Paradise Lost

The environmental expert currently occupying the White House was quick to assign responsibility for wildfires burning in California. Using the venerable Republican strategy of blaming the victim, he tweeted:

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor.”

In fact, these fires are fueled mostly by grass and chaparral; forest land, not so much.

“Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost…. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

In fact, California each year sends more dollars to D.C. through federal tax payments than comes back into the state via Federal spending. (As is the case with most “blue” states.)

My former hometown, Santa Rosa, was devastated by wildfire in 1964. A deer-hunter’s dropped cigarette ignited a blaze that spread rapidly, destroying houses on the outskirts of town. Residents watched as the flames reached the site of Fountaingrove Ranch, the long-defunct former utopian community in the hills above Santa Rosa. The fire was stopped just a hundred yards from the county hospital.

I arrived in Santa Rosa in 1995. The population was 115,000; it had grown to 175,000 by the time I repatriated back to Oregon in 2016. Santa Rosa land-use planning supposedly prohibited building along the ridgeline of the Fountaingrove hills – for aesthetic reasons. But what’s the point of living in a McMansion if there is no city below to view? So development began in the 1970s and the area filled with high-end homes. A Hilton Hotel and the upscale Fountaingrove Inn catered to affluent visitors.

The 2017 fire scorched the same area as 1964. This time though, instead of a few dozen, thousands of homes and businesses burned. A third of the city’s tax base went up in flames, including the Hilton and the Fountaingrove.

The town of Paradise, nestled near the Sierra foothills, a hundred miles northeast of Santa Rosa, is no stranger to fire. Seven major wildfires in the last century had done damage, but none had entered the city limits. The town’s picturesque setting attracted new residents and population grew from 8,000 in the 1960s to 27,000 today. Aware of the danger, city officials drafted a plan for orderly evacuation by sections should the worst happen.

What happened was worse than the expected worst and the town no longer exists in any real sense. Winds pushed flames and embers so fast that there was no time to evacuate. People trying to escape were cremated in their cars. The death toll won’t be known for weeks, but likely will be in the hundreds.

The winter of 2017-2018 was exceptionally wet in much of California, bringing relief from years of drought and enabling exceptional growth of lush vegetation. The summer of 2018 was the driest on record, transforming the lush vegetation into dry tinder.

In southern California, the Santa Ana winds, blowing yearly around the Los Angeles area, are sometimes fodder for comedians. This year, celebrities fleeing their Malibu homes are the headline news.

Twenty-five years ago, urban-studies academic Mike Davis published “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” The essay – incorporated as a chapter in his book “Ecology of Fear” – argued that taxpayers should not be subsidizing the wealthy homeowners by dispatching first responders to save them from what are regular occurrences of wildfire where they chose to build. After two decades of vilification – and worsening climate change – critics are conceding that maybe he was right. Insurers are beginning to arrive at that conclusion as well.

Meanwhile, back in Santa Rosa, exactly a year after its fiery devastation, 285 building permits have been issued for the Fountaingrove neighborhood; 180 houses are under construction. There will be fuel for the next wildfire.

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