The fire this time

Once-in-a-century fires are becoming routine

The upside of global warming? Where there used to be fires, we’ll just have desert.

The upside of global warming? Where there used to be fires, we’ll just have desert.

Photo by K.C. Alfred/SDU-T/ Press

Nick Schou is a reporter at the OC Weekly, where a version of this story originally appeared.

Controversial UC Irvine history professor Mike Davis is best known for his scathing social history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz. But he’s also something of a prophet of doom, having predicted the 1992 L.A. Riots just months before they happened and, that same year, publishing the essay “Let Malibu Burn,” in which he argued that fire-prevention (and property-protection) efforts were only making Southern California more susceptible to apocalyptic wildfires.

Many rolled their eyes at that essay, but Davis’ thesis appeared to be borne out in 2003, when massive fires (stoked by the state’s driest year on record) destroyed more than 1,000 wilderness-adjacent homes, from Malibu to Big Bear to San Diego, leaving hundreds of thousands of people temporarily homeless and blanketing the region in hellish smoke for three-straight days.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would later issue a Blue Ribbon Fire Commission report on the 2003 fires, which focused on the need for better construction standards, and the reduction of fire fuels near homes—but said little about restricting new home development in fire-prone areas. This suburban-wilderness border development has been rampant in Southern California and in the Northern California foothills of the Sierras.

“By standards of history, this is clearly the fire of the century, with climatic, ecological and social conditions combining to create an almost perfect firestorm,” Davis told OC Weekly in a November 2003 interview. “Yet infernos on this scale may become almost routine, once-a-decade events in the future.”

Once a decade?

As it turned out, Davis only had to wait four years to see his typically dire prediction come true. This year has surpassed 2004 as the driest year in Southern California’s history, and the lack of rainfall, along with a La Niña-related cold air mass in the desert and a low-pressure system off the Pacific coast, combined to produce some of the harshest Santa Ana wind conditions ever measured, with hurricane-force blasts up to 100 mph. The result, once you add arson and downed power lines: more than 1,000 homes destroyed, an estimated $1 billion in property damage and the largest natural-disaster-related mass evacuation in California history.

Reached by telephone at the height of the inferno and given the opportunity to say, “I told you so,” Davis, a San Diego resident, said he’s no longer convinced that massive wildfires will always be an inevitable feature of life in Southern California.

“We may not see a fire like this for some time, simply because all the fuel has burned,” Davis said, adding that a recent scientific study suggests that global warming will turn the region into a desert within the next several decades—possibly sooner.

“What’s supposed to be happening in 20 years is happening now,” he said. “We will be living in a Phoenix or Yuma climate, and [Phoenix and Yuma] will be living in Death Valley. You don’t talk about a drought in the Sahara.”

The study Davis refers to, “An Imminent Transition to a More Arid Climate in Southwestern North America” by Columbia University professor Richard Seager, appeared in Science magazine in April and was based on 19 separate computerized climate models by scientists throughout the world.


“What the models are projecting is that what you experience now in a multiyear drought will be the new climate,” Seager said. “It will be that dry here on out. There will still be wet years and dry years, but the wet years won’t be what we’re used to, and the dry years will be drier than what we are used to.”

And what does this mean for wildfires? “The climate is going to get drier and drier,” Seager said. Echoing Davis, he added, “There are no fires in the Sahara.”

Seager was quick to add that there is no way to attribute a single event, such as this year’s massive fires, to global warming or any other single factor, but that the weather in the past few years leading up to the inferno isn’t typical. “What is unusual is that last winter was an El Niño winter, and normally California gets wet in El Niño, but it was not wet, and it suggests there is something other than the natural cycles we have seen earlier in the [20th] century and in the 19th century,” he said.

Jin Yi Yu, an associate professor of earth-system science at UC Irvine, agrees that California is experiencing an unusual drought but argues it is too early to blame global warming. “It could be global warming, but it is too soon for scientists to say,” he said. “It could also be the La Niña condition we are seeing. It is very difficult for us to conclude something on one event.”

What nobody (except Davis, that is) predicted is that Southern California would see a second once-per-century fire in less than five years, something that helps explain why almost no major reforms in terms of fire-suppression or rampant real-estate development were enacted in the wake of the 2003 fire. A 250-page report on the fire by the governor’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission said almost nothing about restricting real-estate development in wilderness areas. Instead, the report called for “fuel reduction and fuel-modification programs,” mainly involving the removal of dead or diseased trees and low-level brush near homes.

Efforts by Southern California environmentalists and slow-growth advocates to limit sprawl in wilderness areas haven’t fared well, either, except in Ventura County, where any major development outside urban boundaries must pass a voter referendum. In San Diego County, developers helped to defeat a similar slow-growth initiative in 2004. Both measures aimed at preventing their counties from turning into Orange County, where real-estate development continues to surge forward, with 14,000 new homes slated for development in Rancho Mission Viejo, which borders the Cleveland National Forest, and similar projects scheduled to break ground in the Orange foothills, just a stone’s throw from still-smoldering Santiago Canyon.

None of this comes as a surprise to the ever-gloomy Davis. “To create open corridors and reducing interfaces between dense suburban development and [wilderness], you would need land-use regulation and zoning on a scale that has been advocated for decades but has never been politically possible,” he said. “I guess what I’m saying is you can have two once-in-100-years disasters in five years, a Katrina in the suburbs, but the thought of getting any new policies to arm us against the consequences of climate change? I don’t see that happening.”

Nick Schou is a reporter at the OC Weekly, where a version of this story originally appeared.