The Thomas Fire Fans the Flames of Southern California’s Housing Crisis

We are all watching the hills, those of us who have not evacuated. The air smells of smoke. For ten days, the ash has fallen like a sinister snow and the low humidity—less than 1%—parches our lips. I feel the fire in my body.

Three months ago, I breathed the clear air and pressed the verdant, live oak leaves between my fingers. My first week living in Santa Barbara County was in the Los Padres National Forest, the tinderbox now on fire. The chaparral that revived in the early 2017 storms that ended California’s six-year drought is now desiccated by the hot Santa Ana winds. These winds gather one thousand miles away, at the confluence of high pressure on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains and the dry, hot desert air simmering on the Great Basin. As the hot air breaches the Sierras and tumbles down towards the beaches of the Coast, the winds gather speed and gust through the mountain passes and tight canyons of the Los Padres National Forest above Santa Barbara.

The wind-blown, tinder-dry hills are primed for flame.

Smoke over downtown Santa Barbara

The forest burns in the Santa Ynez mountains above downtown Santa Barbara. Photo by Amanda McMillan Lequieu, December 16, 2017.

Fire has been, for centuries, omnipresent in California. Autumn is wildland fire season, with the “cruel and capricious Santa Ana…determin[ing] whether a fire will lay down like a docile dog or whip up into a frenzy of uncontrollable fury.” But, at the same time, there is little that is natural about these present-day fires. Climate patterns are shifting. The warm air in the desert is getting hotter; the western fire season now extends into Christmas–105 days longer than in 1970.

All the hills need is an ignition source.

On Monday, December 4th, 2017, a brush fire was reported by Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura County, California. Before midnight, the fire had exploded to 25,000 acres. By December 17th, the fire stretched 270,000 acres into Santa Barbara County.

The fire is now a wild, inhuman thing, a monster of heat and destruction marching slowly westward. “This fire is a beast,” the Santa Barbara County fire division chief told his crews, “and you’re gonna kill it. I have no doubt.” The cause of the Thomas fire is yet unknown, but the beast was likely birthed by humans, as are 95% of California fires. Now, the power dynamic between nature and humanity is flipped; we have little control.

In the red half-light of a smoke-covered sun, a group of us stand on State Street, faces upturned in horror as we watch a gust of wind fan a blaze in the hills above downtown Santa Barbara. The flames leap above a mansion, its adobe archways and decorative palm trees dim and fragile in the ashen glow.  We cannot see them, but firefighters are likely standing guard to protect the structure. They wrap evacuated homes in metal sheeting to keep sparks from landing; they form a perimeter of firebreaks, flame retardant, and water hoses; they wait until the monster approaches.

I cannot help but note the irony of the fire approaching these massive houses, the most visible symbols of Southern California’s drastic income inequality. There are vast disparities in wealth between those who live in mansions in the hills and those who live and work down below. In Santa Barbara, rents exceed the median rent in Los Angeles  and low vacancy rates allow landlords to consistently increase rates annually. New homeownership is for the wealthy, with median listing prices at 1.5 million. Behind walls and gates, large houses in the foothills near Santa Barbara and Montecito are home to some of the wealthiest— Hollywood stars, musicians, bankers. Now these rooms with a view are monuments to the immobility of wealth, stuck into a mountainside of tinder, and guarded by masked firefighters with hoses.

The structures we build are vulnerable. Masked and wide-eyed, we stare at the sky and ask, when must we leave?

It is not just the homes of the wealthy that are threatened. Fire is indiscriminate. Within its first week, the Thomas Fire consumed both the Ventura Botanical Gardens and the Vista del Mar Psychiatric Hospital. That same week, a homeless encampment tucked beneath Los Angeles mansions ignited, and then was engulfed by, a small blaze. In Santa Barbara, the middle- and working-class Hispanic neighborhoods east of State Street, and the zoo, abut the southern edge of the mandatory evacuation zone.

The burning hills above that vulnerable neighborhood are part of the Los Padres National Forest.  Stretching 220 miles from south Santa Barbara County to Monterey, California’s second largest national forest draws nearly two million annual visitors to hike, fish, bike, and backpack.

The forest has, in recent years, adopted an entirely different and unintended use. Fifty-five campgrounds, both state-sponsored and private, dot this forest. One is Paradise Campground, a state campground that unintentionally houses long-term residents. In their ramshackle RVs and worn tents are painters, street musicians, students, and retirees who commute down the mountain to Santa Barbara, Ojai, and Ventura, and then up again each night to their cook stoves and headlamps and wild noises in the night.

These refugees of Southern California’s housing crisis park and pitch at Paradise year-round. In summer, they rotate to nearby campgrounds after their three-week maximum is reached, but in winter, there is no maximum stay, so they come to Paradise, with its flush toilets, familiar faces, and rent cheaper than could be possibly found in the beach towns below. “This was better,” one resident camper told me, this “fasting from landlords.” Being in nature for $30 a night, no longer enmeshed in the stress of rent hikes and eviction, they could claim some control over their lives.

An empty campground

The tiny Paradise Campground in Los Padres Forest, at an empty moment two months before the blaze. Photo by Amanda McMillan Lequieu, September 28, 2017.

My husband and I camped at Paradise, in “The Land of Many Uses,” as declared on one Los Padres National Forest welcome sign, for only one week. We had just completed a month-long camping trip in the American West, en route to relocating to Santa Barbara. That wooded place, with early risers greeted by songbirds flitting between the live oaks, was a respite from the multiple rental applications, the fees, and the competition for a rental in a town with 0.06% vacancy rate. The day we signed a lease for a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Barbara (that, we immediately calculated, would cost us $55 a night) we paid for our final night at Paradise. As we drove down the mountain, we said, leaving is good. There was a new job to start the next week and a U-Haul to unpack. It is good to live in a real house with walls and a shower. We can go back up into nature, into the mountains, later.

Later: the campground is empty, as is most of the forest.  Although firefighters are gaining control of the fire with each windless day that passes, Paradise and its nearby campgrounds may still burn, the massive oak at the center and the chaparral around the edges of the dirt-packed campsites fodder for the beast of flame. In fact, to keep the fire far from the houses in the beach towns below, fire crews are actively directing the fire towards an old burn in the Forest, not far from Paradise.

Perhaps, though, the former residents of Paradise are more at ease in this moment of crisis than us with walls and showers. They carry their homes and worldly possessions with them in their RVs, campers, and cars—working-class nomads, making precarious homes in one of the wealthiest regions in the United States. They can, however painfully, leave the shrub oaks of Paradise Road and, at another campsite, park, unpack, and start again.

ash on leaves

Ash lands on leaves. Smoke and ash from the Thomas Fire reduced air quality in Santa Barbara County for two weeks in early December. Photo by Amanda McMillan Lequieu, December 11, 2017.

But us, the lucky, the wealthy, or at least, the willing-to-lease, watch the fire roar closer to our houses. Strangers make sober eye contact above their facemasks; they talk in coffee shops in nervous tones; they wander, bewildered, past shops shut down the week before Christmas. We are told, every day, to “be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.” The vulnerability, the fear, is seeping into our bones. We all know what N95 masks are now, and we cajole each other—complete strangers!—to put them on, for the air is toxic. The winds are wild. The fire is a beast. The structures we build are vulnerable. Masked and wide-eyed, we stare at the sky and ask, when must we leave?

The fire forces all of us to contemplate leaving and staying.  Entering my one-bedroom apartment, I begin packing. Evacuations haven’t yet been ordered for this neighborhood, but we should pack, just in case. We just paid our third month’s rent and put pictures on the wall two weeks ago. Likely, this apartment won’t burn. But that mansion might, and those mountains certainly will. I grieve for the people who love their houses up there in the hills, and for the places in the mountains we haven’t seen—which, other than Paradise, is everything.

The fire will not erase the housing crisis in California. In fact, the housing market may be even more inhospitable for middle-class Californians after the fires are contained. But a crisis, however human or natural, causes me to think about our relationship to landscape. Does the land belong to humans, or do we belong to a landscape? We feel the effects of its climate, we establish bonds to a place through structures, roads, and embodied knowledge, but clearly, we cannot control the effects of our ways of living on the land itself. What then is our responsibility as individuals, and as a community? Perhaps more intimately, we should ask: what makes a place home? Is it the familiar archway of a mansion door, or the rustle of a tent flap? Is it decades spent in a single place, or dreams hoped for the future?

These are questions for this generation, this decade, and this fire season. For now, I strap on my face mask and move our packed bags towards the door.

Featured image: Smoke from the Thomas Fire hangs over empty beaches, as viewed from the State Street wharf in downtown Santa Barbara. Photo by Amanda McMillan Lequieu, December 16, 2017.

Amanda McMillan Lequieu is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s joint Departments of Sociology and Community and Environmental Sociology. Her research interrogates the relationship between structural, environmental, and economic change and lived experiences of home and community. Specifically, she is interested in how low-income communities adapt to globalizing economies and changing environments over time, through the lenses of land tenure, environmental history, and economic development/undevelopment. WebsiteContact

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