24 October, 2007

The California Conflagration

As I'm writing, blessedly unseasonable rain and snow is falling upon the Southern California fires that have devoured over 3,300 homes and 1,100 square miles. This is a wonderful turn of events, although the TV newscasts, after a week of nonstop coverage of the conflagrations, are now warning of that tragicomic offspring of wildfire: mudslides.

But that's life in California: one disaster after another. California is a particularly fragile place for 35 million people to live in. And the cost of cramming more people into the state keeps rising.
Brushfires and mudslides used to seem more amusing because they afflicted Hollywood celebrities significantly more often than average citizens. This was not just a matter of God's good taste. Average citizens lived in the cheaper and safer flatlands. The rich poised precariously in the hills, where construction and maintenance costs are higher—especially if you want your home to survive what Mother Nature keeps up her sleeve.

But the plains of Southern California filled up long ago. So the ever-growing population has been spilling into the more treacherous wild areas. This is regularly denounced as "sprawl," which implies that individuals are wastefully consuming more and more land per capita. But in California the driver has been population growth. According to a 2003 Center for Immigration Studies report, from 1982 to 1997 the total number of developed acres in California grew by 32 percent, but the per capita usage was up only two percent. Essentially all of California's population growth in the 1990s was due to new immigrants or births to foreign-born women. (Indeed, close to one and a half million more American-born citizens moved out of California during the 1990s than moved in from other states.)

As low-income immigrants pour into Southern California's lowlands, crowding the freeways and overstressing the older cities' public schools, the middle class (at least the ones who don't leave the state) have responded by taking to the hills. The hill country's environment is benign most of the year. But the local ecosystem evolved to require periodic blazes. Up through American Indian times, these brushfires were frequent and thus relatively mild.

Unfortunately, we modern people haven't really figured out how to manage the chaparral and pine forests yet—especially when the canyons and mountains are home to housing. The best-known remedy, controlled burns, is disliked by people who live in the backcountry because they pollute the air, and they can jump out of control. The 2000 Los Alamos fire set by the Forest Service ended up destroying hundreds of structures.
Thus the policy has been to try to suppress all fires. This, however, causes fuel in the form of dry brush and dead trees to build up each decade, inevitably leading to infernos like those of 1993 and 2003. Indeed, an order of magnitude more homes could have burned this year if the hot Santa Ana winds had blown for another week.
It’s just California's problem? ‘fraid not! Taxpayers across the country always end up chipping in, through government disaster loans, new federal firefighting and forestry management programs, lower stock market prices for insurance companies, and other forms of burden-sharing.

And, in some ways, that's fair, because so much of California's current crisis traces back to the federal refusal to adequately enforce immigration laws.
California desperately needs a slower population growth rate until it learns how its current vast population can live with its lovely but sometime lethal landscape. And the state's burgeoning numbers are solely driven by immigration.

The logical solution: cut back on immigration. Reality is literally lighting a fire under us.


EdBob said...

Interesting take on the political/ environmental/ social/ economic complexities of the southern california situation. Thanx for not suggesting some inane simplistic solution.

Audra said...

You write very well.