The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Sunday, November 02, 2003

In the aftermath of the vast destructive fires in San Diego and San Bernardino, there has been a lot of talk about how the residents of these areas are idiots for building their houses in fire-prone habitats. I present a sample of such opinion.

First, from today's San Jose Mercury News letters page:

Though the fires are still burning in Southern California, it's not too soon to point fingers at the causes of this human and environmental tragedy.

Aside from the alleged arsonists and a careless hunter who may have started some of the wild fires, public officials and real estate developers share a major portion of the blame. It's obvious that there are lands in California wholly unsuited for homes and other infrastructure. Building homes on the edges of forest lands is foolish. Building so-called dream homes in the middle of those forests is incomprehensible.

Why is it allowed to happen? Why aren't there any restrictions on development within and adjacent to fire-prone areas?

Time and time again fires ravage California communities. When the fires are out and the embers cool, rebuilding takes place, setting the stage for yet another tragedy. When will we ever learn?

Anthony Stegman
San Jose

Environmentalists are commonly criticized for advocating for stronger controls on growth and for fighting diligently to limit sprawl. Well, the disaster taking place in Southern California would not be occurring if citizens and their elected representatives would stop subsidizing sprawl into areas that simply should not be developed.


California is destined to suffer these and even worse disasters in the future unless we all take the questions of unlimited growth and sprawl much more seriously.

David Drake
Ben Lomond

(Ben Lomond, for those of you who don't know Northern California geography, is a small town in the hills above Santa Cruz -- a heavily forested region.)

We all feel bad for the people in Southern California who have lost their homes and more importantly the families of those who have lost their lives in the terrible fires.

I know it is great to look out over all of the beautiful forests, but you have to be a moron to build a house right in the middle of a forest. I see many of the people whose houses have burned down are vowing to rebuild in the same spot with the insurance money they are going to collect.

Guess what will happen to your own homeowners' insurance premium because of these burned-down houses. It is surely going up so these people can have million-dollar houses in the middle of a forest.

Jim Carlisle

A few days ago the Merc ran an op-ed by Frances Dinkelspiel:

We manage to deny danger . . . for awhile
By Frances Dinkelspiel


It's been more than 12 years since my home burned in the Oakland Hills fire, and while I've rebuilt my life and cluttered my house with too many things, I still haven't completely relaxed. I live with a permanent edge of tension, an awareness of disaster much keener than before. In the fall, I fear fire. During the rest of the year, I am wary of earthquakes.

Built on disaster

I was born in San Francisco and am a fifth-generation Californian, but it was only after the fire that I realized this state is built on disaster. San Francisco has been engulfed in flames seven times since the Gold Rush. Parts of Berkeley and Oakland have burned twice; Mill Valley has burned once. Numerous other communities have also been lost to earthquakes.


Of course the answer is not to build on the edge of wilderness. No one should be living in houses tucked among forests, on top of winding, inaccessible roads. There should be a clean edge between city and country, a defensible line to prevent fires of this magnitude.

But just as those Midwesterners who refuse to move from the flood-prone Mississippi and who instead build levees and dikes to keep back the waters, we Californians won't do what makes sense, but what makes us happy. And that means living in the hills, tucked among the trees, in areas that are not fire-safe, but are beautiful.

The state's inhabitants have always looked at the land as something to conquer, something to subjugate to man's will. We have diverted rivers, denuded mountains of their trees and sprayed jets of water into hills to uncover hidden gold. There's no reason to think that this aspect of our nature will change any time soon.


It's something residents of California have to accept. We manage to deny it for years at a time, but then disaster erupts again, just as it has in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. We watch helplessly as the flames burn and destroy, and feel despair for those who have died. We shouldn't be surprised. Natural forces are the true masters of the state.

The letters I quoted were criticisms of others' behavior. Dinkelspiel's essay by contrast is a peculiar type of self-criticism. The author pretends to criticize herself, but really asserts her superiority by criticizing all mankind. Such works vary with the fashion of the times. The 19th century version of Dinkelspiel would have told us that we were doomed because we sin, and that God is the master of our fates. Now Gaia has supplanted Yahweh, and Dinkelspiel indicts us for offending Mother Earth.

And yet all the people I have quoted are wildly overstating the danger that wildfires present to Californians. Twelve years ago, a fire in the Oakland hills burned about a thousand homes. The Southern California fires have burned a few thousand homes. California has more than thirty million people. Let us say that there are 100,000 homes in areas of "high fire danger". If each home had an average lifespan of 100 years, then 1000 homes would wear out every year and need to be replaced.

Dinkelspiel goes even further off the deep end by listing every natural disaster that has ever occurred in the Golden State. "San Francisco has been engulfed in flames seven times since the Gold Rush" is a laughable misrepresentation of the historical record, as the last major conflagration in that city occurred, oh, 97 years ago. Dinkelspiel also invokes the spectre of earthquakes. Again, when the cold facts are viewed, the danger of earthquakes is negligible. Major earthquakes occur once every decade or so. A few dozen people die. Some small proportion of property is damaged (of course, because the state is so wealthy, even a tiny fraction can run into the billions of dollars). A fraction of one metropolitan area's commuters are inconvenienced until roads are repaired. Easterners have a smug attitude about the foolish Californians' propensity to live where the ground shakes. But it is likely that a New England winter would cause us more hardship and inconvenience than the amortized damage of earthquakes. Again, run the numbers: Given a population of 30 million, four hundred thousand people die every year and some one hundred thousand dwellings need to be replaced.

Dinkelspiel's essay is even weirder when you consider that it is not just a criticism of human beings, but of all living things. All animals subjugate their environment to their will to the extent that it is possible for them to do so. All living things inhabit areas that are potentially dangerous but also sustain life. (I doubt that a fox or deer would enjoy being transported from the San Bernardino forests to the Mojave desert, the considerably fewer number of fires in the latter area notwithstanding.)

When you think about it, Dinkelspiel's argument is that a living thing should choose only those habitats that can remain static for all eternity. What a bizarre misunderstanding of the dynamism of nature!

* * * * * *

It is interesting to read Jim Carlisle's complaint about the effect of the fires on insurance customers: Guess what will happen to your own homeowners' insurance premium because of these burned-down houses. It is surely going up so these people can have million-dollar houses in the middle of a forest. It's obvious that Carlisle, like so many people, have no conception of the nature and purpose of an insurance agency.

If insurers were allowed to do their job, then the effect of these fires on you and me would be absolutely nothing. The function of an insurance agency is to calculate and assess risk, and the risk of a non-forest-inhabiting policyholder has not changed in the slightest. It is the premiums of the people who live in dangerous areas that should sharply increase. But of course that would conflict with the bleeding-heart belief that insurance companies should act as a welfare organization. As Matt Welch noted in last week's Hit and Run:

... natural disasters and bad public policy go together like drought and fire. There will be plenty of government actions to second-guess in the wake of what is being called the worst inferno in modern California history; near the top of my list is the 1968 state law that specifically orders insurance companies to pool together and offer homeowner policies to people who live in high-risk brush fire zones, a non-market last resort enjoyed by 20,000 people, most of whom live in the foothills of Southern California.



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