CA fire season: A story of climate, folklore, inequality

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On the morning I started writing this, I received a text from my mom. “Hey sweetie, there’s a fire in Simi/Moorpark, and all schools are closed, but we are okay! We are NOT in the evac zone.”

During the major fires that hit Ventura County in recent years, specifically Thomas and Woolsey, my childhood home has not been evacuated. My family and I have been lucky. Many others have not been as fortunate. This fear of not only evacuation but of losing one’s home is deeply rooted in many Californians’ lives. The mental bracing that comes with fire season is normal, expected. I grew up thinking about when, not if, I would see blazes across the hills at the beginning of the school year.

Every year, the landscape is pounded by flames, causing mass destruction and displacement. Every year, families and communities are turned upside down, just as neighboring areas begin to recover. If California’s fire season is an established constant, why do people move here at all? What makes them stay?

Perhaps it is not the beaches, the climate, the Silicon Valley innovation or the lights, cameras and action that attract people to the state — it may instead be the myths of idealism that California visitors and residents have historically created around these hallmarks. Twentieth-century American author Carey McWilliams dissected this phenomenon in a chapter titled “The Folklore of Climatology” in his book “Southern California: An Island on the Land.” McWilliams claims that white America’s first contact with California was one of excitement and exoticism, and these bodies of myths made their way into early Californian culture via promoters of the state. 

I grew up thinking about when, not if, I would see blazes across the hills at the beginning of the school year.

Myths about the size and speed of vegetable growth, the capabilities of the climate to cure disease and the magical aura of the aesthetic landscapes ran amok. Some who settled in California perpetuated these tales. Others were disappointed to say the least. Among those disappointed were diseased travelers who died in the state they believed would cure them and new residents to whom the novelty of a seemingly perfect landscape did not provide the same contentment of the homes they left.

This pursuit of perfection is not uncharacteristic of modern California. There’s Los Angeles, a city known for fame and self-comparison. There’s the Bay Area, a training ground for tech’s next big innovators and a hub of destructive hustle culture. There’s the suburbs of each, where the old saying of “Keeping up with the Joneses” has failed to go out of style. If McWilliams’ argument applies to today’s world, the way California’s first Anglo American residents made legends of the land’s beauty has contributed to the image-driven character of these areas. The motivation for moving to California, despite the reality of its devastating fire season, is rooted in California’s offshoot of exceptionalism.

This lingering ideology is not the whole story. Mike Davis’ controversial book, “Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster,” discusses a variety of ideas about Southern California. One of these ideas is how white flight, the racially motivated migration of white Americans from cities to suburbs that arose in the 1950s and 1960s, contributes to disaster. The chapter “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” argues that contemporary Southern California residents are attracted to beachside cities, such as Malibu, not because of the beautiful landscapes but because of the privacy they offer from people of color and working-class citizens in Los Angeles. But the consequences of this are not limited to the unequal distribution of privilege along racial lines. 

According to Davis, individuals, such as the Malibu residents who allegedly build in highly flammable areas to escape the socially constructed threat of racial difference, will inevitably take up valuable resources that could be better used to prevent fires or help lower-income people.

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Professor J. Keith Gilless at the UC Berkeley environmental science, policy and management department brought up parallel concerns, specifically about how fire season disproportionately impacts communities with less access to support, in our conversation about fires and policy in California. 

“When a fire hits a more affluent area, it’s emotionally just as tragic, but there may be more resources to help the community recover,” Gilless said. 

This inequality is part of why the aftermath of the 2015 fire season sticks out to him: Some of the communities affected by events, such as the Valley Fire, had less resilience than others. Gilless explained that the ability of a community to bounce back from fire season is a combination of many factors — how many homes are insured, how much the average household income is, whether or not demographics skew toward an elderly population, to name a few.

In some cases, though, a fire can be so destructive that even a community that has preplanned and created resilient infrastructure is still devastated. For Gilless, the Camp Fire of 2018 is an example of this. Though authorities and residents were “doing all the right things, faced with an overwhelming threat,” the limits of human ingenuity to fight natural disasters became clear.

So why did the Camp Fire result in such massive destruction? In our conversation, Gilless offered a skeleton of an explanation. “I think everybody that has done any work in climate change and fire is a little bit cautious about looking at any one event and saying, ‘There. That’s climate change,’ ” he said. “The frequency with which you would experience those extreme conditions, though, looks like it would go up under most climate change scenarios.” 

This issue of attribution is something that scientists grapple with often, as well as how to communicate the complexity of the situation to the public in an accurate manner. 

In some cases, though, a fire can be so destructive that even a community that has preplanned and created resilient infrastructure is still devastated.

Climate change is anything but simple, and looking at its possible links to more localized areas, such as California, reveals that. As the unraveling of its complex implications begin to weigh on scientists and citizens, it is important to recognize that some of the strands to be unraveled were woven hundreds of years ago. The centuries-old desire to possess the magical scenery of California ignores the natural consequences of building on this land. This historical misconception has bled into the present, and because of the relationship between climate change and fire seasons, the stakes of this misconception are much higher. 

Even though fires are a natural component in California’s landscape, the human causes behind California fires are impossible to ignore — Gilless encouraged California residents to be mindful of their behaviors around fireworks, camping and other scenarios that could cause sparks in a highly flammable landscape, as 95% of fires are started by humans. By being more aware, our actions will reflect a better understanding of the landscape. 

Still, understanding the environment is not completely possible when building on land that will inevitably burn. If California’s social norms continue to perpetuate possessing nature as the gold standard, and if those rich enough to afford building in flammable areas continue to do so for aesthetics while encouraging those who aren’t rich enough to desire those aesthetics, the future of fire season will be dark. 

We cannot reap the benefits of living in highly flammable but beautiful areas without jeopardizing the safety of ourselves and our communities. Residents throughout the state should be prepared, not only to face the physical threats of fire but also to deconstruct the idealism that helped build California and contributed to its current state of inequality.

Contact Erin Haar at [email protected].