Does Anyone Care if Los Angeles Burns?

I pulled on my big sun hat and pulled out a well-worn copy of Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster for beach reading in Santa Monica this weekend. His chapter titled “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” kept me company as I watched the ash cloud to my east turn varying shades of gray and then cumulous white near its top, expanding and contracting as it dwarfed Los Angeles’ mountains and towers and palms. A stout man in cargo pants with his head down paced with a metal detector, stopping occasionally to dig with his sifter. Four bare-chested guys faced the late afternoon sun, away from the ash cloud, egging on their friend to approach a nearby woman: “Dude, you’ve got a red hat, she’s got a red hat, it’s the perfect line!”  Parents watched kids, kids watched the surf. Everyone was missing the lava lamp-like cloud show in the sky.

If Los Angeles burns, doesn’t anyone care?

Not really, it seems. Unless you’re fighting on the front lines, called upon to evacuate, or worse, to return to burned rubble, or you’re the state government realizing two-thirds of its firefighting budget went up in flames during this first week of fire season. During my first sweltering So-Cal fire season in 2007, when I knew no fall other than the one of foliage, apple cider, and wool fresh out of storage, I anxiously mentioned the fires to everyone I met. Most would just nod and appease me with “Yes terrible this year, eh?” The subtext was probably “You’re not from around here, are you?”

So this year, before the autumnal hot and dry Santa Ana winds have even begun, I’ve learned to do as the locals do. I glance wearily down the boulevards at the mushroom cloud, complain about the yellow-tinged air (totally had to keep the windows rolled up), and shrug. Or better yet, I pull up a beach chair for a nose-bleed view of the so-called Station fire still incinerating the city’s northeastern fringe.

Wildfires in Southern California are simultaneously apocalyptic and mundane. Mike Davis calls them “ordinary disasters,” meaning that, like earthquakes and mudslides, they are completely inevitable within this regional ecosystem yet are still crisis-inducing when they arrive.

Ecologically speaking, coastal Southern California is dominated by a Mediterranean climate  (mild winters and dry summers) and densely-growing native vegetation, collectively known as chaparral, that needs the occasional fire for seed dispersal. Fire suppression policies throughout much of this region have been in place for decades, largely on account of the fact that people don’t want intentional fires set in their backyards. How fire suppression affects the intensity and frequency of chaparral-based wildfires is still debated among ecologists. But it seems pretty certain that when vegetation grows for decades without the understory being burned by low-grade fires, this thick biomass will provide substantial fuel for an eventual spark. Smaller, more frequent fires also allow for varying biomass across a landscape so the vegetation becomes patchy, or mosaic, in its diversity. Without these small fires, the biomass can build up more uniformly across a large area (such as in the Angeles National Forest, which is on fire this week) so when a fire does emerge it spreads farther and faster than it would if the density of biomass was more varied.

But wildfires rarely get attention if they burn across uninhabited land; it’s only when neighborhoods are threatened that they are newsworthy stories of crisis and disaster. The trend of building cul-de-sac suburbs at the wildland-urban interface has increased around Los Angeles and San Diego over the past decades. After all, who wouldn’t want a luxurious home surrounded by forest in the mountain foothills? These medium density neighborhoods set among chaparral, neither truly urban nor wildland, are actually the most at-risk of being destroyed by wildfire: lots of opportunities for ignition and lots of remaining vegetation to burn.

A recent New York Times article qualitatively described the burning land in the northern LA suburbs as bigger than Brooklyn and Queens combined; over 200 square miles so far and still uncontained. This may be an accurate size comparison for East Coasters trying to grasp magnitude but I think juxtaposing this Station fire with a 200 square mile area stretching from Greenwich, CT to Scarsdale and White Plains, NY is a better description. It’s an imperfect juxtaposition but only because most of the burning land this week is sparsely populated, not dense suburban corridors (so far). But like many of the wildfires, past and future, to hit Los Angeles County, the neighborhoods in the fires’ path are not as racially and economically diverse as a Brooklyn and Queens comparison would suggest. They are rather predominantly white and middle to upper class.

This isn’t really coincidence, as Davis points out in Ecology of Fear, since state and federal policy have generally supported building wealthy suburban enclaves in areas abutting wildlands that, while beautiful, are costly to build in and to insure. Following a fire homeowners are often given federal disaster assistance and are encouraged to rebuild their houses, bigger and more remote, in these high-risk areas, a cycle that Malibu has seen many times. The cost of this “ordinary disaster” assistance is meanwhile spread among the rest of us taxpayers.

Having gotten over my Los Angeles autumnal anxiety, it now strikes me as funny that news sources are always rushing to find the “cause” of a large wildfire. Someone or something — an unsupervised pyrophilic child, ignorant campers, an illegal migrant, downed power lines — will be blamed for lighting a match to a tinder box of forest and poof, combusting hundreds of homes, thousands of acres. Pointed blame might be helpful for the lawsuits that inevitably follow such a big mess, but tracing the cause back to a single source ignores some larger dynamics at work when these fires become so unwieldy. Long-term projected climate trends are one dynamic, as Los Angeles is slated to receive less rainfall and longer, hotter summers over the coming years. The management of urban development is another crucial dynamic. Until real estate developers sit down with policy makers, and the whole discussion is mediated by forest and fire ecologists, these massive fires will continue to suck up millions from the state firefighting coffers and ruin homes and livelihoods. In the meantime, season tickets to one of the world’s most spectacular fire shows are still available. I, for one, am content to stay in the nose-bleeds.

Originally posted on The Faster Times, September 2, 2009

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