Why Californians Don't Leave

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J. Emilio Flores / Getty

Smoke billows to the sky above where fires are spreading near houses, October 22, 2007, in Stevenson Ranch, California.

I live in Southern California and I can see and smell the smoke from the fires incinerating this part of the state. But I admit it: Like most of you, I watched TV coverage of flames consuming homes and shrugged the whole thing off. This sort of disaster has happened before — not once, not twice, not even a few times, but virtually every year. Autumn? Then it's time for fall leaves, Halloween, and homes aflame out west. Switch the channel.

Does that make me — and you — insensitive to people losing their homes, a circumstance that, short of injury or death, is a worst-case personal disaster? In turning the channel, I'm not making light of very real personal tragedies and neither are you. Instead, what we're demonstrating is the answer to a big picture question we all ask in the wake of such natural disasters: Why do people choose to live in hazardous regions in the first place? By switching channels (or its equivalent), you and I demonstrate the dubious manner in which the human mind assesses risk.

Case in point: As I said, I live about 40 miles from the nearest wildfire today, but there has never been a similar problem near my home. Scientists say that means my mind is unlikely to take the threat very seriously even though I'm less than a mile from scrub-covered bluffs and have a tinderbox of a vacant lot next door. Call it the NIMBY theory of risk appraisal: Research indicates that if a threat hasn't happened in our own cozy community, the human mind actually softens its threat assessment. Or worse, makes us cast a blind eye.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who has studied human judgment systems in detail and was awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics, says localized threats plant fearful images into our minds, but then normal life intervenes, goading our brains into assessing risks based on emotional whispers rather than sound logic. Perhaps, once before, those whispers told this week's fire victims that Southern California's arid hills are beautiful, that there's never been a nearby problem, that there's relatively little risk of a wildfire. So, the people there took the same action we did. They changed the channel.

That probably explains why the same Californians who shouldn't be living among brush-carpeted hillsides are equally blase about the Big One, the overdue temblor that inevitably strikes every couple of centuries. Massive earthquakes literally happen every year — ask the people of Indonesia — but since they are often spaced decades or centuries apart in any given region, the vast majority of us disregard the threat. Think you're immune because you live east of the Rockies? Check the fault maps, you'll be surprised. The same might be said for Katrina and the tsunami.

We ignore risks of our own making in the same way. "People are terrified of the word nuclear, but the people who live next to a nuclear station are perfectly content with it," says Kahneman, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton. "It's completely absurd, but people become much less frightened when something hasn't blown up in several years." Kahneman sheepishly admits he isn't immune either; he owns a house in Berkeley even though he knows there's little doubt that the Big One will someday strike.

We apply the same fuzzy reasoning when we decide to live near volcanoes, tornado alleys, flood plains and landslide zones. The Golden State? That refers to the dead, yellowed chapparal smothering the hillsides, not the sunshine. Californians, then, are no different from the rest of humanity. The wilderness-adjacent developments ablaze from Los Angeles to San Diego are situated in nature's combustion zone, and the locals understand that. Their brains simply fool them into thinking the incendiary mix of high temperatures, drought and blistering winds is not a problem. Unless, that is, you force your mind to look at the dangers from a statistical, rather than an emotional, viewpoint.

As University of California Riverside fire ecologist Richard Minnich says, "What the hell are these people doing living in vegetation which at times behaves like gasoline? They should know better. Would you live in gasoline?" Minnich advocates public policy that stops approving development in fire danger areas without removing the natural fuel — a move that may require policymakers to overcome their own brain wiring.

Evolutionary theorists will point out that the brain's risk assessment techniques are tied to the fight-or-flight response and probably serve to whittle down the human herd. For those of us who would rather avoid being thinned out, there is hope. Studies show that people can in fact train themselves to assess risks more accurately, even on the fly, by forcing themselves to estimate the frequency of events rather than simply picturing the last time they saw such an event. It might get more people out of their homes faster the next time. If so, it'll offer us a much clearer risk picture than switching channels ever has.