01 September 2009
These California fires are amazing, but like earthquakes, I think we out East consider them part and parcel of the California lifestyle. Yes, it's very sunny out there, but it's also a place for earthquakes and wildfires. The wildfire threat has grown mainly because so many remote areas are now subdivisions. As Americans, maybe as humans, we tend to disregard the power of nature and stretch our limits with little care for the long-term effects.
Not only California, but also the entire western United States, has seen massive population growth, with much of it occurring during a period in which the suburbs and then the exurbs were created and sprawl hadn't come to signify a long-term negative. The massive explosion of building around Las Vegas in the 1990's and early 2000's indicates that despite the lessons learned from half a century of sprawl in southern California, we still haven't learned that lesson.
In Chinatown, the plot revolves around the sinister possession of water rights in a thirsty LA that essentially gets its water from northern California. Phoenix, Las Vegas, and the massive LA metroplex all rely on the same water that farmers and fish rely on. As we push further into the hillsides and forests, we occupy land that is either subject to landslide or brush fire. So far we have water, earth, and fire. Maybe air is the Santa Ana winds.
We've essentially built a theme-park style dream of uninterrupted development, of perfectly landscaped cookie-cutter living boxes as deceptively laid out as any Disneyland. We turn on the tap and out comes water. We drive through the canyons and only encounter the occasional roadkill coyote or wandering scrub brush, and we convince ourselves that nature has been pacified.
In Ecology of Fear, which I have to revisit because it's been a long time, Mike Davis makes the argument that southern California is a disaster not only waiting to happen, but also already happening. He might push his point a bit far, but in general it's hard to argue with the thesis that hubristic overdevelopment has exposed us to a wrathful return of the repressed (to sneak a bit of Freud in), a reminder that we are not all.