When the Hills Are Burning

Smoke above a highway north of Los Angeles.
Smoke above a highway north of Los Angeles. (By J. Emilio Flores -- Getty Images)
By Amy Wilentz
Thursday, October 25, 2007

I live in a fire bowl. As I write, the gigantopolis of Los Angeles is circled by fire: out in Malibu, up in Simi Valley, and down at Irvine and Arrowhead. For Angelenos in fire season, even if you are not personally affected, there is a feeling that there's no way out.

First there is fear, as you chart the fire's path in your mind, its next possible, unpredictable step. Then comes the realization that your own habitual geography is impermanent. A forest you knew, a canyon, a friend's house, some L.A. landmark -- any of these could be gone tomorrow. As with earthquakes, the place where you live could turn within minutes into something other, something unrecognizable, something dead.

Two days ago I drove down to Irvine, where I teach two days a week. Before leaving, I'd checked Sigalert to see how the roads were doing. On the Web site, a fire update in red type said: "PCH is closed from Topanga Canyon to Kanan Road. Malibu Canyon Road, Kanan Road and Topanga Canyon, Carbon Canyon, Tuna Canyon are all closed. Hwy 126 East closed . . ."

But my freeway wasn't listed.

So I headed south in the dark toward some of the biggest fires. I passed an Army convoy going to help out. That got my sleepy attention. To the east, the sun was coming up behind the mountains, but it seemed too soon for sunrise. Then I realized that what I'd thought was the sun was the fire, making a silhouette of the hills. Smoke was pouring into the sky like a cloud bank in a dazzling sunrise. Around me the pre-rush-hour traffic was moving nicely, past signs for new Hondas, past the dark developments to the west, still asleep. Yet a few miles away from normal life, just over the hills, was a holocaust.

That's fire season. It reminds you that everything in the L.A. area is discrete, a pocket of a town here, a development there, a canyon here, a strip of houses along the beach there. Something bad can be happening in one place while someone else is having dinner at Mozza or Lou, and firefighters can be evacuating your best friend while you're out buying milk at Ralph's. But it also reminds you that in a disaster, all those discrete pockets can sometimes be swept together. Fire can burn from Burbank over the canyons and threaten the Hollywood sign. The fire near my freeway could break over the crest and pour down, engulfing the road, the auto outlets, the dark developments.

Usually, fire doesn't reach all classes, the way an earthquake will. It tends to gravitate toward the better-off, because they are the ones closest to what is green, to what burns naturally. Fires start where there is ready brush; they burn down to the walls behind upscale developments, and then they move over those walls. They start in the canyons and burn lush, wooded real estate. They start above Malibu and move down to the homes of movie stars. In aerial photos, you can see -- next to the clumps of ash that once were houses -- the swimming pools, the hot tubs. This is not Katrina.

Still, the whole metropolitan environment is affected. Dust and ash cling to cars tens of miles from the fires. Soot snows down onto the highways. Everywhere, upper respiratory tracts are shot.

Worst, thousands can fall victim to one person's stupidity or malice. We sit around in L.A. estimating how many teenagers there are and, among them, how many love a good fire and, among them, how many would be tempted by the hot, windy Santa Ana season. It's not hard to understand why more than 25 percent of these fires can be attributed to what is kindly called "human involvement." Imagine lighting a match and then, for a week or two, seeing your creation featured 24 hours a day on television, growing more and more insanely beautiful and destructive.

Once you've lived through a half-dozen fire seasons, you begin to notice a certain normalization. Each morning, fire coverage may take six to eight pages in the Los Angeles Times (there are no photographs more dramatic than a black house at night with orange flames dancing in every window), but meanwhile in L.A. and San Diego and Irvine, there's a kind of battle weariness. Oh, yeah, take the 405 -- it's untouched. Get your car washed, keep your windows closed. Outside, wear a bandanna to cover your mouth and nose. No hiking in the Hollywood canyons, which have been closed because officials fear a sudden blaze.

And so forth. We check the skies over our homes for the gray smudges that signal the fires' continuation. We walk two blocks for a better view of the flames. We take pictures. We feel bad for the houses that couldn't be saved, the coyotes and deer and lizards swept from their habitats, all the choking firefighters, the people wandering around their burned neighborhoods, collecting precious remaining possessions. We suffer from a mild form of survivor guilt.

Then we wait: for the winds to die down, for the temperature to drop, for the fires to be contained. And for what passes for normal to begin again.

Amy Wilentz is the author, most recently, of "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger."

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