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Urban Historian Mike Davis Says Building In Malibu Will Never Be A Good Idea


Make your home in Malibu, and you eventually will face the flames. That's an early line from urban historian Mike Davis' essay "The Case For Letting Malibu Burn." That's from his 1995 book, "Ecology Of Fear." Some 20 years later, the Woolsey Fire has destroyed at least 1,500 structures in Malibu and scorched nearly 100,000 acres. People have already said they'll rebuild, and that's not surprising to Davis - the fire or the rebuilding. He joins us to talk about lessons he's learned from studying the history of fire in the region. Mike Davis, welcome to the program.

MIKE DAVIS: Thank you.

CORNISH: Now, you write that fire has shaped the coast of California for generations. What is it about Malibu in particular that makes it susceptible to wildfires every few years?

DAVIS: Well, they're almost perfect fires along the oceanfront of the Santa Monica Mountains because the deep canyons align exactly with the prevailing Santa Ana winds that occur every autumn. And the mixture of coastal sage and chaparral inland tends to burn. So Malibu's had nine major fires since the 1950s. In fact, during the 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission studied Malibu fire to understand what a firestorm in case of nuclear war would look like. So Malibu has always been a paradigm of perfect fires.

CORNISH: You talk about this idea that people should essentially not rebuild in these areas. Couldn't one say the same thing about other cities that face natural disasters - right? - if you think about hurricanes and coastal areas? There's always something.

DAVIS: Of course. I mean, there's been several million homes built in the last quarter-century in first-class hurricane counties, many of them locations that never should have been built in the first place. The only exception to all this constantly, you know, rebuilding or developing new housing in areas of high hazard - the only exception to this is in some instances the federal flood insurance program has made communities retreat from the fire point. They've actually abandoned some small towns and scattered dwellings.

CORNISH: So help us understand what drives development in these fire-prone areas. When you think of maybe the top three factors that kind of align against any rethinking of this culture, what are they?

DAVIS: Well, in the first place, it's the overwhelming desire to have picturesque view lots and oceanfront property along the coasts. In the case of communities like Paradise, it's because it's only affordable housing. Land use planning, the regulation of growth in wildlands on a state level, was defeated back in the 1970s when Jerry Brown was governor the first time. And finally, we, in effect, the general public, subsidizes people to rebuild by providing extravagant level of fire protection that will cost Californians probably a billion dollars this year, as well as cross subsidization of fire insurance where all homeowners essentially help pay for the fire insurance in areas that burn so often.

CORNISH: So what have you learned from studying past Malibu fires that people can use now?

DAVIS: Well, I'm afraid that knowledge is not really useful. One - there is such a consensus about rebuilding. People in Malibu understand the frequency of fire, but the idea that you can protect structures and lives - yes, brush clearance makes sense. Yes, home design should be more fireproof. But at the end of the day, what these super fires show is that's not enough and never will be enough. It's absolutely necessary to acknowledge the power of nature and the changing power of nature in these circumstances.

CORNISH: Mike Davis is the author of the book "Ecology Of Fear." He's a professor emeritus at UC Riverside. Thank you for speaking with us.

DAVIS: Of course, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.