The flames of the Station fire will be blamed for the floods that may follow in the denuded San Gabriel Mountains. But let’s place the blame where it belongs, on land development, acquiescent local officials, and a tax structure that subsidizes hillside building.
I was interested to read the Los Angeles Times story on the U.S. Geological Survey’s warning that winter rains may produce huge mudslides and floods in communities just below the San Gabriel Mountain areas hit by the huge blaze.
In 2004, fellow journalist Emmett Berg and I studied this area for the Center for Governmental Studies and wrote a report entitled “Losing Ground: How Taxpayer Subsidies and Balkanized Governance Prop Up Homebuilding in Wildfire and Flood Zones.” We did it after major loss of life and homes in the 2003 wildfires and floods.
Since there was no big fire or flood in 2004, our report was pretty well ignored, as we had predicted: “When fires and floods kill people and destroy residential areas, the disasters bring out heavy television news broadcast and print media coverage. But once the danger has past, the media, always in search of something new, shows little interest in examining systemic or policy-based causes. Those involved in dry and fire-free year discussions of potential danger are treated like Henny Penny, warning the sky is falling.”
Our report showed how taxpayers all over Los Angeles County—from rich to poor—subsidize the high cost of fire protection for subdivisions built on the edge of Angeles National Forest and just below it. In addition, we reported how state forest fire personnel, financed by state revenues are now “suburban firefighters, battling house by house to save homes in suburban areas.”
These subdivisions shouldn’t have been built. But now they are there, let local homeowners and government pay for firefighting costs in areas around and below the forest. Why should working people in Pico Rivera pay for firefighting in affluent and high-risk neighborhoods in the San Gabriel Mountain foothills?
And why should a number of city councils influenced by developers make land use decisions on subdivisions that have regional impact? We proposed regional governing bodies to deal with issues such as land use and taxation.
These are issues for policy wonks. But nobody pays attention to them or their warnings. All the attention is on images of tankers and ground crews fighting fires or homeowners fleeing from mud and rocks roaring down their narrow hillside streets.
Land development continues, regardless of the cost. It is the story of L.A., now and for all time.