Tuesday, October 23, 2007
The Case for Letting Malibu Burn*
Since 1970, Malibu has suffered no less than 5 wildfire holocausts due to its thick chaparral undergrowth. The 22-mile coastline is the wildfire capitol of the world and it is a natural phenomenon. A fire large enough to char more than 1,000 acres occurs every two and half years.
Malibu was settled in the 1880's by millionaire Frederick Rindge, who, in his memoirs, described a constant battle with wildfires. His dream ranch was destroyed in 1903 by a wildfire from Calabasas that raced to the sea in a few hours. These fires are due largely to the alignment of Malibu's canyons with the annual "fire winds" from the north: the Santa Anas, which are strongest between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. Environmentally, wildfire is necessary for recyclying nutrients and for seed germination in Malibu's vegetation, which is a mix of chamise chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and live oak woodland. These provide fuel for fire. Which is necessary to the natural ecology of Malibu. The more these fuels build up, the stronger, hotter, and more dense the conflagration will be once it starts. Unfortunately for residents of Southern California (and the rest of us who have to constantly foot the bill for these "disasters," since they receive federal aid to control) total fire suppression has been the official policy in Southern California since 1919. Prescriptive burning, as controlled burning is known, is vehemently opposed by homeowner's associations in the mountains, and one Topanga Canyon resident even sued the Fire Department of Los Angeles because "blackened hillsides and ash in the swimming pools bring down property values," and would make it impossible for him to sell his house.
To prevent complete devastation on the level that we're seeing this week, all undergrowth should be burned off every 5-7 years, as it would naturally. However, since Malibu is very wealthy, very Republican, very political, and very coveted by developers and landowners, this will never happen. Due to overdevelopment, the risks are too great, and no fire department wants to have that kind of liability. What used to be a secluded and wild landscape dotted with small bohemian colonies, has now become an unstoppable hell of a firestorm for increasingly wealthier and more detached white people escaping from the urban squalor of Los Angeles.
Once development began in Malibu, in 1929, one year later, Malibu suffered what is still its greatest blaze. A 5-mile wall of flames threatened quite quickly to swoop down and attack the city, but was stopped only because the Santa Ana winds subsided and the fire died. This should have been a clue as to why development in Malibu was a bad idea. But instead, 10,000 more acres were inexplicably opened up to development, and the years 1935, 1936, and 1938 each saw more devastating fires that destroyed over 400 newly built homes. Post WWII, another 150 homes were burned up in another November fire, but the Hollywood hipsters and elites kept coming anyway. Over Christmas week of 1956, another conflagration destroyed another 100 homes, and the Eisenhower administration declared it "the first major fire disaster of national scope." Two more fires one month apart, in 1958-1959, inspired the naming of Malibu a federal disaster area with federal tax relief for its victims, as well as preferential low-interest loans, the Eisenhower administration inadvertently began public subsidization of "firebelt suburbs." Each blaze was followed by immediate, and taxpayer subsidized, reconstruction on a more exclusive scale than before, since the victims now had more money than ever to rebuild.
In an ironic twist, the only constraint on development was a limited supply of water to the area (since all of Los Angeles steals all of its water from the Rocky Mountains anyway). By 1969, every acre of Malibu was under private ownership, including most of its beaches. Eventually, as space became more scarce, the developers began building higher and higher into the mountains until 1970, when a 20-mile wall of fire barreled over the ridgelines of the Santa Monica mountains, igniting the Pacific Coast Highway and blocking all escape routes for residents, and 10 people died along with 403 homes (including one owned by Ronald Reagan). Furious residents berated the local government for not doing more to help them, while developers continued their developing, which only provided fuel for 3 more fires in 1978, 1982, and 1985. The 1978 fire also set a speed record, covering 13 miles of very rugged terrain in less than 3 hours. (Incidentally, this fire covered the exact same path as the 1970 blaze, which had taken twice as long, 6 hours, to cover the same amount of ground.)
The last major Malibu fire was in 1993, just following the Rodney King riots, and a springfall of heavy rain that created dense undergrowth for fuel. This incinerated 39,000 acres, but also sparked a second fire that consumed Laguna Beach "like it was soaked in gasoline." It injured 65 firefighters, destroyed over 366 homes all worth over $1 million and caused $435 million in additional damage. A week later, a 3rd fire broke out on Mount Calabasas, leading to a 30-foot wall of fames, fanned by 70-mile-per-hour Santa Ana winds. Firefighters were called in from as far away as Oregon and Oklahoma, and the fire only stopped 36 hours later when it literally ran out of fuel by reaching the ocean.
At the time, the Clinton Administration and FEMA promised all the aid necessary to "rebuild homes and lives," while insurance adjustors set up shop on the blackened beach. The county promised tax relief, and a group of German architects promised to work for free in the rebuilding.
Meanwhile, development has continuted unabated. The population of the main fire corridor, the Thousand Oaks-Agoura Hills corridor, has tripled from 1970, and two new megadevelopments totaling 42,000 homes were completed around the year 2000.
In a later post, I will detail how the real victims of all of these fires are the inner-city immigrants, garment workers, and poor, and how Malibu homeowners continually flaunt any environment or fiscal responsibility for their homes and neighborhoods being destroyed.
*taken from the incredible book, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis, one of my favorite "urban issues" writers.