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A Note on the Brush Fires in Camarillo

Why are we still building homes in areas we know the fires will return to? Pacific Standard contributing editor Marc Herman, who grew up just outside of Camarillo, where a wildfire is currently raging out of control, reflects on lessons not learned.
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I grew up not far from the part of Southern California that's burning out of control right now. Camarillo is about 20 miles away from my mom's place. Environmentally it's the same place, and with a good wind a fire like the current one will jump 20 miles faster than you can get from your living room to your car. A chaparral fire is something to see, if you haven't. I saw a fire catch a cow once. Sure, a cow's not such a fast creature. But they have self preservation instincts like anyone would. Cows used to graze on a sloping hill covered in live oaks above a vacant bit of meadow we called "the golf course." A half-built subdivision abandoned by its investors during the '70s recession, our neighborhood was a little group of houses on a hill, surrounded by grassland in three directions and the 101 Freeway on the fourth. The hill where the cows grazed was a few hundred yards across a little canyon from our backyard that was to have been a golf course, but we'd turned into a place to jump minibikes instead.

One minute the fire was on one side of the hill, and a few dozen cows took off running. The next minute the oxygen must have gotten sucked backward, because the last cow just stopped running and fell over. The black part of the fire got to it more or less immediately. The rest of the herd just kept tearing off west, toward the freeway, three gullies away. If they made the ridge they'd be fine, because the fire would turn sharply and head up. (If you've read Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, you've read a description of people doing what the cows did—making for a ridge while chased by a blow-up. It doesn't end well.)

I suspect this is a reason valley kids adopted "awesome" as a throwaway term: our elementary school teachers were always saying it.

As an adult you look back and ask yourself, Why hadn't we been evacuated by then, like they're pulling people out of Camarillo now? Why was a child standing there, that close to the blaze? The reason is that the fires also outrun emergency services. By late-'70s communications standards, the Santa Ana winds could carry the embers faster than the county search-and-rescue teams could map the weather's shifts. Here's the thing: We were from New Jersey. The idea that a modern American city could still be so in thrall to natural forces was very hard to believe. They hadn't really built our end of L.A. out much at the time, and these insane collisions between land development finance and Coastal Pacific biology weren't a well-understood thing. What Mike Davis called, in The Case for Letting Malibu Burn, "the infernal season" wasn't a problem with a data set. We were, it appears, the first to face these particular flames.

Between my family's arrival in 1974 and this week, I'd say we had a major blow-up every three or four years. As a kid it's fabulous. At Lupin Hill Elementary they would often have smog alerts, which kept us inside, but never fire alerts. We'd go out to recess and find the playground looking like one of those Cold War-era TV movies set after nuclear wars. Black ash would rain for days. The sky in a close brush fire turns precisely the shade of crimson it did in Ralph Bakshi cartoons, which were usually about the apocalypse.

I suspect this is a reason valley kids adopted "awesome" as a throwaway term: our elementary school teachers were always saying it. A lot of them were transplants from New Jersey and the Midwest too, and, like our parents, had not realized what they'd gotten themselves into.

You need to spend a season in that part of the country before it occurs to you that buying a paper house, on the top of a hill, covered in explosive grass, is a bad investment. Sure, you know fire burns up. But you're 3,000 miles from home, which was made of cement, and you somehow don't put two and two together. Reality sets in a few years later, after two or three fire seasons. Over the course of a 30-year loan, you're going have to get through at least a couple of dozen serious flare-ups.

That was before they'd really built up the place. I graduated high school in 1987, and left. The next year, the "unincorporated area" I grew up in at the very edge of Los Angeles changed its status. The area declared city-hood, the City of Calabasas.

The change in the physical make-up of the area was whiplash fast. All of the vacant county land went over to a new city development agency, which sold it to developers of high-end residential property. Before the '90s were over, most of the land that we'd watched burning from our backyard was covered in McMansions. Expensive ones. Calabasas is known today, appropriately, as a place where the national id has taken up residence. A lot of reality television comes out of there. The Kardashians live there (or "live," I suppose). The reform school where the kids who huffed highlighters would spend a semester got bought by Will Smith, who turned it into a Scientology school. Some new movie is coming out about a gang of Calabasas kids who sneak into celebrities' houses and steal their clothes. That sums up the place's current culture quite nicely.

The fires, of course, see all of this as fuel. Our old street remains roughly what it was: the lady next door was a cashier at Robinson's department store, and the family whose son I played with are retired general contractors. My mom taught first grade. Down from them was an airline flight attendant and a guy who illustrated Pink Panther cartoons, who was the big Hollywood guy in the neighborhood, and had a nice car. But the hill where the cows lived is now a development called, in a bizarre Ibero-Gallic mash-up, "Mont Calabasas." ("Squash Hill?") The houses are seven-figure. When it opened, my mother and I went up there and poked our noses into one of the models. A developer was upselling a couple, 30 years after one just like him had upsold my parents ("The schools!"). Being sort of a dick about it, I interrupted to say I was from the area and had seen that very hill burn at least 20 times, and told the cow story. "Don't worry," the guy told the couple. "Each house has a moat."

A moat! The early reports say it was a cigarette that caused the fires in Camarillo today. The "proximate cause," as the after-event reports always say, probably was something like that. And you can defend against that: fire bombing planes, insurance, moats.

But when the fire burns down to the sea—we can't really control them, we need the Pacific to snuff them—the real cause will turn out to be the same thing it was 40 years ago. They've never stopped building in my old neighborhood. During the year or three between fires, we'd watch them survey. We'd ask, Why are they building over there? My sister's best school friend was a local firefighter's daughter, and he'd saved the neighborhood I don't know how many times, driving a bulldozer straight up the cow hill to cut breaks. He'd just shrug.

It's hard to avoid the reality by now. California, and specifically the rural fire department and the cops, have been subsidizing my family for four decades. The house that I grew up in should never have been built. The equity my mother will someday enjoy—our new Hollywood neighbors are driving up prices—is not worth the life of a firefighter. The quarterly return for mortgage broker Countrywide, which happens to be headquartered in Calabasas, isn't either. The rube who bought 10 years after we did, and happens to find the flames at his door today, doesn't deserve it. A child in Camarillo shouldn't be having roughly the same experience I did four decades earlier, just a few exits down the freeway.

Forty years on, you can still get the market to fund construction of paper houses on tinderbox hills, and still get mortgages to buy them, and policies to ensure them, and tax money to defend them, providing ballast to these billion-dollar investments. But those are people's homes, and those are real people on the fire lines and in the helicopters, bouncing through flaming clouds. I'd like to think they are defending my mother. It feels like they're defending Countrywide, et al. This is unsustainable.

Also painful. It is wrong to create homes where people will live and grow, knowing the whole time they should be left to burn down, never rebuilt, and written off in the future as mistakes. Honest ones, once. Now—not so much.