• Otter Views: Houses Burning

    by Tom Stevens

    A Monterey Herald commentary pointed out this week that 19 firefighters recently died in Colorado trying to save empty houses from a forest fire. The writer suggested it might have been more prudent – or at least less lethal – to have let the houses burn and contained the fire elsewhere.

    While this may sound defeatist, it is an idea the west needs to start considering. As the “fire season” lengthens and worsens each year, should lives and resources continue to be spent protecting houses built in fire zones? And should houses keep getting built there?

    In theory, zoning laws could restrict homeowners from building in fire-prone woods, forests and canyons. But this is a free and defiant country. Americans will build where they want to live, regardless of risk or expense to themselves or others.

    We are also a resilient people, popping back up from adversity like Joe Palooka punching balloons. Shoreline dwellers along the Gulf and East coasts swiftly rebuild after hurricanes. Very few ever move elsewhere. The same applies to Southern California canyon dwellers, Rocky Mountain homesteaders, and “Tornado Alley” Midwesterners. People who live in flood zones likewise rebuild on the same soggy footprints after their old houses wash away.

    Of course, our system is set up to perpetuate this. Every natural disaster triggers a massive outpouring of insurance payouts and federal aid to the affected states. This in turn sparks regional economic booms as workers get hired to clean up and rebuild following hurricanes, tidal waves, tornados, earthquakes, fires, floods and cave-ins. Natural disaster is good business. Few in authority ever ask: are you sure you want to rebuild in that exact same spot?

    Only one disaster departs from this formula: volcanic eruption. After every other disaster, homeowners can rebuild in the same place once floodwaters recede, flames flicker out, storm winds abate and debris is cleared. But with volcanoes, the place itself has vanished.

    I got to see this in 1990 on the Big Island of Hawaii, where the Kilauea volcano had been quietly erupting for a dozen years. This seems a contradiction in terms, but like many island systems, Hawaii’s volcanoes are singularly benign. They don’t explode violently or bury entire civilizations in hot ash. They just spew and blurp.

    But if the spewing and blurping goes on long enough, even benign Hawaiian lava will pool up and start flowing downhill. Thus, long after the latest Kilauea eruption started, the first fiery toes of lava finally reached the sea. This happened near the soulful old Hawaiian coastal town of Kalapana, famous for its coconut groves, freshwater springs and black sand beach.

    Kalapana’s residents ranged from native Hawaiians who lived in century-old wooden fishing and farming bungalows to hippie transplants from the Mainland who dwelt in marijuana-scented tree houses. Because the lava had been heading their way for years, nobody was surprised when it finally got there. If anything, they seemed fatalistic.

    I interviewed several dozen people during my four-day Kalapana stay. Most planned to relocate to other towns in the vicinity, but nobody considered calling in fire crews or transporting a house. Losing one’s dwelling was the price to be paid for living in a hot lava zone. Referring to the Hawaiian volcano goddess, one elderly lady shrugged: “Madame Pele gives, and she takes away.”

    She took Kalapana gently. Looking like a five-mile spill of guava jelly, the lava inched into town so slowly you could set a beach chair in its path, then scoot the chair back when you got too hot. You could even kneel down in front of the lava and hear tiny clinking sounds as razor-thin platelets flaked off the slowly rolling molten “toe.”

    But while the lava was approachable – even “walkable” – it was also inexorable. Stone walls might dam it up for a day or two, but at length the walls burst, and fiery lava fingers went crackling through dry grass. Everything not brick or stone went up in flame. Even the asphalt roads caught fire. As the lava advanced through town, gracious old houses vanished in whirlwinds of fire. It was almost biblical.

    As the lava neared, two Kalapana congregations faced a biblical dilemma: save the church, or not? The Catholics had a venerable old church painted with historic murals. They spent frantic days and floodlit nights reinforcing the building and jacking it up onto an 18-wheeler. The historic church rolled out of town with 10 minutes to spare. It still hosts services two towns away.

    The Protestant church was beloved but not historic. “We decided to let it go,” one parishioner told me. “That’s just a building. The people are the church.”

    Kalapana may be rebuilt, but not soon. The town is 30 feet underground. There’s no insurance for that.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on July 11, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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