After the Fires in Malibu

The public makes the Malibu Canyon neighborhoods possible. Wouldn't it be lovely if the city didn't use the fires the public pays for as an excuse to restrict public use of the public lands in this beautiful place.
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I was in Israel during the terrible October fires back home in L.A.,
and in North Carolina the week after, and in both places, my friends
and family demanded to know why we continue to allow "the rich people
in Malibu" to live in places where fires are inevitable. Never mind that there
were a lot of other fires in the region: I replied that a fire in
Malibu is not necessarily a morality play about rich people or about
Malibu.

And yet, the Malibu City Council's recent vote to ban public
camping
in some of the state parklands in Malibu--the first official
measure since the fires that the city has passed to regulate or
prevent future fires--is as infuriating as it is unlikely to prevent
future fires.

Camping has accounted for just 3% of all wildfires in all of
California--even fewer than lightning--and legal camping accounts for
even fewer. What does cause fires?

Power tools and equipment, then
vehicles, and then debris-burning, are the known leading causes--in
other words, the normal and daily use and habitation of these mountain
canyons.

Yet here are some measures the city of Malibu has not rushed to vote
on. It has not proposed to regulate development in any way--to restrict
development, for example, on ridge tops and other especially dangerous
sites. It has not proposed to ensure that building materials are more
fire resistant. It has not voted to ban or restrict the planting of
palms, pines, and other highly flammable landscaping. Not has it voted
to ban the residents' own outdoor barbecue grills, fire pits, candles,
or torches.

Fires will happen in this beautiful place. They are inevitable. The
extensive development causes many of the fires, and makes all of them
a lot more dangerous. I don't think that people shouldn't be allowed
to live in the canyons. But the larger public pays the bulk of the
costs to protect the homes. The public, in other words, makes the
canyon neighborhoods possible. So wouldn't it be lovely if the city
didn't use the fires the public pays for as an excuse to restrict
public use of the public lands in this beautiful place.

The ban on camping in the mountains, in fact, reminds me of nothing so
much as the never-ending battles on the Malibu coast--where residents
have consistently argued that public beach access to the public
beaches will destroy the fragile coastal environment. Of course,
beachcombing (by humans other than the homeowners themselves) is
hardly zero-impact. But neither is the 20 miles of dense private
development that's right on the beaches.

I don't think that people shouldn't be allowed to live right on the
beaches. But just as in the canyons, the private development is
primarily responsible for the environmental woes. And that development
could be a lot more responsible. Indeed, the city and beachfront
residents are notorious for battling regulations that the California
Coastal Commission uses to protect the coast. And Malibu boasts some
of the state's dirtiest beaches,

due primarily to the city's
persistent failure to control stormwater runoff--which is aggravated by
a large number of leaking septic tanks, as well as by many hundreds of
illegal drainage pipes.

So wouldn't it be lovely if beachfront residents didn't use the
specter of coastal pollution, for which the city is in large part
responsible, to block public access to public lands. Wouldn't it be
lovely if this city would battle instead for more rigorous stormwater
control--and for more creative and effective fire regulation--in
Malibu itself. Since when the city rushes to block the use of public
lands after a fire--rather than to seriously grapple with the
environmental troubles that the city itself creates--well, then a fire
in Malibu can so easily become a morality play about Malibu.

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