Ecology scapegoated in Southern California disaster

Predictably, a front-page Wall Street Journal story Oct. 25 bashes native plant advocate Richard Halsey of the California Chaparral Institute as a culprit behind the devastating Southern California fires that have left half a million displaced. The article also approvingly cites LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky blasting the California Coastal Commission for adopting Halsey’s sentimental ideas. Writes the Journal: “In the 15 or so wildfires that have ravaged hundreds of square miles in Southern California in the past few days, chaparral has been the primary fuel. Whipped by strong winds, the fire has spread across this vegetation, consuming some 1,500 homes along the way.”

Well yes, that is precisely the point. Fire is an intrinsic part of the ecology of Southern California—a fact extensively documented by Mike Davis in his 1998 book Ecology of Fear, with its cleverly entitled chapter “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” An excerpt online at the Radical Urban Theory website cites wildfire after wildfire in what is now upscale Malibu, going all the way back to the Spanish era. Writes Davis: “Fire in Malibu has a relentless, staccato rhythm. The rugged coastline is scourged by a large fire, on average, every two and a half years, and at least once a decade a blaze in the chaparral grows into a terrifying firestorm consuming hundreds of homes in an inexorable march across the mountains to the sea… And it will only get worse. Such periodic disasters are inevitable as long as private residential development is tolerated in the fire ecology of the Santa Monicas.”

For Davis, rather than a hopeless quest to obliterate the fundamentals of the locale (which would entail obliterating countless native species even if it were possible), the answer lies in restraints on development. This seemingly radical idea was raised by figures far more revered than the contemporary Professor Davis after the devastating Decker Canyon fire of 1930 (which was small potatoes compared to the current maelstrom). Davis writes:

In hindsight, the 1930 fire should have provoked a historic debate on the wisdom of opening Malibu to further development. Indeed, a few months before the conflagration, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.—the nation’s foremost landscape architect and designer of the California State Park system—had advocated public ownership of at least 10,000 acres of the most scenic beach and mountain landscape between Topanga and Point Dume. Despite a further series of fires in 1935, 1936 and 1938, which destroyed almost 400 homes in Malibu and Topanga Canyon, public officials stubbornly disregarded the conservationist common sense of Olmsted’s proposal.

The Chaparral Myths page on Halsey’s site makes a similar point in response to the anti-chaparral hysteria that followed the 2003 Cedar fire:

Large chaparral fires have occurred prior to 2003 and will continue to occur. Southern California has one of the worst fire-prone climates on earth. For example, an estimated total of 800,000 acres burned late September, 1889 in two different fires. One in Orange County, the other in San Diego County (the 2003 Cedar fire burned a little over 273,000 acres). They weren’t big deals then because no one really lived in the backcountry. Now, with so many homes up against the wilderness, fires can become catastrophic.

“Santa Ana. Sept. 25. – The fire which has been burning for the past two days still continues in the canyons. The burned and burning district now extends over one hundred miles from north to south, and is 10 to 18 miles in width. Over $100,000 worth of pasturage and timber has been destroyed.”—Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1889.

The best ways to prevent loss of life and property are to retrofit exisiting structures to make them more fire safe, plan communities so they are not built in high fire risk areas, and maintain proper vegetation management directly around structures.

The current fires have devoured nearly 493,000 acres (about 770 square miles). (AP, Oct. 26)

The terrifying augmentation of a natural cycle—in this case, the unprecedented level of destruction wrought by the fires that have always been periodic in the region—appears to be replicating itself in diverse locales across the nation and the planet. From an Oct. 24 AP report on the drought in Georgia:

Governor Sonny Perdue on Wednesday banned the washing of state vehicles and ordered inmates to take one quick shower a day as part of an effort to reduce water use in the drought-stricken state.

Standing on the banks of a dwindling lake, Perdue ordered state agencies to reduce their water consumption by 10 to 15 percent as Georgia and other southeastern U.S. states struggle with one of the worst droughts in the region’s history.

Almost a third of the Southeast is covered by an “exceptional” drought — the worst drought category. The Atlanta area, with a population of 5 million, is in the middle of the affected region.

State climate experts say the drought is so severe, one like it typically develops only once in 100 years.

The governor’s order also bans the installation of new landscaping and power washing state buildings. It also requires employees to probe state buildings for leaks…

With a dry winter in the forecast and less than 80 days of stored water left in Lake Lanier, the north Georgia reservoir that supplies water to about 3 million residents, the state has already ordered restrictions and Perdue has warned of more.

Meanwhile, for a second time this year, storms have left thousands displaced in Central America, and brought down mountainsides in Colombia. (Hurricane Felix, which flattened Indian villages in Nicaragua last month, barely made a dent in public consciousness in Gringolandia.)

These are signals of a system going increasingly out of wack. Those who seek to restore natural biota are helping move things back towards sustainability and stability. Those who hopelessly insist that nature must conform to arbitrary human designs are—even if they don’t realize it—on the side of entropy and ever-greater disaster…

See our last post on global climate destabilization.

  1. It was the TERRORISTS
    Fox keeps floating the TERROR connection.

    “For the second straight day, Fox News stood virtually alone in advancing thinly supported speculation to raise fears that the wildfires ravaging California are not the result of a confluence of arid heat and high winds but were set deliberately by al Qaeda terrorists bent on destroying America.”

  2. So Cal Fires
    You’re raised interesting points, especially in defense of the ecology of our area. We also read Mike Davis; see our new blog from San Diego, and our comments on the fires in our county.

    Frank Gormlie