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Opinion

Op-Ed: Can California learn to love its fires?

MALIBU, CA - NOVEMBER 9, 2018 - - Pepperdine University and other structures rest in the foreground
Pepperdine University and other structures rest in the foreground against a backdrop of the Woolsey fire in Malibu on November 9.
(Los Angeles Times)

In 1982, my mother and I watched a wind-driven wall of flames descend a Malibu hillside toward our rented bungalow. Lucky for us, firefighters stopped the flames at the far edge of the asphalt road, just yards away. I’ve since seen that same hillside burn four times. My childhood home in Santa Barbara, perched atop the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains with jaw-dropping views of the Channel Islands, burned to the ground in 1991, along with its entire neighborhood. In 2007, my stepfather’s house in Malibu was incinerated by a brush fire fanned like a flamethrower by fierce Santa Ana winds.

Those houses were rebuilt, using the same materials. When the next fire comes, they will probably burn again. We live in denial about the fact that most of California is a fire landscape. After the horrific loss of life and property in 2017 and 2018, we have to ask: Can we learn to live with fire? Will we restructure our communities to accept fire as something as inevitable as sun and rain?

Building charming wooden houses among the trees as we like to do (see Topanga Canyon, Big Bear, Big Sur, Marin County, etc.) is a cultural hangover from wet Northern Europe, but totally inappropriate here. Our vegetation evolved to stoke flames: Much of it is referred to as “pyrophytic,” literally fire-loving, because the plants make themselves more flammable in order to encourage fire as a means of reproduction. Even coast redwoods have evolved to resprout after their trunks are burned because fire is present even in the rainforests where they grow.

Clustering together into safer, more defensible communities would also allow people to shelter in place, as thousands did at Pepperdine.
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The hardened masonry towns of the fire-prone Mediterranean are a much better model: Residences are clad with stone or stucco, roofed with tile, without deep eaves that can catch embers, and frequently clustered together to form a united front against both fire and human invaders. In the Woolsey fire in Malibu, such structures, both free-standing houses but especially stucco-and-tile roofed condo or townhouse complexes — most built over the objections of neighbors worried about too much density in their rural-feeling city — fared much better than their wooden neighbors.

The key to fire survival is, in fact, planning for wind. Although “defensible space” and fire-resistant landscaping are important, no amount of brush clearance can prevent wind-carried embers from igniting susceptible buildings. With winds like Santa Anas roaring and humidity low, embers frequently can travel a mile through the air out ahead of the fire line and land on a house. Burning houses ignite their flammable neighbors in turn, leading to the kinds of nearly unstoppable structure-to-structure firestorms seen in Santa Rosa, Paradise and parts of Malibu.

The Pepperdine University campus, explicitly modeled by architect William Pereira after the fire-hardened, pedestrian villages of Patmos, Greece, is an example of fire-conscious architecture and landscape design. Even though flames of the Woolsey fire ate up the surrounding hillsides, burned into parts of the campus, and actually blackened walls in numerous places, the university escaped essentially unscathed. Its buildings — constructed with steel frames, concrete, stucco, tile roofs, no exposed wood, no deep eaves to catch flying embers — occupy just 330 of the campus’ 830 acres and are clustered around paved plazas and lawns. They embody the architect’s vision of “tightly knit buildings and protected open spaces.” Since its construction in the early 1970s, the campus has survived six fires.

Pereira crafted a master plan for the development of Malibu in 1965 along the same principles, calling for clustered houses surrounded by expansive natural preserves. The plan, commissioned in secret, was never made public, much less implemented, and Malibu’s hillsides and canyons were developed piecemeal and haphazardly, ignoring the reality of fire. If the plan had been used, many of Pepperdine’s neighbors might have fared better.

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Cities have learned in the past and changed when they rebuilt. The white villages of the Mediterranean, which evolved their defenses over millennia from simple wooden antecedents as the region was deforested and fire became endemic, offer one such example. After the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed London, timber buildings were banned. After Chicago burned in October 1871, losing 17,500 buildings and one-third of its wealth, new kinds of fireproof construction, including safety elevators and low-cost steel frames, allowed it to rebuild, upward, and the skyscraper was born. Neither city has suffered large conflagrations again.

In California, changing our building types will help. As important is de-incentivizing scattering homes across high-hazard zones. That would include shifting the true cost of providing utilities, services and even firefighting, now subsidized by the more centralized majority, to those who choose to live in isolated locations.

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Clustering together into safer, more defensible communities would also allow people to shelter in place, as thousands did at Pepperdine during the Woolsey fire. That would mean avoiding the dangers of crowded evacuation routes as tragically seen during the recent Camp fire, when hundreds of people had to abandon their cars on choked roads and flee on foot.

Native Californians for at least 10,000 years used fire as a tool to manage the land, and, by burning frequently and in small patches, to limit the severity of unintentional wildfires. With more fireproofed and denser, semi-urban spaces, we’ll be able to welcome fire back into our midst, in the form of managed (“controlled” is a bit of an overreach) burning. This is easier done in the forested landscapes of the north, where low-intensity undergrowth burns are possible, than in the dense chaparral of the south, and we may in fact be forced to retreat from some of the most fire-prone landscapes of Southern California. But if we’re to survive in an overheating California, we will have to become a fire-embracing society, no longer a fire-denying one.

Wade Graham is the author of “American Eden,” a cultural history of gardens in America; “Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World”; and “Braided Waters: Environment and Society in Molokai, Hawaii.” He teaches urban and environmental policy at Pepperdine University.

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