California’s growth machine fueled these disastrous wildfires

  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 from workplace.

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 telecommute.

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 top 10.

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 Central Valley.

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.

In truth, 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 high price.

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.

In the 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 home.

John Krist is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. He is a senior reporter at the Ventura Star in California.