Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fire and class

I have just finished reading "Ecology of Fear - LA and the Imagination of Disaster" by Mike Davis. His first chapters are about the regular fires that devastate southern California. Indeed, some of the fires are identical to past catastrophic fires, such as in Malibu. But the point he makes so well is that there are strong class issues in how we deal with fire-fighting and in land use.

Fighting fires in rural areas is paid on a "whatever it takes" or an after the fact budget. All necessary resources are devoted to fighting fires, for instance, in the mountains above Malibu, where mostly millionaires live. Afterwards, they figure out how much it cost. And year after year, development is allowed in mountain areas known to be extremely prone to fires.

But the budgeting is the opposite in the poor areas of the cities, some only 20 miles from wealthy Malibu, such as Westlake, Mid-City and Hollywood tenements. In those areas, LA County sets a fixed budget in advance. Where there are lots of fire-prone shoddy apartment buildings, the fire department often cannot even get there in time to save lives. They rarely have time to do fire inspections, and follow up with landlords to make sure required improvements are made. The occasional inspection will find fire doors nailed shut and smoke alarms don't work, but the landlords rarely get forced to do what the law requires. As a result, when fires do break out, many people die horrible deaths.

Now, I am very sympathetic to the current victims of the fires raging across southern California. I know people who are evacuated, and I know people who are fighting the fires right now. So I am bringing up these issues to add to our sensitivity, not to take away from it. If it were up to me, firefighting budgets would be shared more equitably between the poor residents of Westlake and the wealthy folks in the hills above Malibu. And more importantly, I would declare vast areas to be no longer protected by heroic firefighting efforts, or insurance compensation after the fact. There are vast hilly areas that simply should not be allowed to be developed as they have been. We need to stop subsidizing their idiotic development, or periodic reconstruction.

+Orval Osborne


Alex Walker said...

Good points!

I have been doing some research on this question, too. Another point is that while the well-to-do are willing and eager to pay big bucks for big, beautiful houses on mountainsides, they also say "No New Taxes" for upgrading rural firefighting capabilities. In other words, on the question of spending "whatever is necessary" they are penny wise and pound foolish.

Lisa said...

Mike Davis is a treasure. He was just on KPFK radio, 90.7fm here in LA, talking about the fires.

You can listen to the archive at kpfk.org
Click on Audio Archives --then it is the Jon Weiner 4 oclock wednesday program for Oct. 24 (you have to wade through some fund drive stuff during the hour)

On a side note, I recall that Davis endorsed our Green Party's Denise Robb in her 2001 LA City Council run.

LA Greens