Guest Column: A Phoenix in Malibu

Letter to the Editor

What follows is a rebuttal I was invited to submit to the Los Angeles Times opinion section in response to Gustavo Arellano’s ignorant and inflammatory opinion piece of Nov. 14, 2018: “Revisiting Mike Davis’ case for letting Malibu burn.” The LA Times did not elect to run the rebuttal, so it was submitted to The Malibu Times, where it appears below.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you’re hell-bent on lecturing wildfire survivors with a victim-blaming social justice screed, have the decency to wait until the remains of their homes are no longer smoldering. Exhibiting both staggering callousness and an ideologue’s deep ignorance of facts, Gustavo Arellano’s Nov. 14 “Revisiting Mike Davis’ case for letting Malibu burn” demands a forceful redress. As a lifelong Malibu resident and survivor of numerous fires, allow me to set the record straight. 

Citing the widely discredited work of retrograde ‘60s radical and former UC Riverside professor Mike Davis—specifically his 1999 book “The Ecology of Fear”—Arellano asserts that “Southern Californians will never accept that fire is not only common here, but part of our ecology going back centuries. To spend millions saving homes in areas never meant for neighborhoods and power lines is not just folly, but a waste of public resources.” 

Precisely what areas are “meant for neighborhoods,” and by what standard, Arellano never makes clear. If his proposal is to ban human habitation in all locales subject to recurring natural disasters, there will be little room left on Planet Earth for anyone. New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, Mexico City, Tokyo, the entire Caribbean and most of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia would be off-limits long before Malibu. 

More specious is the assertion that fire is “part of our ecology.” Virtually every fire that has ravaged Malibu and Southern California over the past century has been caused by human activity, most recently failed or malfunctioning utility equipment. To suggest in one breath that human development is unnatural, while in the next asserting it’s part of the local ecology isn’t just illogical—it’s lazy. Whatever the ecological role of fire, it still requires ignition which, absent human activity, is unbelievably rare. According to the National Park Service, naturally occurring fires in the Santa Monica Mountains were previously a centennial event—less frequent than hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, floods or volcanic eruptions. 

Then there are the actual ecological impacts. It is estimated that the Woolsey Fire destroyed 88 percent of national parkland in the Santa Monica Mountains. A statement by the National Park Service warns that “too much fire can harm plant communities, reduce wildlife habitat and actually increase future fire risk.” The impact of excess sediment from recent rains is already evident in the city’s ecological crown jewel, the Malibu Lagoon. Data analyzed by the U.S. Geological Survey suggest that recent California wildfires equaled a year’s worth of carbon emissions for electricity generation.   

But Arellano’s rant really has nothing to do with fire or ecology. It’s about class warfare. 

“I’m infamous for suggesting that the broader public should not have to pay a cent to protect or rebuild mansions on sites that will inevitably burn every 20 or 25 years,” says Davis, pairing the falsehood of inevitability with the equally false TMZ image of Malibu as an enclave of wealthy estates. The truth is, Malibu’s 13,000 residents are mostly middle class people who live in modest family homes. Of the more than 1,000 homes destroyed in the Woolsey fire, more than 400 in Malibu alone, very few could rightfully be called mansions. They belonged to teachers, construction workers, ranchers, small farmers, local small businesspersons, public employees, two-income families with small children, elderly retirees and firemen. Many are my friends. They are not wealthy—and they are suffering. Because Malibu is a community of human beings, and not malignant social justice warriors, we look out for each other without regard to class or wealth. In the ashes of a family’s scorched memories, there are no heralds of status, race, gender, religion, political ideology, nationality or creed. There is only the dust of indiscriminate destruction. From that dust, human decency rises to the occasion and shows forth the love, compassion and essential humanity that makes our city strong. 

If this is our choice—a society where people look past their differences and bond for the good of a stronger community, versus  Arellano’s and Davis’ vision of perpetual class warfare where someone—presumably they—decides where and how people should live–then it’s an obvious choice. 

“Only you can prevent forest fires.” That was the wisdom Smokey Bear imbued in my generation. It taught us that responsibility mattered, that fatalism was laziness. There was no contradiction in what was good for humanity and good for nature. We could and should co-exist as stewards of our shared home. Malibu still embraces that ethos, and we share it with 15 million visitors every year. If Arellano and Davis care to take a break from lecturing others on what they think a community should look like, we would invite them to come to Malibu to see one in practice.