland interface in 2010 than in 1990. Many areas have no building codes, or lax ones. California has some of the toughest. But building codes help only so much. When 85 people were killed in the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, 51% of homes built to the state’s new code were undamaged, compared to 18% of homes grandfathered in. The problem is compounded when people rebuild in the same places and in the same ways after fire sweeps through.

Long Island and other coastal areas have seen water-based versions of these problems. Climate change has caused sea levels to rise, oceans to warm and storms to bring more rain, increasing flooding and damage — storms like Hurricane Sally, which dumped more than 2 feet of rain on Alabama and the Florida Panhandle this month, causing damage estimated at $2 to $10 billion.

Sally — like its destructive predecessors Michael and Florence in 2018 and Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017 — rapidly and unexpectedly intensified in a way that storms of yesteryear did not, quickly transforming from a tropical storm with 65 mph winds to a 105-mph Category 2 storm just before landfall. Long Island took a major blow from superstorm Sandy in 2012, and parts of our region continue to experience flooding. Yet house elevation, buyback programs and building natural coastal defenses continue to lag.

Don’t turn a blind eye

The good news is that Americans increasingly recognize the problems and the solutions. Two-thirds say we need to do more to fight climate change, like burning fewer fossil fuels. New York is a leader here, with the state committed to a carbon-free electricity grid by 2040. Nearly 60% of Americans also say development should be banned in areas at risk of fires or floods. More than three-quarters support tougher building codes and more than half support paying people to move out of risky areas.

The bad news is that many policymakers and elected officials trail far behind those they represent. Electing representatives at all levels of government who support these measures is important. Putting pressure on those already in office is necessary, too.

Our future is in danger of burning away out West, and washing away closer to home. Ignoring the harrowing and heartbreaking scenes we all have witnessed will guarantee that the devastation will be with us forever.

— The editorial board