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Land Use in California: The Fire Next Time

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We Southern Californians are said to live on the edge, as if there were no tomorrow. But there is. And we are on the verge of destroying it not just for our children and grandchildren, but for ourselves.

Our politicians continue to give each other high fives and deservedly praise firefighters for finally extinguishing the California fires. But the firestorms shattered the lives of thousands and yet were the foreseeable result of failed public policies -- at the local, state and national levels. They were the result of allowing development to trump environmental protection, time after time. They were the result of ridicule whenever the Endangered Species Act reared its powerful head on behalf of a shrimp, an owl or a snail darter -- harbingers all of what comes from overdevelopment: first no water fowl, then no water. They were the result of growth into lands that should never have been developed -- land short of water and near drought-ravaged forests that only needed an excuse to burn. Most of all, they were the result of the power of money over elected officials, who too often chose short-term gain over long-term planning to safeguard our environment. To safeguard us.

A decade ago, in his highly controversial book Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Mike Davis warned that "market-driven urbanization has transgressed common sense. Historic wildlife corridors have been turned into view-lot suburbs, wetland liquefaction zones into marinas and floodplains into industrial and housing tracts."

No one listened. Southern California's population exploded. Development continued in utter disregard of topography or the environment. Plans are now underway to bisect a state park in San Diego with a toll road. Yet each fire or flood or other disaster is viewed by the media and politicians alike as an exceptional event, not the result of systemic failure by private capital, policymakers and government.

It is possible to cry wolf. But some alarms should be heeded. Unlike other threats that resonate with the public -- terrorism, crime, economic collapse -- concerns about the environment are still too frequently dismissed as unnecessary guesswork about what might be: just hand-wringing by nattering nabobs of negativism. It is macho to fight terrorism but wusslike to worry about polar bears. Even the now-sainted Al Gore largely ignored the environment during his ill-fated presidential run. Climate change is still being "debated," its impact too far in the future to justify serious sacrifice or changes in what and how much we consume.

But that debate should be over; what is sorely lacking is preparation for the inevitability of climate change, which would require the attention of leadership and policy shifts at every level of government. The public reacts, we are told, if at all, only to immediate threats. What is more immediate than a fire outside one's door or a flood down one's street?

Growth control is a must

These are not questions without answers, problems without solutions. Only the will is lacking. "The key to firefighting is land-use planning, growth controls and prevention." So said the head of the California firefighters. Some 60% of all new homes built during the last decade were in the American west. Much of this development has been in (and at the expense of) what were forests.

The threat of home loss from fires could be reduced dramatically by implementation of even a few intelligent public policies. Eliminate the continued subsidies of harvesting timber on public lands; instead use these funds to make adjacent forests "fmeire-wise." Use zoning to control growth, such as by requiring "40-meter zones" around houses. Grant incentives to builders and homeowners to use fire-resistant materials. Allocate more resources to control the fires that do come -- don't deny essential equipment to those who fight the fires to save a few tax dollars.

And the "property rights" crowd who oppose such reforms needs to be sent packing. On the 2006 California ballot, Proposition 90, bankrolled by Americans for Limited Government, would have required compensation whenever land-use controls affected property values. California voters rejected it. But Prop. 90 was part of a well-financed, national campaign to prevent government from safeguarding our communities that denies we are all in this together. Several western states -- also at fire risk -- have already enacted similar measures; Oregon voters wisely rolled back one such measure on Election Day. But the greatest property right is for your home not to burn to the ground. Just ask a victim.

If there is a lesson to take from this tragedy, it is that we still do too little to prevent -- and are woefully unprepared for -- these catastrophes. As the climate warms, and droughts worsen, scientists predict megafires unlike anything we've seen in the past. Smokey was right. Only we can prevent forest fires. And the Santa Ana winds outside just kicked up again.

Al Meyerhoff is an environmental attorney who is of counsel to the Los Angeles office of San Diego-based Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins. He is the past director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's public health program.

Originally published in The National Law Journal