An Apocalypse of Our Own Making

Mike Davis on the perfect fire

Photo by James BunoanMike Davis is famous for City of Quartz, arguably the best book about Los Angeles, made infamous for Davis' sanguinary prediction of the 1992 LA riots a year in advance. But nothing the UC Irvine history professor has written was as controversial as his follow-up volume on Southern California, Ecology of Fear. In a chapter titled "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn," Davis argued against public subsidies for home construction in fire-prone areas.

We caught up with Davis last week as the fires burned—and as he played host to his nephew, who had just been evacuated from his home near San Diego, where Davis grew up and now lives.

OC Weekly: You just authored a piece for the Nation Institute's [available at www.nationinstitute.org/tomdispatch] about the fires called "The Perfect Fire." What makes this firestorm different than others that have periodically scorched Southern California? Mike Davis: By standards of history, this is clearly the fire of the century, with climatic, ecological and social conditions combining to create an almost perfect firestorm. Yet infernos on this scale may become almost routine, once-a-decade events in the future. Since the 1993 fires, more than 100,000 new homes have been pushed into the furthest recesses of Southern California's fire ecologies. This is the true political and planning disaster that underlies our current wildfire tragedy and ensures its repetition. You wrote anLA Weekly story a few years ago called "Let Malibu Burn." Now the fires are in San Diego where you grew up and still live, and the ash from those fires is falling all over Orange County, where you teach. Do you still believe we should let the fires burn?

You misunderstand my point. I didn't propose to let fires burn unchecked, but rather to end the public subsidies that encourage building and rebuilding in some of the world's most fire-prone landscapes. The current wisdom (and federal policy) in the Mississippi basin is to discourage rebuilding in frequently flooded bottomlands. The same logic should apply to foothills and mountain areas that burn as frequently as the Santa Monicas or the San Bernardinos.

The mainstream media refers to these fires as natural disasters? But you've made a reputation refuting the idea that fires—or mudslides or flooding—are natural, that these phenomena are somehow political. Is there something inevitably apocalyptic hardwired into the built environment of this region?

The LA Times recently editorialized that coastal Southern California was a "desert." Nonsense. We are a classical Mediterranean landscape and ecosystem, subject to regular rhythms of fire, flood and earthquake. Common sense should tell us not to build in the middle of floodplains, in fire-loving chaparral or on top of faults. Rational land-use planning and hazard zoning would concentrate development rather than sprawling over the most dangerous and unsuitable terrains. Our apocalypses are entirely of our own making.

Politically speaking, is there anything positive that might occur as a result of the firestorm? I'm thinking here of the recall and the possibility that the fires could force our governor-elect and the people who voted for him to reconsider their desire to gut the state's public sector?

This tragedy illuminates our new governor's essential dilemmas: he is the hero of a gated-suburb middle class that simultaneously wants lower taxes on its McMansions and SUVs and higher levels of public services. The despised car tax, after all, is precisely what is paying the salary of the heroic fire crews in our scorched backcountry. On the other hand, the right-wing radio pundits are already blaming the catastrophe on the failure of Gray Davis to send air tankers at the beginning of the fire.

There is a growing folk myth that big enough fleets of air tankers (which will sit uselessly on runways for 99.9 percent of the time) can protect suburbanization in any environment. Dangerous nonsense. The real solution is tough hazard zoning, real regional and statewide transport planning, prioritizing the reurbanization of central cities, and an end to cross-subsidization of fire insurance.

 
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