The wildfires that gnawed their way through drought-crisped Southern California are on a pace to establish a record for acreage charred and for the dollar value of structures and belongings destroyed. Perhaps this is no great feat in a state where homes worth $250,000 five years ago are worth twice that today.
The monetary disaster tolls trumpeted in
newspaper headlines seldom are adjusted for inflation or
appreciation, and although the steadily rising tally conveys the
impression that civilization is under an escalating assault by the
forces of nature, it more accurately reflects a real-estate market
where demand exceeds supply.
The fires do illustrate
truths both obvious and subtle about life in California. The
obvious one, highlighted every time the state experiences a
sequence of destructive wildfires, is that building homes in
forests and on brush-covered hillsides is risky business. Sooner or
later, wind-driven flames will swoop through subdivision abutting
woods or chaparral and reduce it to ashes.
The more subtle
truth revealed by the destruction of more than 3,100 homes and the
deaths of 20 people is that California faces a dilemma as it tries
to house its residents.
It's a dilemma familiar to the
Western states. Population growth over the past decade has
penetrated beyond even the suburban fringe, to areas so remote from
historic urban cores that the word describing them best is exurban.
The numbers reflect the increasing popularity of life close to
scenic forests and rolling hillsides, a "lifestyle choice" made
easier by communications technologies that have severed residence
In California, growth has accelerated
notably in the counties of the Sierra Nevada foothills, driven by
retirees seeking to stretch their pension dollars in communities
where housing is still relatively affordable. The foothills also
lure entrepreneurs seeking scenic settings in which to set up
businesses, as well as traffic-weary workers happy to
Placer County, in the Mother Lode country
east of Sacramento, was the fastest-growing county in the state
last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, its population
increasing 5.3 percent from the year before. (The statewide rate
was 1.5 percent.) Four other foothills counties also were in the
But it ?s important also to look at the other
fastest-growing counties in the state. Four counties, all in the
flat Central Valley, were also in the top 10. Broaden the view to
encompass the 20 fastest-growing counties in the state, and the
list is almost evenly divided between those in the mountain
foothills, including those of Southern California, and those in the
Many of the structures threatened by
forest and brush fires are second homes, vacation homes, retirement
homes -- discretionary domiciles located according to aesthetic
dictates rather than need. But even more have been built in
harm’s way because California is running out of safe,
cost-effective places to build large numbers of houses.
Increasingly, the data suggest, building housing for
California’s relentlessly growing population means either
paving fertile farmland or risking wildfire.
there are not many other housing choices in this state. California
is basically a 400-mile-long bowl of rich farmland ringed by
mountains. To preserve the most productive agricultural land in the
world from urban sprawl, housing tracts must be built in places
less amenable to farming, and in California that means canyons,
ridges and boulder-strewn hillsides more suitable for chamise and
manzanita than for lettuce and tomatoes. But building in those
places, as Californians have just been reminded again, can carry a
The underlying reason California faces such a
dilemma -- one that will only intensify in coming years -- has
little to do with geography, land-use regulations, communications
technology or real estate prices.
At a fundamental level,
the spread of homes into fire-prone ecosystems and prime farmland
alike is driven by intractable public-policy challenges:
unsustainable human fertility and immigration.
1960s, that decade so many aging Californians remember as golden,
the state was home to fewer than 20 million people. It has added 15
million since then and is on a pace to add that many again in the
next two decades.
As long as more people move or are born
here each year than leave or die, California will continue to
consume its landscape. And more and more frequently, that landscape
will turn around and consume some of the people who call it