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California | Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

No Way Out When Home Is in 'Firebelt'

October 28, 2003|Steve Lopez

With half of Southern California ablaze in a spectacular series of killer infernos, and no end in sight, it's only natural to want the arsonists tracked down and tied to the nearest tree.

But arson, suspected in at least two fires, isn't the only culprit in all this death and destruction. In part, we're witnessing the inevitable consequence of insane land management, and generations of public officials rolling over for developers despite past lessons.

"We keep putting tens of thousands of homes in harm's way," said author Mike Davis.

The UC Irvine history professor's scorching books have assailed Southern California as an apocalyptic theme park, always courting disaster. In "Ecology of Fear," Chapter 3 is called "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn." It's a history of California's failure to conduct preventive burns, despite the growth of "firebelt suburb populations" on the edge of combustible vegetation.

Homeowner groups resist preventive burns because they're risky and leave scars, but then scream for help when fire rages out of control, Davis argues. The public cost is huge; so is the risk to firefighters.

Davis, of San Diego, watched distraught Scripps Ranch residents await firetrucks as flames approached their multimillion-dollar homes. This was a huge base of support for smaller government, and for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Davis said.

"Now all that stands between them and an ash pile is the car tax," which Schwarzenegger promised to cut back, even though it helps pays for fire protection.

Davis said he learned about fire from a man who has studied it for 30 years.

"What we're seeing is a vicious circle that will not be breeched without fundamental changes," said Richard Minnich, a UC Riverside professor.

Minnich says northern Baja California has far fewer large fires despite similar vegetation and terrain. Why? Baja grasslands are used for grazing, and patches of chaparral are allowed to burn periodically, which together make big fires rare.

Minnich said California fire officials avoid badly needed preventive burns because they can be sued if structures are accidentally lost. "We'll never get anywhere without this liability being lifted," he said, arguing that someone who chooses to live near a firetrap should accept the risk. "They're practically living in gasoline."

Not all the structures destroyed this week were nuzzled up to wild lands -- fierce winds carried fire into neighborhoods thought to be safe.

But we wouldn't have had so many homes and lives in harm's way if planners and politicians didn't cave to developers.

Or if insurance companies discouraged people from living in high-danger areas by sticking them with the entire cost of the risk, instead of spreading it to the rest of us.

Or if the Federal Emergency Management Agency focused on disasters that can't be predicted, like tornadoes, instead of spending millions to bail out those who choose to live in flood plains or on the edge of natural kindling.

Davis thinks this could grow into California's fire of the century, which he predicted in 1998. "The exponential growth of housing in foothill firebelts," he wrote in "Ecology of Fear," "increases the likelihood of several simultaneous conflagrations."

On Monday, Davis said friends had been burned out and relatives were preparing to evacuate, and it's remarkable there hasn't been more death. He captured the horror and madness in a single sentence:

"We're building homes in places where there's no fire escape at all."

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