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Banning the Homeless Won’t Keep California From Burning

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In his 1995 essay The Case for Letting Malibu Burn, the radical historian Mike Davis references a story published several years earlier in The Malibu Times. The article details the pluck of two local housewives who escaped the ravenous 1993 Old Topanga Fire on kayaks, towing their little dogs along with them. Davis, as always, digs deeper. “Only the fine print revealed that, in saving their pets, they had left their Latina maids behind,” he writes.

Davis’s piece, which was included in his 1998 collection, Ecology of Fear, decries the maddening contradiction of a city lavishing millions in public money to defend privately owned, fire-prone land, while its failures to regulate tenement housing regularly condemned poor, Central American tenants to a fiery death. In the decades since the essay’s publication, the wildfires around Los Angeles have only worsened; so has wealth inequality. One can imagine Davis’s housewives, senior citizens now, lobbying the county to do something about the homeless encampments near their very combustible properties.

Their entreaties wouldn’t have fallen on deaf ears: The county has had the incendiary potential of homeless encampments in its sights for some time now. Last month, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors voted to ban encampments in “very high fire hazard severity zones” of unincorporated L.A. county. “It’s just too dangerous to everybody,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who brought the motion.

Unincorporated areas account for 65 percent of L.A. County’s territory, including rural zones like the Angeles National Forest, the Santa Monica Mountains, and Topanga State Park; they are inhabited by just 10 percent of the county’s residents. Though the scales may be starting to tip as the wildfire insurance industry bottoms out, state and local policy has generally incentivized residents of high fire-risk areas to rebuild rather than move. The Los Angeles Fire Department likely spends hundreds of millions of dollars battling blazes in these zones each year, despite what Davis called “the essential dependence of the dominant vegetation of the Santa Monicas........

© New Republic

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