When a devastating wildfire leads to the construction of McMansions

Here is brief mention of a situation when McMansions were built after a devastating wildfire:

Although dwarfed by other natural disasters, and probably forgotten by people without Bay Area connections, the Oakland Hills Fire 20 years ago killed 25 (many of them trapped in their cars, trying to escape), injured 150 and burned down more than 3,000 homes and 450 apartments and condos. The property damage has been estimated at $1.7 billion—the same (in today’s dollars) as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Overnight, a hillside brush fire was transformed into a major conflagration by a sudden “Diablo wind” that rose within minutes to 70 miles per hour and 100 feet high. Defying more than a thousand firefighters from all over the state, the winds (including flame-generated whirlwinds) hurled fire, flint and embers in a dozen different directions. At their peak, the flames were exploding 10 houses a minute—600 in the first hour alone. Sparks leapt over an eight-lane freeway. In two days, two square miles of wood-framed houses among the trees, built on steep slopes and narrow, winding roads (to capture the great views of San Francisco), had been reduced to a no-man’s-land of white ash and crumbled debris, pierced by dark spikes of leafless tree trunks among surviving stone steps and totemic chimney towers.

It is this ghostly, lifeless afterworld that Mr. Misrach captured by setting up his view camera along the empty streets of this miniature version of Dresden or Hiroshima a week or so after the fire. There are no people in his pictures; no cars except burned-out hulks with melted windows.

The first images I focused on were the remains of the burned trees. In most cases, only the hard, black, sharp centers of their trunks remained. Mr. Misrach found many ways of making these spiky shapes eloquent and expressive…

In the years since the fire, most of the empty lots have been filled with new houses, even if most of the residents from 1991 have left. Many of the rebuilders used their settlements to build new McMansions two or three times the size of the houses that were lost. The trees around them will take another 50 years to grow back. The handsome old houses of the Oakland hills are not what they were. But Mr. Misrach has captured the precise moment when one world ended and another began.

This is a unique situation compared to the typical complaints about McMansions that are built within an established neighborhood. In this case, a fire wiped out the existing neighborhood, wiping the slate clean. I would guess that the homes that were built after the fire would have been difficult, perhaps even impossible, to build before the fire. Additionally, this wasn’t just valuable land but also land on the sides of hills that had commanding views but could also probably be seen from a distance as well.

I imagine there could be a very interesting story to tell about these new homes and how the new neighborhood came to be.

Why some protesters set themselves on fire

There are a number of ways an individual can try to rally people to a particular cause. The New York Times suggests that one recent technique, seen most recently in Tunisia, is to set oneself on fire. But why people do this or how they get to this point is unclear:

It is often impossible to be sure what really motivates those who burn themselves to death. There is debate, for instance, about how Thich Quang Duc viewed his self-immolation in 1963, a protest that was related to the South Vietnamese government’s treatment of Buddhist monks and may have been at least partly religious in nature. In other cases, politics may be a cover for personal despair or rage against a loved one.

Whatever the motive, suicide sometimes spreads like a disease, especially when heavily covered in the media. David P. Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California at of San Diego, published a 1974 study documenting spikes in the number of suicides after well-publicized cases. He called it “the Werther effect,” after the rash of suicides that followed the 1774 publication of “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” the novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe whose romantic hero kills himself.

“One thing is strongly suggested by the academic studies: People are more likely to copy suicides if they see that they have results, or get wide attention,” Dr. Phillips said.

Tunisia has provided grim evidence for that. And Mr. Bouazizi may yet provoke more fiery deaths across the Middle East if the revolution he helped spark is seen as successful.

Someone must have some data across countries and/or over time that might shed some light on patterns among cases of self-immolation.

I noticed that the examples in this article are primarily from non-Western nations. Is there a history of this in the West? How would society respond if someone in Western Europe or the United States did this?

More financial problems in Chicago suburbs: underfunded police and fire pensions

If the federal government is short on money and so is the state of Illinois, then financial problems were eventually going to trickle down to individual communities, even those who would usually be considered wealthy. The Chicago Tribune details how many suburban municipalities have fallen behind in funding police and fire pensions:

Of the 300-plus pension funds across the region, only about 20 are rated by the state as fully funded…

The flaws and excesses were long masked by a strong economy, when big investment returns pushed average funding levels to nearly 80 percent a decade ago — which many experts consider to be healthy. The latest figures from 2009 show suburban public-safety pension funds, on average, have just 52 percent of the assets needed to be fully funded.

Though the true cost will vary from place to place, the unpaid tab averages nearly $2,700 for every suburban household. A strong economy could boost investment returns and lessen the liability, but experts say the financial sins of the past are too great for pension systems to merely invest their way out of them.

As lawmakers consider reforms, town leaders and unions point fingers. Unions complain towns haven’t saved enough and lawmakers failed to force them. Suburban leaders complain lawmakers required them to offer lucrative benefits without the cash to pay for them. The one thing they agree on: The recession made the problems far worse…

The state doesn’t compile figures of how many towns have done that, with such findings usually buried in individual fund audits. The Tribune reviewed every audit the state would provide — 153 of them in metro Chicago — and found regulators cited a third of their taxing districts for not providing enough cash to their pension funds.

A couple of things stand out to me about this story:

1. One issue appears to be that of fragmented suburban government. Illinois, specifically the Chicago region, is well-known for its many taxing districts and municipalities. If each community, big or small, was to provide a pension fund, there were bound to be problems when some of these communities cannot meet their obligations.

2. Residents are not going to be happy about this. There are a couple of places they might direct their anger: toward local officials who didn’t properly fund these pensions or toward police or fire unions (a common issue in more conservative locations). Residents are also likely to be unhappy if fire and police personnel, people who many citizens feel keep their communities livable and safe, are let go.

3. How would local communities explain their actions regarding funding pensions? Can they or local officials be held responsible, outside of voting against them?