California’s Fires Prove the American Dream Is Flammable

California’s Fires Prove the American Dream Is Flammable

California’s Fires Prove the American Dream Is Flammable

If we want to keep cities safe in the face of climate change, we need to seriously question the ideal of private homeownership.


This fall, California residents awakened to a new reality of inconvenience and terror. In early October, the utility companies Pacific Gas and Electric, San Diego Gas and Electric, and Southern California Edison all announced precautionary power shutoffs for thousands of customers, prompted by especially hot, dry conditions and forecasts for strong winds.

Just days after the first announcement, a fire broke out in Los Angeles. The Saddleridge Fire burned through almost 9,000 acres in the northern San Fernando Valley, around the hillside neighborhoods of Sylmar, Granada Hills, and Porter Ranch. One person died; 88 structures were damaged, and 19 were destroyed. Although the cause of the fire has not been determined, initial reports pointed to SoCal Edison transmission lines. Then, in spite of the shutoffs in other parts of the state, the massive Kincade Fire broke out in Sonoma County two weeks later, consuming nearly 78,000 acres and destroying 374 structures. A PG&E transmission tower was noted as a possible cause.

Fires have dominated the California news cycle in the past, as the dry season dragged into October and the Santa Ana winds started to blow. But this fall seemed different. In the wake of November 2018’s Camp Fire—the deadliest, most destructive fire in the state’s history, killing at least 85 people—we entered what might be considered a year of climate change awareness, bookended by the news that we may only have a dozen years to contain global warming and the Global Climate Strike this September. News accounts about wildfires have taken on even greater urgency. As many commentators have noted, the changing climate and ongoing deficiencies in the regulation and management of utility companies present a new, dreadful normal.

Some have noted that rising housing costs have also pushed new development further into less populated, less protected areas. Elected officials and researchers have debated the costs and time lines of much-needed infrastructural upgrades. And there is now a campaign for a state buyout of PG&E, already in bankruptcy because of its liability for previous fires.

But few are discussing one key aspect of California’s crisis: Yes, climate change intensifies the fires—but the ways in which we plan and develop our cities makes them even more destructive. The growth of urban regions in the second half of the 20th century has been dominated by economic development, aspirations of home ownership, and belief in the importance of private property. Cities and towns have expanded in increasingly disperse fashion, fueled by cheap energy. Infrastructure has been built, deregulated, and privatized, extending services in more and more tenuous and fragile ways. Our ideas about what success, comfort, home, and family should look like are so ingrained, it’s hard for us to see how they could be reinforcing the very conditions that put us at such grave risk.

To engage with these challenges, we need to do more than upgrade the powerlines or stage a public takeover of the utility companies. We need to rethink the ideologies that govern how we plan and build our homes.

From the early years of this continent-wide republic, federal policies such as the Homestead Act of 1862 rewarded private home ownership and pioneering activities such as making individual claims on land. Programs such as the “Better Homes in America” campaign in the 1920s attempted to make private property ownership a moral issue in addition to a financial one, linking home ownership with upstanding citizenship and family values, as a presumed bulwark against communist class collectivity.

These views and policies were cemented across the landscape by the financial innovations of the New Deal—including Federal Housing Administration–backed mortgage insurance—and the expansion of the federal highway system. Not everyone benefited from these changes. In and around so many cities, new building technologies, racist lending practices, systemic criminalization of the poor and people of color, and uneven patterns of “creative destruction”—that is, cycles of investment and disinvestment across city centers and suburbs—favored one kind of residential development: single-family houses for those deemed qualified, which typically meant white, middle-class families. Expansionist, individualist, and exclusionary patterns of housing became synonymous with freedom and self-sufficiency.

This ideological geography keeps playing out in devastating and contradictory ways. Climate change generally impacts the poorest and most vulnerable people first. In Los Angeles, we see the impacts of increased heat on homeless people, the elderly, and the very young; in New York, some public housing residents must still rely on temporary boilers seven years after Hurricane Sandy. But in the Saddleridge Fire, the homes at risk were not those of residents pushed beyond the urban fringe.

Porter Ranch and adjacent Granada Hills North, at the foothills of the Santa Susana mountains, are among the more recent settlements in a wave of suburbanization that picked up pace across the Los Angeles region after World War II. It first spread through the San Fernando Valley plains, and then, in increasingly exclusive developments, up the hillsides. Porter Ranch—infamous for having been exposed to a methane gas leak from a nearby natural gas storage facility four years ago—counts among the wealthiest, and least dense, neighborhoods in LA. Its built environment, comprising large, single-family houses along wide, softly curved streets, represents the height of an idealized American dream.

These dreamy yet very real incursions into the wildlife-urban interface result in somewhat absurd conditions. During a visit to Porter Ranch in early December, a stretch limousine sat in a house’s driveway at the end of a street that abuts the gas storage hills, the separation of domestic affluence and chemical wildness demarcated only by a short wall. Nearby, Sesnon Boulevard, a three-lane road that’s wide enough for six, ends abruptly in a stub at Aliso Canyon—then picks up again on the other side, where a more recent housing development called Cagney Ranch Estates (after the actor James Cagney’s ranch) extends from the dead-ended road along the canyon. In the late 1980s, Porter Ranch residents protested the construction of a bridge that would have linked their side of Sesnon Boulevard to the other, believing easier access to their neighborhood would bring crime and drag racers. In October, the Saddleridge Fire raged through this area, licking the backs of many houses and completely destroying some. The severed boulevard left Cagney Ranch Estates residents with only one official means of evacuation: a long drive right through the least inhabited, more fire-susceptible part of the area.

The homes of LA’s most privileged residents may be vulnerable to fire. But the impacts are not equally endured. During the Getty Fire—which broke out in late October and threatened the wealthy Brentwood Heights neighborhood—the Los Angeles Times reported on the plight of residents’ housekeepers and gardeners who had not been told that they shouldn’t come in to work, and who were left stranded in the smoky hillsides by street closures and detoured buses. The art in the Getty Museum was kept safer than the workers.

This inequity is also seen in the more sparsely inhabited parts of California, where very large fires tear through smaller towns that lack natural or human-built barriers against the onslaught, as well as the resources to protect themselves. (In many cases, this would be impossible anyway.) Paradise, California, is a largely working-class town with roots in mining and railroad construction; it expanded as newer residents took advantage of the region’s natural beauty and its proximity to the agricultural economic centers of the north Central Valley. It was ravaged by last year’s Camp Fire, which claimed over 11,000 homes.

The valorizing of homeownership and property rights results not only in increased exposure to climate-change-fueled fires, but also in our inadequate responses to them. In a suite of 22 fire-related bills signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom this fall, only two are directed at the physical conditions of settlements. Both restrict their legislation to the “hardening” of individual structures, such as fire-resistant roofing and siding, creating “defensible space” around one’s house, and some measures around community preparedness. There is hardly any emphasis on more collective action or larger-scale spatial planning, except for reassessing traffic flow for evacuations. Any suggestion that we might discourage rebuilding on privately owned land is promptly tamped down.

Discussions have surged over the last two years about the need for coastal communities to retreat further inland as they face rising sea levels—a seemingly more imminent threat. How should we broach the more uncertain risks of fire?

Our homes and neighborhoods are suffused with memories and meaning. Scenes of scorched and charred hillsides and homes tear at us in visceral ways. And so, after each devastating blaze, communities and officials pledge to rebuild. After such trauma, it seems only reasonable, kind, and dutiful to support these efforts—even if they may be perpetuating the cycle. This is not an indictment of individual homeowners, who are only trying to find stability through the sole system that has been offered to them.

The vulnerable affluence of Porter Ranch and Granada Hills, and the exposed tranquility of Paradise, are two representations of the same westward-expansionist frontier thinking that underlies modern life in the United States. This is the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal, transmuted through the urban, petrochemical century. Cheap energy—both the monetary price of subsidized gasoline and the hidden costs of fossil fuels—and the idealization of individual homeownership have created the scorching landscapes we face today. Cheap energy is untenable in the face of climate emergency. And individual homeownership should be seriously questioned.

There are other options, in theory: Rental housing serves many cities around the world well, although we should be wary about perpetuating the power of landlords in this country without delinking ownership from wealth creation. There has been resurgent interest in government-planned and -built public housing, including recent legislation proposed by Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders that would shore up and invigorate the federal system. The Green New Deal invokes prior eras of government intervention, lending itself to revitalized thinking about the social value of public goods.

There is also the potential for new or reconstituted forms of cooperative housing. In New York City, cooperative apartment buildings have long been a norm. These kinds of ownership structures have often been deprioritized in federal housing subsidy programs and discouraged by standard lending practices in many regions. It is, by regulatory design, hard to do anything not consistent with the status quo. Community land trusts—nonprofit, community-based land ownership, with housing units that are typically leased in perpetual affordable status—are a promising model. There are now more than 240 community land trusts in the United States, and they are increasingly part of the consideration for those pursuing a more affordable and less market-reliant alternative. (Bernie Sanders, as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, was an early champion of the idea.) The idea of cooperative living—in both financial and social terms—needs room to breathe and grow.

If we can reframe debates about the future of cities beyond rote acceptance of property ownership, it will free up space for us to think about new, more just, and climate-attuned modes of urban living. Responding to climate change in just ways entails radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting against or adapting to climate change impacts, and doing all of it without further marginalizing oppressed groups of people.

In California, that would mean more than moving away from fire-prone areas. It would require planners, designers, and community members to consider planning for fire alongside issues of health and accessibility, social services, physical beauty, and other aspects of environmental sustainability and climate protection. “Defensible space” could mean protecting more than an individual structure; it could scale up to protect a neighborhood, or better yet, an entire district. At the same time, such zones of defense could be designed to address other aspects of climate change mitigation and adaptation: They could include green infrastructure for water infiltration and “soft” flood protection, as well as ecological linkages, such as drought-resistant, non-fire-fueling vegetation to protect biodiversity and lessen urban heat islands. These “green” zones could be planned around community centers and libraries, public institutions that have already become important places of refuge and mobilization in times of disaster.

Even with the threats of climate change and rampant fire looming, the ideals of the American dream that have been instilled for more than 150 years will be difficult to dispel. Those ideals have blinded us to other possibilities. Given the scope and scale of the climate crisis, it is shocking that we are being presented with so few serious, comprehensive alternatives for how to live. We need another kind of escape route—away from our ideologies of ownership and property, and toward more collective, healthy, and just cities.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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