Lessons From Southern California Fires – part II – Surfers Surfed While Malibu Burned

by on November 10, 2007 · 0 comments

Continued from PART ONE

The San Diego wildfires of 2007 have sparked many a discussion of many an issue. In attempting to grasp an understanding of how these fires fit into the matrix of our Southern California human and natural environment, we have been looking into “Ecology of Fear” by social historian Mike Davis. Can we draw any lessons from these past fires and “disasters?”

In his 1998 “Ecology of Fear“, Davis examines the calamities that befell Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. Davis describes how generations of Anglo Americans have developed a “doggedly uniformitarian mindset” that conditions our expectations of the Southern California environment. This mindset has developed from the East Coast/ European humid model of ecology and urbanization. “Immigrants from the humid states, … brought with them deeply ingrained prejudices about climate and landscape shaped by their experiences in the environmental continuum of northwestern Europe and the eastern United States.”

Imaginary “norms” and “averages” are constantly invoked, while the weather is ceaselessly berated for its perversity, as in “We have had an unusually dry/wet season” or “The weather isn’t like it used to be.” Despite daily reminders that “we live in earthquake country,” every high-intensity natural event — temblor, flood, fire, windstorm, or landslide — produces shock and consternation. As a dazed survivor of the Northridge earthquake told a television crew: “I feel like Nature let us down.”

But in Southern California, as in other Mediterranean drylands, “average” in terms of weather accounts is an abstraction. In Los Angeles, as in San Diego, there really is no “average rainfall”. Davis points out, for example, that in the 127 year history of LA’s measured rainfall, the annual rainfall of 15.3 inches, has only been hit a few times. “… only 17 percent of years approach within 25 percent of the historical average.” And the norm is actually created by 7 to 12 year swings back and forth between dry and wet periods.

Sometimes the annual rainfall is delivered during a single week-long Kona storm [from Hawaii], as happened in 1938 and 1969; or even, incredibly, in a single 12-hour deluge, as in Bel Air on New Year’s Day 1934. During droughts, on the other hand, it may take two or even three years to achieve the mean.

In humid, temperate environments, Davis shows us, landscape and ecology evolve slowly through frequent low-intensity events, whereas just the opposite is true in Mediterranean and desert regions, like Southern California. Here, high-intensity events — such as floods, fires, earthquakes, occur infrequently. These “disasters”, Davis analyses, “are the ordinary agents of landscape and ecological change.” Therefore, the 1969 Kona storm – a 50-year or 100-year occurrence – because it accomplishes “the most geomorphic work” is now seen as “the typical event”. For instance, the vast majority of the total sediment discharged into SoCal coastal basins from the years 1930 to 1980 “was delivered in a few days during the great floods of 1938 and 1969.”


Davis recounts the now well-known stories of researchers who found very strong evidence from ancient tree rings about previous long-term droughts in our region. Research has shown that California suffered two mega-droughts during the Middle Ages, one that lasted 220 years, from about 890 to 1100, and the second lasting from approximately 1210 to 1350, 140 years. By contrast, we’re reminded, the most severe recent drought, from 1987 to 1992, lasted only six years. But even it created an unprecedented water emergency throughout the state.

…there is a scientific consensus that Southern Californians must come to grips with not only the reality of catastrophic climate change during the past thousand years but also the “false norms” represented by the weather patterns documented since instrumental record keeping began in the late nineteenth century. To put it brutally, the “peaceful” Land of Sunshine is part fluke, part myth; every recent investigation, whether based on tree rings, lake sediments, seabed varves, or pollen cores, confirms that the Los Angeles region’s climate over the past 150 years has been anomalously mild and, therefore, atypical.


Does it sound familiar when Mike Davis describes in 1998 how Los Angeles “fatally lacks the emergency capacity – engineers would call it ‘redundancy’ — to deal with larger or more frequent earthquakes, as well as great floods, chaparral firestorms, and protracted droughts,”? Both LA – and our region by extension – need “hazard zoning” which excludes intensive development from the most disaster-prone regions and terrains, as well as genuine water conservation.

Over the years, “prophetic voices [have urged] the regions’s leaders to mitigate inevitable disaster and enhance quality of life through the regulation of urbanization in the foothills and wetlands; but they were almost uniformly ignored, ….” In addition, outward, horizontal growth of the urban areas, draws on the already insufficient infrastructure, which raises the costs of protecting the new suburbs from nature.

The metropolitan political structures of our region, explained by Davis, “are as single purpose and inflexible as its physical infrastructures,” as the focus is on rapid economic growth, with little tolerance for more environmental regulations that threaten short-term investments and little support for taxes to fund emergency preparedness or social programs.

(continued HERE)

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