Letting Malibu Burn

Mike Davis

The disastrous fires in California expose the absurdity of a system that ignores nature, flouts climate change, and builds entire towns that will inevitably burn.

Flames surround a house during the Woolsey Fire on November 9, 2018 in Malibu, CA. David McNew / Getty

Interview by
Suzi Weissman

In 1995, urban theorist Mike Davis was pilloried for publishing an article entitled “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” But more than twenty years later, as wildfires rage in California, illuminating the dangers of unregulated development, he’s being proven more right than wrong.

Davis, a former meat cutter and long-distance truck driver, recently joined Suzi Weissman on Jacobin Radio, which you can listen and subscribe to here. They talked about the role of climate change in the fires, the prison inmates enlisted to fight them, and what the conflagrations say about the two Californias — “one rich on the coast, the other working-class in the Sierra Foothills.”


SW

Let’s focus on the tale of two fires, Paradise and Malibu. How do you compare them?

MD

Paradise has about twenty-seven thousand people, Malibu half that. If you go to the US Census Bureau website, you discover they share one thing in common: they’re basically geriatric communities, with twice as many people over the age of sixty-five.

Otherwise, it’d be hard to find two communities that are so different. In Paradise, the average home value is $200,000, which is about as affordable as you get in California these days. In Malibu, the median home value is ten times that. Malibu incomes are four to five times higher than those in Paradise. Paradise also has one really unusual distinction, which is the phenomenal number of disabled people. A fifth of the population under sixty-five in Paradise is disabled.

In other words, we get a picture of a community full of people who retired there because housing is cheap or have been forced to leave the Bay Area or Valley towns because of the unaffordability of housing. But also a strikingly large number of people who live in rest homes or are in some form disabled — and that’s a very large group of people who are most vulnerable in the face of a fire and least able to evacuate.

So the tale of two fires is really the tale of two Californias: one rich on the coast, the other working-class in the Sierra Foothills.

On a larger scale, the people from Paradise join the immense number of people globally who have been made homeless or been displaced because of environmental disasters, particularly because of drought. We shouldn’t forget that drought has ravaged Central America over the last decade and recently, plant diseases wiped out the coffee crop in Honduras. Many of the people coming north toward the border from Central America are fleeing not only violence, but global warming. They’re fleeing environmental disaster.

In an American historical context, you could say that the Dust Bowl is now being recapitulated as the Fire Bowl.

SW

Let’s move a bit into what you’ve started to talk about — the new normal, or the new climate situation.

MD

It’s extremely important to make a distinction between (and I’m sorry for the cold-blooded term) what you might call “normal fires” — that is, fire frequencies that existed before global warming or even before urbanization — and the intensification of traditional fire patterns by climate change, by epic drought, and record extreme heats during the summer.

Both Malibu and Paradise are in areas which burn at a very high “natural” or “normal” frequency. There have been in my lifetime, since the great 1956 fire, ten major Malibu fires, and in the Sierra Foothills and particularly in the foothills above Chico and other Valley cities, fires occur every decade.

Paradise areas have had nine major fires this century. Back in the summer of 2008, parts of the city were evacuated twice, in June and July, because of encroaching fire. At that time, its population had recently swollen. Butte County fire officials and planners realized they had a tremendous problem with the greater population — the roads were clogged, people had a hard time getting out, and immobile and disabled people had to be moved.

So in both cases, fire frequency, even without global warming, is very high.

But the second set of factors is that epic drought and extreme heat during the summers — the extreme heat that, even in a wet year, sucks up soil moisture and dries plants — has intensified these normal fire patterns. Fires are larger, they spread faster. We have seen in the twenty-first century the seven biggest fires in recorded history of California.

The reason it’s important to make this distinction between natural fire frequency and the intensification that’s due to climate change is that — particularly in the speeches of Governor Brown, but also in those of other officials — you keep hearing this explanation that global warming is responsible for the fires, but California is leading the way and reducing carbon admissions.

That’s a non-sequitur, and it’s a way of avoiding or not addressing what is politically the most difficult problem of all, which is the fact that unregulated development in fire corridors and wild ones has immensely increased fire hazards. Fully half of the homes built in California in the last twenty years are within what fire scientists call the wildland-urban or -suburban interface, or within forests or mountains.

So just like on the East Coast, where there’s been this enormous building boom in first-class hurricane counties because people want to live at the beach, we put half our new houses in the areas that have fire frequencies like those in Paradise or the Malibu Coast.

SW

This goes back to what you said more than twenty years ago, in “Let Malibu Burn.” It seems like your thesis is vindicated and really irrefutable. And yet, we’re seeing people vowing to rebuild on the same plots of land.

MD

When you say I’ve been vindicated the expression is a bit of a lie, because Malibu fire is just a fact. Nowhere in California, and maybe the entire West Coast, burns this frequently.

When ordinary people build a house or buy a house, they either know their neighborhood well or they go out and investigate it thoroughly. Malibu’s neighborhood is fire, and there are probably people in Malibu today who’ve gone through three or four homes due to fires. On one hand, you feel sorry for anybody that’s been de-housed by fire, but you also have to ask about this egregious, continuous violation of common sense —  rebuilding where fires are inevitable.

So one thing that has to happen is to destroy this false belief that there is some solution on an individual scale, or through community preparedness plans, to the problem of wildfires. You have to reduce the human footprint.

The truth is that there’s lots of space for the development of housing. It’s not that we’ve run out of space. It’s that the private real-estate market dictates the form of our cities, dictates where we live, forces ordinary people further and further away from the coast.

Fire also, particularly when it occurs in more affluent areas, leads to gentrification. The rebuilding just produces bigger, more expensive homes, while the trailer parks and the homes of people who didn’t have adequate fire insurance through wealth are displaced.

It’s a crazy political-economic system that so comprehensively ignores nature, ignores climate change, and continues to build houses and entire towns that will inevitably burn.

SW

As you’re speaking, I’m thinking that the smaller, doable thing would be to socialize Southern California Edison and PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric] and take those profits and invest it in really good infrastructure. But that’s not enough.

MD

PG&E is nearing bankruptcy and its stock share has fallen by half, so it may become a public utility.

But again, just as in the cases of areas where very recent fires should have led to decisive measures, what’s happened to utility regulation over the last twenty years? The 2007 San Diego fire was caused by fallen utility lines — why wasn’t something done? Why wasn’t there a hearing about this in the California Legislature? Who oversees the Public Utility Commission these days?

Now that the Democrats have a supermajority in Sacramento, all these issues fall at their feet.

SW

In the final minutes, can you talk a little bit about who’s fighting these fires?

MD

Much of the burden of firefighting in California, particularly because of the failure of taxpayers to enlarge the state and county fire services, falls on inmates. And they face extreme dangers every day, fighting these fires.

I’ve been circulating a proposal, hoping to find somebody who has the bully pulpit to really carry it forward: we should petition Governor Brown to reward these unsung heroes by reducing their sentences, even pardoning people.

Despite all their experience in firefighting, almost none of the former inmates, after they’re out of prison, are able to get jobs firefighting. That’s outrageous too — these people have rehabilitated themselves in the most social, important, and dramatic way.

Everybody talks about how firefighters are heroes and so on, but they don’t look closely at who’s actually fighting the fires.