Jerry Brown’s California enters this new age with a halo over its head. We “get” climate change and thumb our noses at the mad denialist in the White House. Our governor advocates the Paris standards with rare passion and sends our anti-carbon missionaries to the far corners of the earth. We await impatiently that great day when the entire Mojave Desert will be covered with Chinese-made solar panels, and silent Teslas rule the freeways. And we continue to send urban sprawl into our fire-dependent ecosystems with the expectation that firefighters will risk their lives to defend each new McMansion, and an insurance system that spreads costs across all homeowners will promptly replace whatever is lost.
This is the deadly conceit behind mainstream environmental politics in California: you say fire, I say climate change, and we both ignore the financial and real-estate juggernaut that drives the suburbanization of our increasingly inflammable wildlands. Land use patterns in California have long been insane but, with negligible opposition, they reproduce themselves like a flesh-eating virus. After the Tunnel Fire in Oakland and the 2003 and 2007 firestorms in San Diego County, paradise was quickly restored; in fact, the replacement homes were larger and grander than the originals. The East Bay implemented some sensible reforms but in rural San Diego County, the Republican majority voted down a modest tax increase to hire more firefighters. The learning curve has a negative slope.
I’ve found that the easiest way to explain California fire politics to students or visitors from the other blue coast is to take them to see the small community of Carveacre in the rugged mountains east of San Diego. After less than a mile, a narrow paved road splays into rutted dirt tracks leading to thirty or forty impressive homes. The attractions are obvious: families with broods can afford large homes as well as dirt bikes, horses, dogs, and the occasional emu or llama. At night, stars twinkle that haven’t been visible in San Diego, 35 miles away, for almost a century. The vistas are magnificent and the mild winters usually mantle the mountain chaparral with a magical coating of light snow.
But Carveacre on a hot, high fire-danger day scares the shit out of me. A mountainside cul-de-sac at the end of a one-lane road with scattered houses surrounded by ripe-to-burn vegetation – the “fuel load” of chaparral in California is calculated in equivalent barrels of crude oil — the place confounds human intelligence. It’s a rustic version of death row. Much as I would like for once to be a bearer of good news rather than an elderly prophet of doom, Carveacre demonstrates the hopelessness of rational planning in a society based on real-estate capitalism. Unnecessarily, our children, and theirs, will continue to face the flames.