Flame and Fortune in the American West: Urban Development, Environmental Change, and the Great Oakland Hills Fire

Flame and Fortune in the American West: Urban Development, Environmental Change, and the Great Oakland Hills Fire

by Gregory L. Simon

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Flame and Fortune in the American West creatively and meticulously investigates the ongoing politics, folly, and avarice shaping the production of increasingly widespread yet dangerous suburban and exurban landscapes. The 1991 Oakland Hills Tunnel Fire is used as a starting point to better understand these complex social-environmental processes. The Tunnel Fire is the most destructive fire—in terms of structures lost—in California history. More than 3,000 residential structures burned and 25 lives were lost. Although this fire occurred in Oakland and Berkeley, others like it sear through landscapes in California and the American West that have experienced urban growth and development within areas historically prone to fire.
Simon skillfully blends techniques from environmental history, political ecology, and science studies to closely examine the Tunnel Fire within a broader historical and spatial context of regional economic development and natural-resource management, such as the widespread planting of eucalyptus trees as an exotic lure for homeowners and the creation of hillside neighborhoods for tax revenue—decisions that produced communities with increased vulnerability to fire. Simon demonstrates how in Oakland a drive for affluence led to a state of vulnerability for rich and poor alike that has only been exacerbated by the rebuilding of neighborhoods after the fire. Despite these troubling trends, Flame and Fortune in the American West illustrates how many popular and scientific debates on fire limit the scope and efficacy of policy responses. 
These risky yet profitable developments (what the author refers to as the Incendiary), as well as proposed strategies for challenging them, are discussed in the context of urbanizing areas around the American West and hold global applicability within hazard-prone areas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520292796
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Series: Critical Environments: Nature, Science, and Politics , #1
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Gregory L. Simon is Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Denver and coeditor of Cities, Nature, and Development: The Politics and Production of Urban Vulnerabilities. He has been a core advisor to the United Nations Foundation and is a National Science Foundation grant award winner. He has recently served as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, and at Stanford University.

Read an Excerpt

Flame and Fortune in the American West

Urban Development, Environmental Change, and the Great Oakland Hills Fire

By Gregory L. Simon


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96616-1


The 1991 Tunnel Fire



The 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm (henceforth Tunnel Fire) is perhaps the most significant urban wildfire in United States history. Located in north-eastern Oakland, California, and stretching northward into the city of Berkeley and east into neighboring Contra Costa County, the Tunnel Fire destroyed more than three thousand dwelling units and killed twenty-five people over a twenty-four-hour period (see Map 1 and Map 2). The fire's origins were innocuous enough — a small brushfire that had burned and been suppressed the previous day. The response to this small outbreak had been extensive and decisive. Aware that flare-ups could occur throughout the night, city fire crews were on high alert with water lines in place.

A change in firefighter shifts early on October 20 forever changed history. Throughout the evening and into the morning the previous day's fire was stirring and smoldering beneath the singed surface. As new engines moved back into the hills to treat the burn area, hot spots could be seen igniting into flames all around. More support units were immediately called up, but they were soon overwhelmed. Strong winds happened to pick up that morning, whipping through the hillside, quickly turning small spot fires into a mass of fast-spreading flames. The fire ignited nearby vegetation and began its steady march into adjacent residential neighborhoods. The fire was both relentless and voracious, burning nearly eight hundred structures in the first hour alone and more than three hundred structures per hour over the next seven hours.

Twenty-five years later, the Tunnel Fire has left a lasting legacy in the region as the largest wildfire — in terms of numbers of dwellings destroyed — in California's history. To be sure, this is a dubious distinction given California's long record of frequent and intense firestorms.

The superlatives go on. The 1991 Tunnel Fire is the single most costly wildland fire in modern U.S. history. In adjusted 2012 dollars the fire is estimated to have generated $2.5 billion in losses. The next four largest wildland fire losses range from $1.2 billion to $2 billion. To compare the relative intensity of the Tunnel Fire with these other events consider the following statistic: the Tunnel Fire burned just over 1,500 acres (2.3 square miles) while the next four most costly wildland fire events ranged between 48,000 and 375,000 acres. With well over three thousand structures burned (the most in U.S. wildland fire history) in just 1,500 acres, the severity and intensely "social" and "urban" nature of the fire is both unmistakable and unparalleled.

Across the region, nation, and even internationally, the Tunnel Fire (or "Oakland Hills Firestorm" or "East Bay Hills Firestorm" depending on who is reporting) remains the urban wildfire reference point in U.S. history. While other large events such as the Chicago and San Francisco fires are infamous for their scope, intensity, and devastation, they are considered strictly urban fires — not wildfires, which connotes a link to adjoining "wild" open space. The notoriety of the Tunnel Fire as a "worst-case scenario" wildfire sparked substantial changes to firefighting protocols in departments and agencies across the United States.

The Tunnel Fire's significance has much to do with its geography. The fire area sits in a precarious location at the hilly edge of the core metropolitan cities of Oakland and Berkeley, along the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay. Much will be made of historical land use planning and residential development activities in these areas. However, three main characteristics should be highlighted up front. First, this is a wildland-urban interface (WUI) area, meaning it resides at the interface between dedicated urban developments and managed open space. Residential communities sit within and astride a landscape comprising dense forest cover, woodlands, grasslands, and coastal scrub. These housing and wildland landscapes have for many decades spread into each other, intermingling to produce an environment notable for its high fuel load. The area is also remarkable for its hilly terrain and steep canyons, which have the dual effect of aiding fire spread while also hindering efforts to prevent and respond to fire.

Second, it is a centrally located urban area, meaning it is not a new subdivision at the periphery of the San Francisco Bay Area but rather a century-old (and in some locations older) neighborhood containing high-density residential housing and narrow roads that are characteristic of older, core urban areas. (Of course, at the time of its development it was a suburban enclave and so fits within historical and ongoing suburban leapfrog sprawl patterns.) Beyond the adjacent swath of regional parkland and state responsibility "wildland" areas lies even more urban, suburban, and exurban development. While this area was once considered a suburban respite from the San Francisco grit and grind (and it does still retain those characteristics), the suburban fringe has expanded outward for many miles, cities, and even counties in all directions.

Third, the region sits within a Mediterranean climate that contains long durations without precipitation. From 1981 to 2010, total rainfall over the four-month period of June 1 — September 30 averaged 0.39 inches, most of which typically precipitates from fog. Thus by the time October arrives each year, the area is usually water deprived and composed of dry tree cover, grasses, shrubs, and ground litter. Making matters worse are periodic Diablo winds, which bring a dry, easterly airflow from the hot Central Valley through the San Francisco Bay Area. These winds — sometimes at speeds of up to 60 mph — increase fire risk by further desiccating the land environment and significantly increasing the spread potential of small spot fires. These are the winds that reignited remnant embers and turned the previous day's seemingly innocuous ground fire into the destructive and record-breaking Tunnel Fire. When viewing these physical attributes in aggregate, we see that geography matters. The Tunnel Fire area retains a level of home density indicative of core urban neighborhoods (i.e., greater home exposure) while also having close proximity to dense and flammable tree cover that is suggestive of settlements at the urban fringe.

But it is the region's history that makes the Tunnel Fire particularly compelling as a subject of analysis. Dating back to 1900, the area's fire regime indicates a high frequency of wildfires in the Oakland Hills region. Between 1900 and 1991, for example, twelve fires were recorded in close proximity to the area consumed by the Tunnel Fire. This includes major fires in 1923 and 1970 that swept through much of the same area eventually seared by the Tunnel Fire. Some homes burned and rebuilt during earlier fires were again destroyed in the 1991 blaze. This long history of persistent conflagrations raises serious questions about urban development, land use planning, and resource management efforts that have significantly increased fire risk by placing tens of thousands of homes in already fire-prone landscapes (see Map 3). This is a development trend that produces social risks while simultaneously increasing the costs of reducing social vulnerability. Indeed it is a profoundly contradictory positive feedback loop — intentionally producing an undesirable and costly outcome. But it is also a process that holds an internal logic driven by a set of underlying incentive-based economic structures. It is precisely this structural logic that this text intends to excavate and highlight.

The Tunnel Fire presents an opportunity to thread a consistent narrative and distinct reference point throughout the book. The Tunnel Fire is also a unique case and the histories, processes, events, and lessons that emerge from the Oakland and Berkeley hill areas do not translate neatly to other regions of California and the West. It is therefore important not to overstate the explanatory power of this single event when evaluating issues such as the causes and implications of fire risk across the entire region. (For example, over three thousand units destroyed in only 1,500 acres is simply unmatched in modern U.S. history.) On the other hand, what happens in Oakland does not stay in Oakland. As we will see, social risks, economic opportunism, fire mitigation policies, scientific debates, and basic fire behavior all (in most instances) transcend political and environmental boundaries. The Tunnel Fire therefore provides a useful starting point for analysis and a critical source of information from which larger lessons, perspectives, and theories can be developed. It also provides a geographical mooring for an otherwise expansive, complex, and seemingly unwieldy set of social-ecological entanglements. The Tunnel Fire is thus leveraged as a means of engaging with in-depth historical and contemporary analysis — grounded in place — that prevents the text from producing an overly synoptic, superficial, or fragmentary analysis. Throughout, the book zooms in and out, shifting between close readings of events and landscapes in the Tunnel Fire area and important developments and trends in other regions of the West. This multigeographical approach (which admittedly retains a strong emphasis on the Tunnel Fire) enables the productive conjoining of idiographic, descriptive, and place-based analysis with nomothetic, inductive, and generalized interpretations.


Fire at the urban periphery is a complicated matter, and understanding its dynamic and complex social and environmental underpinnings is certainly no easy task. Efforts to fully comprehend how we come to know and respond to the threat of fire are perhaps even more challenging. Given these complexities, Flame and Fortune offers three principal insights about the relationship between fire, society, and environment at the city's edge. By focusing on these critical insights, the book will in turn contribute to a single primary analytic objective: the need to augment assessments of the wildland-urban interface with dedicated analysis of the affluence-vulnerability interface (AVI; see below) and the Incendiary (Chapter 3). Let us look briefly now at these three insights in turn.

Lucrative Landscapes at the Urban Periphery: Taking Profits, Adding Risk

Suburban landscapes are lucrative landscapes. They are areas that generate high levels of profit, revenue, and wealth for interested parties near and far. From early land use extraction activities to contemporary private fire mitigation services, diverse groups extract profits from these regions, thus leveraging the suburban landscape as a source of prosperity and increased affluence. These profit- and revenue-generating activities are certainly not benign. Over time the generation of financial benefits has coincided with the production and maintenance of risk and vulnerability. This is the nature of urban growth under capitalism — it produces both beneficiaries and discontented groups, simultaneously. Still further, in many instances we see that one depends on the other: efforts to increase affluence oftentimes necessitate elevating levels of fire risk, and higher risk and vulnerability levels frequently spur opportunities to generate further financial gains.

Factors influencing increased social vulnerability and higher fire risk mitigation costs are inextricably tied to ever-changing profit-seeking practices and diverse forms of economic opportunism. This is an important foundational insight because it provides analytic space to reveal the systemic causes of social vulnerability to fire, as well as the policies, practices, and perspectives that enable the development of these risky urban landscapes. The 2016 Fort McMurray fire in Alberta, Canada, is a recent example of a devastating wildfire impacting a region initially developed for its ability to generate profits for government and corporate interests alike. The area of Fort McMurray, which lies several hundred miles north of Calgary, grew rapidly in population and size over the past several decades to support large-scale extraction of oil from an enormous subterranean tar sands deposit. Like so many fires in the West, the pursuit of resources and the conversion of landscapes were fundamental drivers of this "hazardous" event.

Moreover understanding the root causes of fire risk is an important first step toward substantively reducing future costs associated with patterns of material accumulation and seemingly unfettered urban expansion — as the old adage goes, "You have to understand the problem before you can find the solution." Directly confronting these past and ongoing processes will require a rhetorical and tactical shift. It will entail ceasing to treat portions of the American West as flammable landscapes (resulting in management frameworks that merely treat development symptoms at the WUI) and instead shifting to the treatment of the West as the "Incendiary" — a regional depiction emphasizing the area's history, foundational characteristics, and underlying socioeconomic drivers that produce elevated flammability; that is, viewing the landscape and the forces behind its transformation like an arsonist that must be directly undercut, intensively treated, and not merely adapted to.

The Persistent De- and Repoliticization of Fire and Its Production

Contemporary management and scientific discourses on fire depoliticize the Incendiary and the political economic root causes of fire disasters. Depoliticization refers to the process of stripping an issue or event of a core political or controversial underpinning. This allows particular foundational explanations of social-environmental change — in this context, processes related to the affluence-vulnerability interface and its associated controversies — to go unnoticed and unchallenged. In the case of wildfire we oftentimes get distracted from key debates concerning the social origins of fire risk by other management and science controversies. We can understand these corollary or alter-debates as contributing to a process of repoliticization, as a series of other contested issues come to occupy the discursive arena of disagreement and dispute. This repoliticization largely obviates substantive discussions of broader structural issues and drivers. Concealing the role of private material accumulation and urban growth regimes, for example, ultimately has the effect of rendering wildland-urban interface fires as simply the natural order of things. We are left tinkering around the edge of the problem, constantly putting out little fires instead of grappling with the root cause of the major blaze itself.

This analysis complements other studies that have examined the politics of managing natural resources, landscapes, and disasters. Environmental debates, for example, are often portrayed as proxy debates for broader disagreements over the proper role of the government and free market, or the importance of individual freedoms and private property rights. Arguments over the fate of individual species, for example, serve as convenient and tractable sites for engaging in, and ostensibly "settling," these broader debates. This text adds to this discussion by suggesting that not only are broad debates fought in small arenas, but in fact the acrimony found in these small arenas can distract us from addressing larger disagreements, tensions, and contradictions. These alter-debates may actually prevent us from reconciling (and thus directly confronting) larger issues concerning the political economic and social origins of fire risk.

Clarifying Vulnerability as a Dynamic, Variegated, and Malleable Concept

Vulnerability is typically treated as a static condition and applied to households, communities, and cities in ways that oversimplify the complex manner in which it is produced and experienced over time and space. In Flame and Fortune vulnerability is shown to exist as both a process and a condition. Expanding the ontology of vulnerability to include both these aspects is important because it allows us to understand the complex relationship between different vulnerabilities as they unfold and interact spatially and temporally. First, vulnerability is presented as a recursive and relational process — embedded within regional environmental and development histories — that is always in production, at play, and inscribed unevenly over time and space. Vulnerability is thus much more than simply an effect of planning, produced outcome, or material inscription. Factors causing increased vulnerability in one area may deepen (or maintain, or reduce) risks for individuals in another area or in subsequent time periods. For example, socioeconomic conditions leading to increased risks in hill areas of Oakland also contribute to elevated risks in the city's flatland. Viewing different manifestations of vulnerability as merely isolated conditions would foster a truncated and thus incomplete account of important geographical and historical events and connections.


Excerpted from Flame and Fortune in the American West by Gregory L. Simon. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. The 1991 Tunnel Fire: The Case for an Affluence-Vulnerability Interface
2. The Changing American West: From “Flammable Landscape” to the “Incendiary”

3. Trailblazing: Producing Landscapes, Extracting Profits, Inserting Risk
4. Setting the Stage for Disaster: Revenue Maximization, Wealth Protection, and Its Discontents
5. Who’s Vulnerable? The Politics of Identifying, Experiencing, and Reducing Risk

6. Smoke Screen: When Explaining Wildfires Conceals the Incendiary
7. Debates of Distraction: Our Inability to See the Incendiary for the Spark

8. Dispatches from the Field: Win–Win Outcomes and the Limits of Post-Wildfire Mitigation
9. Out of the Ashes: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and Financial Opportunism

Conclusion: From Excavating to Treating the Incendiary

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