On my flight home Sunday night from visiting South Bend, Ind. the first officer contacted air traffic control asking about the fire was he could see blazing in the Temecula area, east of Los Angeles. It would be the first of many fires visible as flames made their way through Corona and the hills of Orange County, Lake Arrowhead, Santa Clarita and Malibu. It was pretty obvious: Southern California was burning.
Since Saturday night, more than a dozen wildfires have burned more than 1300 structures and tens of thousands of acres. Between Santa Barbara and San Diego, more than a half-million people have been evacuated from their homes.
A few decades ago, such wildfires would have been a major news event, but their impact on human lives would have been significantly lower. Because of the development and growth patterns of Southern California, residents are living on the edge and creating a built-up environment where a confluence of events can spark comparisons to the ultimate natural disaster in recent American history, Hurricane Katrina.
On the religious right, they would have you believe that exurban Southern California is burning because the City of San Diego filed an amicus court brief in support of marriage equality in California. Others are wondering whether the coincidence of so many fires could be tied to terrorism. But regardless of how the fires started, their devastation can be blamed on one group of people – NIMBY’s.
If you don’t have them in your town yet, let me tell you about our version of the NIMBY. Many Southern Californians believe that there should be no development any where near anyone. Once settled in a new community, they will say, “Not in my backyard!” to any building proposal that comes along. Like the Malibu environmentalist, they believe that the last house that should be built is the one they live in.
Unfortunately for us, politicians only respond to voters who live in their districts, not those who might move in, so NIMBY’s can be very powerful. When they say that there should be no new apartment buildings or condos, local elected officials listen. They’ll block projects, propose that density be capped and work the corridors of City Hall to make sure that nothing new gets built.
But the fact there is little to no density-increasing urban construction here in L.A., where it would make sense has not kept folks from moving to Southern California. To accommodate this influx, we first built up the San Fernando Valley, immediately North of L.A., in the 1950′s. The Valley then spilled over the hills into the San Gabriel Valley. When that filled up, we started building in Ventura County and Santa Clarita, a community founded way back in 1984. The last decade has seen an explosion of growth in Orange County and now the Inland Empire, once nothing more than farms.
The fires raging in Southern California today are being compared to those of 1993, when a similar number of structures were burned. But if the fires of 2007 had happened in 1993, fewer homes would have been lost because, well, there were fewer homes in these outlying areas. The communities that were the suburban hinterlands back then – Altadena, Laguna Beach and Sierra Madre – are now considered close-in L.A. suburbs when compared to the far-flung subdivisions and towns which are burning today. In 1993, Rancho Bernando and Poway were considered the boondocks, whereas today, these communities are considered to be practically part of the city of San Diego.
Despite our wildfires, earthquakes and the occasional riot, people still seem to want to come to Southern California.I hate to admit it but I kind of agree with Al Gore about the need for smart growth here–and you know how I feel about the former Veep. If we continue to build out – not up – the wildfires one or two decades from now will be even more devastating as people live closer to the wilderness’ edge.
To accommodate growth, Southern California’s elected leaders will need to develop a scarce political resource – a backbone – and say no to the NIMBY’s and to ask Washington for help to build the public transit necessary to make communities both more livable and more dense.
Sometimes, it takes a crisis to force our leaders into action. Just ask George Bush and Michael Chertoff as they visit Southern California this week. Maybe this will be the moment that prompts our leaders into action to develop a more sustainable pattern of development.