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Mike Davis on the wildfires in Southern California
"A market-driven recipe for disaster"

November 7, 2003 | Page 5

LAST WEEK'S devastating wildfires in Southern California burned more than 1,200 square miles of land, an area almost as big as the state of Rhode Island. Some 20 people are dead from the fires, which struck in a 200-mile-long arc that reaches from the U.S.-Mexico border south of San Diego to the suburbs northwest of Los Angeles.

Mainstream media accounts focused mainly on how the blazes got started--especially charges of arson in several cases. But the real causes of this catastrophe lie deeper--years of destructive land development driven by the profit-first priorities of the free market, and the failure of politicians to do anything about business practices that are devastating the environment in numerous ways.

Left-wing author MIKE DAVIS has written extensively about California in such books as City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear. Here, he explains for Socialist Worker's KEITH DANNER what's really behind California's latest not-so-natural disasters.

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THIS MEGA-conflagration, an order of magnitude larger and more destructive than any previous Southern California wildfire complex, is the product of market-driven urban sprawl interacting with anthropogenic climate change. Both are reflections of the deepest contradictions of late-capitalist urbanization. The conflagrations, in turn, are the shape of our future.

Suburbanization of the forest belts

SINCE THE last big regional fire season in 1993 (1,000 homes destroyed in Pasadena, Malibu and Laguna Beach), more than 100,000 new homes have been built in the firebelt ecologies of inland Southern California (An equal number, or more, have likewise spread through the fire-prone foothills of the central Sierras outside Sacramento and Fresno).

Two social processes are responsible for this explosive suburbanization of foothill and mountain hinterlands. First, wealthier (but generally not ruling class) households are aggressively seeking luxury country lifestyles (horses, view lots and so on) in low-tax unincorporated areas. Secondly, ordinary professional and working-class people are being driven inland by inflated land prices in the coastal zone.

Both processes, as many studies have shown, are directly subsidized by poorer residents in older, inner-ring suburbs or inner cities (they, in effect, subsidize their own decline). A rational, socially and environmentally responsible system of human settlement would halt growth at the edge and re-urbanize (not gentrify) metropolitan cores. It would set aside hazardous wildlands areas as a permanent commons, not a reserve for private land development.

The sprinkling of thousands of new homes in the chaparral and forests radically undermines fire prevention. Forestry and fire officials, finally accepting the wisdom of native Californians, now agree that the best strategy for preventing catastrophic wildfires is frequent, small-scale prescribed burning of old brush. It is, however, virtually impossible to carry this out on an adequate scale because of opposition from nearby homeowners fearing runaway fires or smoke pollution.

Moreover, when fires inevitably break out, firefighters are under enormous political pressure to defend each and every structure. Yet the fighting of a wildfire is essentially a war of maneuver, not a war of position. As the recent fires have shown, such home-by-home defense is both futile and incredibly dangerous when confronted with the power of firestorms moving along 25- to 40-mile fronts and throwing flames 300 feet in the air. Such fires are simply unstoppable (a change in the weather, not human efforts, finally slowed the two huge San Bernardino and San Diego fires).

The impact of climate change

THE SECOND "deep" factor, of course, is the increasing frequency of extreme weather: droughts, record-breaking temperatures (especially off-season) and even torrential precipitation. Although it is possible that the recent protracted droughts in the Southwest and parts of the South are simply normal Holocene fluctuations, it is more likely that they are expressions of human-forced climate change. This decade, after all, is the hottest in at least 1,000 years.

Protracted droughts--often punctuated by brief periods of hard rain that only produce bumper crops of fire-starter undergrowth--are bringing about dramatic ecological changes in the forests of California, the Southwest, even Appalachia. The bark beetle infestations that kill pines, always a problem following dry years, have now reached catastrophic levels. The forests that burned in the Laguna (outside San Diego) and San Bernardino Mountains were already essentially dead or dying. A dead forest, of course, poses an apocalyptic fire potential.

Thus, rampant, unregulated growth of metropolitan peripheries into foothill fire ecologies, in an epoch of extreme weather and ecological degradation of forests, is a recipe for fires of unprecedented ferocity and scope. The problem, of course, isn't confined to California. It exists throughout the American West, as well as Mediterranean Europe, where second homes and tourist resorts in similar ecologies have produced recent fires of unparalleled destructiveness.

Political inevitability of firestorms

SO THESE are the parameters that make metropolitan firestorms on a 1 million-acre scale possible. But what made the Southern California fires, in particular, almost inevitable?

First, the White House claims it favors a massive national program of forest clearance to remove dead wood and "excessive growth" to prevent fires. In reality, it only wants to provide reactionary and politically powerful lumber companies with access to old-growth forests and millions of healthy trees.

When, in April and May of this year, the (Democratic) governors of both California and Arizona begged Bush to declare federal emergencies in the dying forests of Southern California and the Mogollon Rim, the White House fiddled for six months until Southern California, at least, was already burning. The requests were rejected.

This is all the more significant in that the fire catastrophe in the San Bernardino area was foreseen fully a year in advance, and even conservative Republicans were screaming for federal action. But the diseased dead trees of the San Bernardinos have virtually no commercial value, and no wood products corporation was interested in removing them.

Secondly, a significant part of the California National Guard, I am told, is in Iraq and unavailable for disaster relief or fire duty. At the most critical moment of the San Diego burn, much of the fire line had to be pulled out, simply because the crews were too exhausted to sustain the efforts.

Thirdly, the middle-class and affluent homeowners, whose properties typically generate the greatest fire protection costs, are the least likely to want to actually pay any of those costs. It is darkly ironic that neighborhoods like tony Scripps Ranch or Poway in San Diego County, which just a few weeks before the fires were hosting Schwarzenegger fundraising parties and ranting about the oppression of taxes, were the first to shriek about inadequate fire protection.

Indeed, the popular solution for wildfire among Republican fundamentalists is to militarize the firefighting: creating a Strategic Air Command-type fleet of helicopters and air tankers ready to douse flames at a minute's notice. This is advocated by people like Rep. Duncan Hunter, the far-right chair of the House Armed Services Committee, whose 52nd congressional district in San Diego's East County lost 1,600 homes. Such air armadas, of course, would be immensely expensive, but because they would be military, they would be subsidized by taxpayers elsewhere, not by local wealthy residents. They also would not work--but that's another discussion.

In San Diego--where more expensive homes meet fire ecology than anywhere in the world, except perhaps New South Wales--conservative homeowners are notorious for voting down fire bonds. San Diego is the only urbanized county in California that lacks a county fire department, and--as firefighters' unions have pointed out for years--it is drastically understaffed in comparison with areas of comparable populations (and usually less catastrophic fire problems).

In a piece I recently wrote for the Nation magazine, I quote local academics and activists who explain that this reluctance to invest in an adequate fire protection infrastructure is related to the heavy tax subsidies which support San Diego's sports franchises (the dismal Chargers and Padres) and its major hotels and theme parks. About $1 billion has been siphoned off in corporate welfare in the last decade or so.

What solutions?

AND, OF course, we ultimately come back to local political systems, especially county governments, that are owned--lock, stock and barrel (with surprisingly few exceptions)--by developers and major landowners. All the good ideas about regional planning, open space conservation, building affordable housing in the urban core, etc., will come to naught until the political infrastructure of developer power is directly assaulted.

The history of Southern California proves this cannot be achieved by environmental groups alone. Environmental activists, of course, daydream about blowing up the growth machines, but seldom consider allying with the one social force capable of bringing about serious reform: labor.

I believe that socialists in the labor movement must fight unceasingly for unions to take an active and distinctive role in land use politics, while simultaneously agitating in environmental movements or Green parties to ensure every land use or conservation demand incorporates a profound social justice dimension (like re-employing inner-city youth in ecological restoration). Working-class residents of inner-city neighborhoods and older aging suburbs have, of course, the greatest stake in stopping sprawl and the export of their tax revenues and jobs to the periphery. There is a tremendous need for popular, radical education about this connection.

I am claiming, in other words, that there is no simple technical "fix" for the increasing frequency of "unnatural" urban fire, flood and earthquake disasters--apart from making issues of urban form and land use into class questions and tasks for the labor movement.

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