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Build in a Fire Plain, Get What You Deserve

Photo Source Robert Couse-Baker | CC BY 2.0

My girlfriend and I are trying to figure out a place to live, build a cabin. Somewhere in our native country probably, in the Catskill Mountains of New York, the land we know best, beloved to us. We live in one of the fastest-depopulating counties in New York State, and thank god for that.

First step in cabin-building: understand the land, know its history, and try to predict where it’s headed in the age of climate change. Don’t build in a deluge-prone valley. Many naifs before us have done so, not expecting two-hundred-year floods could flourish in our lifetime. Witness the hurricane-rains that swept through the Catskills in recent years, wiping out homes, storefronts, villages.

Second, related to the cognizance of floods: read the average hydrology, walk the streams, look for the springs, know where the water flows, and where it likely won’t.   We will need good water in the future, when it becomes scarce. We don’t want too much water but just enough for sustenance now and in the long term for subsistence.

Third: recognize that some ecosystems are fire-dependent, and will always be so. The deciduous forests of the northeast, humid, rain-tossed, do not fall under this rubric.

Fourth: consider that there are stupid popular places to set up shop that are incentivized by being alluring but also cheap, because no one – not the buyer, not the seller, not anyone in the deal – is thinking about the long term.

In arid California, where stupid cheapness has driven development, fire has been the norm for tens of thousands of years. Humanity has built its prodigious idiot outposts in fire plains during a period of anomalous rainfall in the 20th century, and humanity now pays the price.

Scratch that: It is not humanity which has wrought disaster. The disaster is the product of the lunatic idea that we can build anywhere and everyplace, into all ecosystems. In California the specific expression of this lunatic idea is the real-estate industrial complex, a tiny segment of capitalist humanity. For millions of bright-eyed homeowners, told they could get a deal regardless of the history of the land, the lunatic idea has the appearance of normalcy.

The destruction wrought in California from fire is in fact a return to an ancient pattern of scorching of the land now exacerbated by climate warming.

Prehistoric records show that huge stretches of the American West burned annually at rates far higher than anything Euro-American settlers have experienced in their short time on the continent. Which is to say that the Euro-Americans enjoyed a climatic suppression of fire.

Now with collective agony, drawing together, feeling for our fellows in the far reaches of the fire plain but not understanding a goddamn thing about what’s really driving the fires of California, we cry like children. How could this have happened? Why is this happening to us?

Well, it’s happening because we have been stupid and arrogant and mindless, self-regarding and weak and fickle, vain and cheap and greedy.

California, overdeveloped, overrun with people, saturated with sprawl, will burn.  I’ve always hated the human infrastructure in California, and so I can’t say this is a bad thing.

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Christopher Ketcham is the author of the forthcoming “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West,” out next year from Viking-Penguin.  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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