Forest fires: California in flames

Up to a million people have been displaced, and several killed, but US authorities have acted swiftly to counter catastrophe. Is the quick response down to the lessons of Hurricane Katrina or because of the Golden State's profile? Andrew Gumbel reports

Sunday 28 October 2007 00:00

Tim Pershing and Franceska Shifrin weren't thinking too much about fire prevention and evacuation last Sunday when they invited friends to their mountain home in Topanga Canyon, half-way between Los Angeles and Malibu. They were thinking about carving pumpkins for Halloween, making soup and popping chickens into the oven.

Even as reality crept up on them – the smoke and ash pouring out towards the Pacific Ocean just two canyons to the north, the increasingly ominous fire warnings on the radio and the internet, the police checkpoints set up at both ends of Topanga Canyon Boulevard turning away non-residents – they decided to keep the party going.

Pershing, a photographic artist, somehow managed to carve a pumpkin face and hand out beers even as he packed up boxes of his most precious pictures. Shifrin, an accomplished painter who has lived in these mountains all her life, loaded canvases into the back of her car between ladling out bowls of soup and chatting, seemingly without a care in the world.

Then a police car started circulating with a bullhorn, advising residents to pack up and leave. It wasn't a mandatory evacuation order, just a voluntary one. Slowly, the party guests began to disperse, but the hosts remained remarkably cool. In this part of the world, fire is just part of life, the risk of conflagration the price to be paid for living in a little piece of paradise.

Pershing and Shifrin never did leave. Their children wanted to stay put, a local fire captain said they had nothing to worry about that first night, and by sheer luck the wind changed direction soon enough to spare the entire canyon.

Not so lucky was Katherine Johnson, who lives in the beachside community of Venice but recently bought herself a house near Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino mountains, two hours' drive east of Los Angeles. In stark contrast to Malibu, a retreat for the rich and pampered who can afford to see their second home go up in smoke and rebuild in the secure knowledge that house prices will still continue to rise, the Lake Arrowhead area is one of the few affordable beautiful places in southern California. It attracts hippies, artists and people much like Johnson, a free-spirited healthcare worker who has a side business performing energetic readings with a bio-feedback machine. She spent the past few months redecorating, buying new furniture and building a new wooden deck from which to enjoy the high-altitude forest.

When the fires first hit the Lake Arrowhead area early last week, Johnson was in New York and unable to do anything to protect her house other than call a friend and beg him to retrieve as much as he could. As of yesterday, with the so-called Slide fire still burning, she didn't know for sure if she still had a house, but the signs were not good. Her street in Running Springs was listed as one of the most severely damaged. Some 300 houses in the area were reduced to smouldering wrecks – the densest incidence of fire damage anywhere in southern California.

It was the second time in four years that Running Springs had taken a big hit – it was one of the worst-afflicted areas the last time fires fanned by the desert Santa Ana winds broke out in southern California in October. And the reasons aren't hard to fathom. In 2003, as now, the region had endured a dry year. Then, as now, the forests were loaded with combustible materials – brush and fallen bark and leaves on the ground, the trees themselves and of course wooden decks and roofs much like Johnson's.

Much of the Californian media coverage of the fires has focused on finding an easy culprit for the disaster, which will probably end up destroying around 1,800 homes, ravaging 700 square miles and costing well north of $1bn (£470m). That's nowhere near the sort of damage wreaked two years ago by Hurricane Katrina – which all but destroyed an entire city – but hasn't stopped the comparisons, and similar political sniping about the handling of the disaster.

A fire chief in suburban Orange County, south of Los Angeles, has publicly blamed Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for failing to provide enough firefighting resources. Other civic leaders have blamed the fires on arsonists – who were indeed responsible for sparking many of the 18 major fires – and offered rewards of up to $250,000 for information leading to their capture. California's lively environmental movement, meanwhile, has sought to blame global warming, seeing a pattern of worsening disasters that encompasses Katrina and can somehow be laid at President Bush's door.

What they are all overlooking is that fire is part of the natural cycle in southern California and that human development has exacerbated its severity.

"Drought, flood, fire and earthquake – those are the four seasons in California," said Bill Patzert, a climatologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the LA suburb of Pasadena. "Here we have 40 million people living in a semi-arid environment, in a rain year [from July 2006 to June 2007] when the rainfall in southern California was between three and five inches. Everybody should have seen this coming 18 months ago."

In a region starved of rainwater, the fires were inevitable. The winds knocked down two power lines in Malibu to get the fire and smoke started there on Sunday. A variety of other instigators – arsonists, careless construction workers wielding a welding torch, and others – touched off the fires elsewhere in LA county and the worst of them, in the northeastern suburbs of San Diego. But as long as the winds were howling and embers were flying uncontrollably into suburban neighbourhoods, there was nothing firefighters could do other than stay ahead of the flames and warn people to get out. They put out warnings to more than 300,000 households, triggering an evacuation of anywhere from half a million to a million people.

The response was actually a marked improvement on four years ago, when 2,400 houses burned and 23 people died in a significantly smaller number of fires. This time, the death toll has yet to reach 10, although more bodies may be found as rescue workers go from house to house.

The fires hit two Californias. The canyon dwellers of Topanga and Malibu have lived with the problem for decades and are more or less resigned to it. The hippies of Lake Arrowhead see fire risk as the reason they can afford to live there at all. But residents of the new suburban neighbourhoods in Orange and San Diego counties still don't appear to have come to terms with their decision to live on the edge of highly combustible chaparral in the foothills of national forests and mountains.

Blaming Arnold Schwarzenegger – or, worse, accusing firefighters, as many did last week, of pouring all their resources into rich communities like Malibu and letting others burn – is just a way of denying the consequences of their own decisions. The same homeowners who build in fire areas have also voted consistently against paying for better local fire services. San Diego, for instance, doesn't have a county fire service at all, forcing it to rely on reinforcements from the rest of the state when crisis hits.

One would think last week's fires would trigger an impassioned debate about housing permits and where to put all the people pouring into California each year. Yet the signs are that business will continue as usual.

State and national leaders have been so concerned not to avoid a repeat of the mistakes made in the aftermath of Katrina that Californians can expect lavish compensation for any damage and carte blanche to repeat many of the same building mistakes they made last time.

On Friday, the head of the San Diego county government, Ron Roberts, proudly announced that he had received the first rebuilding permit. "This is great news," he said. "We haven't issued the permit yet, but we're going to do it as quickly as possible."

In other words, all those scorched neighbourhoods will be simply be rebuilt. Wait a few years, and chances are very good they will just burn all over again.

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