The controversial case for letting Malibu burn

Should we let it burn?
Should we let it burn?
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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Some Malibu residents are angry—and many would say they have good reason.

During the Woolsey fire that began on Nov. 8, sweeping through the counties of Los Angeles and Ventura, the fire department did not reach some neighborhoods before they burned, they say. The fire department, for its part, was facing a rapidly approaching fire with minimal lead time—and another fire burning elsewhere in the state—all while trying to evacuate the city to save human lives.

Some residents, like the Kardashian-Wests, resorted to a form of disaster capitalism, hiring private firefighters. Others joined grassroots groups like the Point Dume Bomberos and the Malibu West Fire Brigade, risking their lives to defend their property. Ultimately, with 91% containment, 1,452 buildings in Malibu and beyond have been destroyed by the Woolsey fire. “Where were the firefighters on Friday? Please tell us, where were they!” residents asked officials at meeting for evacuees.

But Los Angeles Fire Department deputy chief Trevor Richmond said last week: “Would we do anything differently? I would say no.” He noted that in three decades, he’s never seen a brush fire advance so quickly. And, thanks to years-long drought and longer dry seasons fueled by climate change, California residents can expect to face what governor Jerry Brown called “the new abnormal:” a fire season that doesn’t just last from September to November, but goes year-round.

It’s worth noting that, in response to Brown’s assessment, some scientists said that the focus on climate change as the primary reason for increasingly destructive wildfires is “too narrow” and discounts the role of “repeatedly green-[lighting] development in areas that we know are fire zones.” Regardless, the future that the Woolsey fire portends—one where disaster response, working at capacity, is mismatched to deal with foreseeable natural disasters—is unimaginably grim.

And yet it’s a future that was more or less predicted 20 years ago, when University of California, Riverside professor emeritus Mike Davis wrote the provocatively titled “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” a chapter of his book Ecology of Fear. In his essay, Davis argued that destructive wildfires are not a bug, but a feature of this native chaparral habitat—one that, aided by Santa Ana winds, has long used fires to carry out ecological processes.

Davis wrote that the Santa Monica mountains’ native vegetation interacts with perfect fire weather—”drought conditions, 100-degree heat, 3 percent humidity and an 85-mile-per-hour Santa Ana wind”—to create fires, on average, every two and half years. And he argued that the longer Malibu sought to suppress fires in order to save ever-increasing amounts of property, the worse its inevitable fires would be. “Science has established that it is accumulated growth that determines fire destructiveness,” he wrote. “Botanists and fire geographers have calculated that half-century-old chaparral, heavily laden with dead mass, burns with 50 times more intensity than 20-year-old chaparral.”

In other words, Davis predicted that Malibu would see fires of the kind of intensity and ferocity that residents witnessed, to their collective horror, this month. When reached by Gustavo Arellano of the Los Angeles Times for comment last week, he was steadfast: “I’m infamous for suggesting that the broader public should not have to pay a cent to protect or rebuild mansions on sites that will inevitably burn every 20 or 25 years. My opinion hasn’t changed.”

Davis was, and remains, a pariah in Malibu. And indeed, alongside his ecological, anti-development thesis is also a rather clear disdain for many of Malibu’s residents, who he calls “wealthy pyrophiles encouraged by cheap fire insurance, socialized disaster relief and an expansive public commitment to ‘defend Malibu.'”

At the time, Malibu residents took Davis’ piece as a pointed attack on their way of life. And who can blame them? Dealing with fire is not foreign to any of Malibu’s roughly 13,000 residents. More broadly, facing natural disasters head-on is part of the frontier spirit that pervades California life.

Yet today, two decades later, Arellano notes that “Davis’ work on Malibu’s flames has aged far better than the criticism of it.” Davis’ sentiment may well be on the minds of Malibu residents as they face the prospect of rebuilding their homes and lives, with the knowledge that another, future fire may not be far off.