The Angeles National Forest is in flames. Smoke clouds are billowing across northern LA County. Thousands are forced to leave their homes as fires blaze through residential areas. Wildfire season has once again come to Los Angeles.
The devastation these flames bring is not news to any long-time resident of LA County. As a native of Los Angeles, reading about deaths and destruction have become something to expect with the arrival of the heat of the summer. We barbecue in our backyards, tan on our beaches, and swim in our pools, all while wildfires devour entire neighborhoods and leave hundreds homeless. As the flames climbing the sides of the hills rise, so too does our apparent collective apathy to the crisis. It’s almost kafkaesque.
Each year, the fires seem to only grow worse. In 2019, fires destroyed 732 structures and killed 3 people. In 2018, a single fire killed 86. This year so far, more than 1.6 million acres have burned in California. The Lake fire alone has already burned for six days, consuming more than 31,000 acres and is still not contained. Evacuation orders in West Covina and Azusa joined in forcing more and more people from their homes. Our friends in the Bay Area have been overwhelmed with smoke.
While yearly forest fires and their effects are accepted as a new normal now, it cannot be stated enough that their impact is greatly magnified by human behavior. And no, our individual responses to the climate crisis that fuels these flames–our Priuses and Teslas, solar panels, native gardens and locally-grown kale– are not nearly enough to rectify the rapid deterioration of our natural environment and the damage we continue to do to it. The small steps are worthy efforts, but faced with mounting death and destruction, our next steps have to be massive in rethinking what role humans have in preventing tragedy amid our fire season.
The deadly consequences of these natural disasters are heightened by unnatural planning efforts and urban sprawl reaching into high-risk areas, where fires are more likely to occur and do significant damage. The continued habitation of these spaces make their residents vulnerable to the destruction wrought by forest fires, and in order to fix it, we must completely rethink how we build and expand our cities.
It may sound radical, but the truth is that we no longer have time to write off the radical. The fact that people are dying, that our planet is growing sicker, and that our homes are being burned to the ground gives more than ample cause for a reevaluation of our housing practices.
Sprawl into these fire-prone regions destroys natural spaces and risks human life and property unnecessarily. On top of it all, it forces people to commute longer distances, pumping more and more toxic gases into the atmosphere, which in turn worses climate change. It’s a recipe for ever greater fire risk. We should be concentrating on plans to increase density in areas that could support more housing in a safe, sustainable way.
And we can’t stop there. The fact is that many communities already exist in high-risk areas. The evacuations that are a yearly occurrence are evidence enough that too many people live within reach of deadly wildfires. So, in areas that local leaders determine cannot be adequately protected from fires, we must consider a policy of managed retreatAnd under a plan like ours, there would be abundant housing available for those displaced.
By withdrawing from more vulnerable areas, we would begin the work of protecting Angelenos from the climate crisis and its magnification of forest fire damage. Paired with a moratorium on the further expansion of housing developments into higher risk fire areas, and we would be able to avert tragedy further.
Action needs to be taken swiftly to address both the risks posed by these fires and the housing practices that have needlessly placed people in immediate danger. Forest fires and the continued habitation of humans in spaces that are highly vulnerable to these disasters poses a heightened risk this year. In addition to the harm posed by the actual fires, their smoke output can make human lungs more vulnerable to infections and irritations, including SARS-CoV-2, which in turn can cause COVID-19, further harming residents in these areas.
Forest fires are an environmental issue, a housing issue, and a public health issue, and for those reasons and more, we need to act, and soon. That hundreds of homes will be destroyed and dozens of human lives extinguished this year is not a question of if, but of when. We have the ability to halt further tragedy and reduce the risks posed by these fires, but only if we completely reevaluate our housing practices, and commit to protecting our planet and our neighbors.