La Tuna Canyon. Anaheim Hills. Thomas. Creek. Rye. Skirball. Each of these evocatively named fires has ripped across portions of Southern California since August, consuming tens of thousands of acres and forcing the evacuations of hundreds of thousands of residents. This crazed choreography of flame and people appears mono-directional: as each of these conflagrations—and countless others before them—scream over ridgelines or roar up canyons, panicked homeowners bolt. Flames get us moving.
It is also true, however, that human beings have made these fires in the most fundamental sense: we bear torches. The most obvious of these torchbearers are the arsonists who take advantage of the region’s desiccated and fire-prone landscapes and the intense, wind-driven events known locally as the Santa Anas. Under these conditions—all of which fueled the firestorms of 2017—it does not take much to spark up an inferno.
Once lit, whether by means intentional or accidental, these fires gain their people-scattering force as a direct consequence of human geography, of how and where we live across the Southland. For more than a century, Los Angeles has pressed out from its central core. Late 19th Century streetcars and then automobiles facilitated this oft-white flight, a dispersal that accelerated after the 1920s, and then took off in the postwar era. Sprawl and the City of Angels became synonymous.
Less well understood, but just as synonymous, is the close relationship between fire and sprawl. Between the 1950s and 1970s, new wealthy subdivisions in the Hollywood Hills, Beverly Hills, and Bel Air experienced devastating fires. Subsequent waves of exurban migration into such valleys as the San Fernando, San Gabriel, and Pomona, Simi and Santa Clarita, have flowed along the ever-expanding grid of freeways and their interlocking subdivisions (with the requisite billboard exhortation at each exit: “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now!”), and produced the same smoke-filled results.
The pattern has continued apace, even as the region has become increasingly dense. LA is now the second densest city in the United States, a crowding that has led those seeking affordable housing to move out to an ever-expanding periphery. Some of these peripheral developments, which city halls, planning boards, and zoning commissions have dutifully sanctioned, were among those recently engulfed in flames.
In early September, the La Tuna Canyon fire burned more than 7000 acres in the Verdugo Mountains in northeastern Los Angeles, after jumping the 210 freeway and consuming a number of cul-de-sac neighborhoods. A month later, the Anaheim Hills blaze scorched 8000 acres in Orange County, including dozens of homes that crowded up into this high ground. In early December, four fires erupted under extreme Santa Ana conditions. The Thomas (230,500 acres and counting); Creek (15,000+); Rye (7,000); and the smaller Skirball (475 acres) may vary widely in terms of size, but thy are similar in this respect: they propelled massive evacuations, burned countless homes and other structures, and their toxic fumes smeared the sky.
Their physical siting is as revelatory. Each burned in and around vital highways, disrupting daily life. The Skirball hugged the 405, arguably the nation’s busiest freeway. The Creek was framed to its south by the 210 (and also hopped it at one point). The Rye flowed along the Interstate 5 and Highway 126 corridor, while the runaway Thomas fire not only swerved close to the 126 it also torched both sides of the 33 and the 101. Every highway we grade. Every yard of concrete we pour. Every construction permit we pull. Every house we build. Every mile we drive—each act, individually and collectively, helps set the stage for Los Angeles’ most-fiery dramas.
Yet the season for this show used to be a lot shorter, concentrated in the late summer and fall. Now fires can (and do) explode in any month, thanks to another anthropogenic driver: Climate Change. It is responsible in good measure for the bone-dry conditions accompanying seven years of drought, a process that is powering fires in Southern California from January to December. This 12-month cycle will hold true across the rest of the 21st Century, too, with temperatures rising and precipitation decreasing. When these climatic conditions collide with the built landscape, as they did this month, the consequences will be every bit as unsettling and disastrous.
Photo by Erin Donalson: Thomas Fire Burns Mountains in Ventura County via istock.
Char Miller, the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, has written extensively about wildfire in Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream (2016) and On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (2013), both from Trinity University Press. His most recent op-ed on the subject, “What the Trump administration doesn’t understand about wildfires,” appeared in the Los Angeles Times in October.