“Your country is desolate,
Your cities are burned with fire;
Strangers devour your land in your presence;
And it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers.” —Isaiah 1:7
I grew up in the Central Valley of California, an enormous flat plain enclosed between the Coastal Range and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I moved from the verdant Sacramento Valley to the drier and more rural San Joaquin Valley to the south to study ecology in Merced. To a Northern Californian, forest fires are not uncommon, but they were something that happened “out there,” somewhere in the hills. Sometimes, the smoke would come and pass after an uncomfortable few days. But these days, especially since I moved into the San Joaquin Valley, where no hills or buildings stand between me and the fires, the experience has been sharpened.
The day a fire breaks out, I wake up and ash is coating my window. I step outside of my front door and see a mountain of smoke rising up from behind the foothills just beneath Yosemite. The breadth of these clouds, especially when they haven’t yet had time to dissipate, is beyond measure. Against the enormous empty blue of the sky, they look like solid rocks hanging impossibly in the air. I get ready for work and leave my house. The DC-9 airplanes shuttle back and forth from the fire, containing the blaze to a manageable region. You don’t “fight” fires like these, not in the way you fight a house fire. You let them burn, contained to the wilderness, hopefully far away from any homes and structures.
Weeks after one of these fires hit Yosemite in 2015, I drove to Mariposa, a tiny town on the road to the park. The horrifying Rim Fire, the largest to ever form in the Sierras, had ravaged this area just two years before. A trailer sitting on a patch of unburnt grass and stone was surrounded in all directions by black, twisted trees and the raw ashen earth. A hand-painted sign was propped up at the edge of the property: “Thank You CalFire.”
The state now spends almost the entire year at risk for forest fires, which have slowly grown in size as record-setting fires occur year after year. The rural enclave of Paradise, in the mountains of the northern Central Valley, has been leveled. It’s a degree of cataclysmic destruction unmatched by fires in the modern era. Sacramento beat out Beijing and Mumbai for the worst air quality in the world. As clouds of ash descended on the Bay, socialists in San Francisco handed out more face masks to residents than the city did. The state continues to use prison labor in firefighting. At the national level, the fires quickly became a spectacle, upon which various factions could project their present obsessions and insecurities.
While this latest set of fires burned on just north of us, rapidly becoming the most destructive in state history, I was back in Sacramento, visiting the family of a friend who had spent the weekend in Los Angeles. There, the Woolsey Fire had destroyed a great deal of Malibu and killed three people.
Local media attention focused intensely on the victims of this blaze. At one point, during a discussion, a panelist learned for the first time that there was a second fire up north and mentioned this to the other hosts. The commentators began musing on how sad it was that “they will be competing for resources.” The ideology of the market, which at its root has always been the cause of these disasters, has infected our responses to them as well.
Not that it’s surprising that this was their first utterance on learning of the two disasters. Viewing all acts and decisions as strategic moves in a competition for vanishing resources is, at its core, how capitalism encourages us to interact with the world around us. Those who conscript themselves to the pursuit of profit have been given more or less free reign to shape us as they please, producing both the disasters and the reflexive responses that follow.
An honest assessment is elusive, but begins with a rejection of this moral disfigurement and discovering the murkier and more painful relationships between us and the land where we live, lying somewhere between the poetic and clinical view that my work as an ecologist straddles. I feel trapped between the knowledge of the causes and the impossibility of the results: over 80 dead; destructive mudslides poisoning what should have been the solace of rain; grey haze drifting across my hometown. A slew of sterile descriptors explain the cause of these horrors: parts per million CO2, rising mean temperatures, local climate velocities—each as real as the nightmare of the fire season, but incapable of telling the full story on their own. To tell that story for places like Malibu, we need to bring together the science that tells us what is happening with a study of the political economy that tells us why.
Malibu is a beautiful landscape, scarred by a city whose very existence burdens the land and threatens its residents. With the structure of classic tragic plays, its first act, decades of development and expansion into the chaparral and along the ever-flammable wooded wilderness, establishes a grand collective hubris. The runaway housing market measures and encourages this pride, directing development to expand into places that should not be developed. In both Malibu and Paradise, markets have driven the expansion of the “wildland-urban interface,” or WUI. This is a region defined by the US Forest Service as the edges of human development, where houses and the wildlands meet and mingle, where the full fury of forest fires comes into contact with human beings most intensely. In the last three decades, the size of the WUI has grown enormously, as housing is built more and more aggressively at higher and higher cost for those who demand simulations of privacy and unspoilt wilderness. Aside from the immediate ecological concerns posed by large numbers of humans living in environments unaccustomed to their presence, there are long-term risks, like fires, that are rarely, if ever, incorporated into the logic of the market.
As in every tragedy, there come countervailing voices from the chorus. For Malibu, that voice was Mike Davis’s. Decades before $1.6 billion in property went up in smoke, he wrote the landmark essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” Through historical and Marxist lenses, he describes the city of Malibu as a haven for primarily white expats fleeing dense cities to establish strongholds distant from the working classes. In insulating themselves from the working class, they could manifest the dream of the bourgeois: a beautiful, wealthy place full of beautiful, wealthy people. But these strongholds are condemned to destruction. The land is not able to carry a city upon it—and we have underwritten this risk by defending the indefensible idea of a city in a fire-prone region of the state. These pockets of development in the WUI are contradictions, and like all contradictions, they get resolved.
We arrive at tragic catharsis. Paradise has been erased from the map and Malibu burned again and again in exactly the way that Davis predicted. Even so, it is beyond the ability of anyone to reasonably counter the impulse to repair and rebuild. These are people’s homes and their lives that are destroyed. It is a collective healing to take up the work of repair, but there is an agonizing futility in fighting against this impossible systemic collapse. My ecological research is inapplicable to the concerns of those mourning the dead. Any impact my work could have would be overwhelmed by two opposing impulses—the urgent need for change and the ritualized desire for normalcy, a return to home. Both are fundamentally impossible to manifest as an individual, alienating us further from the imagination of solutions. Rather than drawing on the very human desire to act, we become part of the turmoil.
I become a part of it too, coughing out soot in the shower, thinking of places I’ve stood in the hills near Chico that are now twisted, scorched fragments of what I remember. I think about the past summer, and the clouds of smoke that reached from San Diego to Montana to Minnesota. We watched the Howe Ridge Fire on the pebble beach of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park as night fell. Cars flew down the roads and fan-boats made their way across the lake, carrying people to and from the blaze, as it slowly became the only light to see by on the shore. Stars were occluded by the rising smoke’s massive shape, replaced by tiny red cinders burning on the hills below, while the Perseid meteor shower glittered above the trees behind us. We chased down voyeurs flying drones into the blaze and dressed them down for potentially interfering with frequencies used by firefighters, thinking of our friend in a hotshot crew currently working another fire nearby.
I began studying ecology before I studied Marx, but these two fields have grown together for me, informing and reinforcing each other. I loved and sought to understand systems—discovering the interaction between parts of a whole and drawing out the essence of the assemblage. Both these fields have given me a way to make sense of the place I was born and raised, its many systems, its multitude of components. California, and the Central Valley more so, feel self-contained, set apart from the systems that govern the rest of the West. Like the mythical Island of California that haunted colonial cartographers, the valley’s enclosing mountains carve away a space that does not belong to the rest of the country, that grows and dies back on a heartbeat of rain, development, and some of the world’s most advanced industrial agriculture. Each summer, tens of millions of acres and tens of thousands of workers’ bodies are beaten by the sun to produce the majority of our country’s food. We shuttle water from river to canal to pump to produce these fruits of this disfigured land.
The system functions, allocating and reallocating capital and goods from place to place, depositing it in scenic vistas, in millionaire mansions, in overflowing cities. And then, the smoke comes into the valley, reminding us that all these allocations have produced consequences that we must live with. California was the land that long ago we took under the knife and plough and asphalt. Today we are in the midst of a new transition. California is descending into a new normal before our eyes, a steadily worsening bruise, the hemophiliac forests pulsing yearly with flames and destruction. A network of disasters inflicted on the state throws these systems I want to understand back in my face. Understanding is not enough.
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