Book Review: Flame and Fortune in the American West

I heard Professor Gregory Simon on KPFA radio talking about his book Flame and Fortune in the American West as I was evacuating to my sister’s in Petaluma due to smoke and encroaching fire near my home in Sonoma Valley. The interview got my attention as he explained that firestorms are not entirely due to overgrown brush, drought, or a hotter climate. The devastating fires that ravage communities and the landscape are also a direct result of where and how we build, why, and the influence of underlying politics, planning, and profit-making. His book has helped me start to make sense and talk about what happened here in the North Bay.

In Flame and Fortune, Simon uses the Oakland Hills fire of 1991 as a case study to explore the complex history, crisis, and aftermath of fires that sweep in from the urban edge. Simon was a teenager home alone when the Oakland Hills fire forced him to flee with whatever he could grab, like so many in the North Bay and across California. His family home survived.

In his book, Simon delves into the “complex social and environmental underpinnings” of fire on the urban edge. He reframes the wildland-urban interface as the affluence-vulnerability interface to describe how lucrative development in the hills gets prominence over fire risk. Building flammable homes in steep canyons and fire-prone landscapes create a manmade “incendiary.”

After a fire, Simon points out that the rush to rebuild by fast-tracking design review and building permits, like we are seeing in Sonoma County, can lead to inadequate oversight of rebuilt structures and homes that are bigger, leading to a higher fire risk in the long term. He explains how property tax revenues and the related impacts of California’s Proposition 13 factor into the rush to rebuild.

Simon also recognizes that fire-prone neighborhoods will be, and need to be re-built and gives examples where homeowners banded together to get power lines put underground and reduce fire risk. He supports urban growth boundaries and greenbelts as good policies to keep people out of fire zones.

As soon as I started reading the book, I recognized that we needed to bring him to Sonoma County to help us understand what has happened, what to watch out for, and what to talk about as we recover and rebuild.

Simon recently toured some of the burn areas with Greenbelt Alliance and Sierra Club, then held a brown bag session with about 30 environmental leaders, city and county officials, architects, housing advocates, and community leaders. He will return on Saturday, March 10 at 7 p.m. for a free public event at Copperfield’s Books, Montgomery Village in Santa Rosa.

Photo: Gregory Simon with Shoshana Hebshi of the Sierra Club in Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, CA.

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