You see it on television around this time every year. First, a scene from the apocalypse: mountains of fire in southern California.
You see it on television around this time every year. First, a scene from the apocalypse: mountains of fire in southern California. Then, a family gathered at the pile of ashes that used to be their home. Looking into the camera, they try to hold back their tears. “We lost everything, but we all got out alive,” one of them says. “That’s what matters.”
Another says, “We’ll rebuild, somehow.”
You want to scream into your television: “Why? Why build there again?”
Every autumn since the last ice age ended, some 10,000 years ago, fire has been coming to southern California. Some species of shrubs and trees have evolved so that they depend on fire for their survival. The seeds of the tecata cypress grow in a tight pod. When the flames come, the pod explodes, shooting seeds in every direction. Later, when the rains come, new tecatas take root.
In 1542, when the Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo and his crew sailed up from South America, becoming the first Europeans to set eyes on what is now Los Angeles, they saw fires burning on the hillsides to the east. Cabrillo named the area Bahia del Fumo, the Land of Smokes.
Years ago, when I lived in the West, I saw one of these fires. It was a small one — it burned only a few hundred acres, not hundreds of square miles. No homes stood in its path.
Firefighters feared the fire would grow. They built a firebreak, using bulldozers to scrape away all vegetation along both sides of a paved road. When the fire got to the break, it moved left and right, back and forth, like a living thing searching for a way across. Suddenly a pillar of fire shot into the sky, 50 feet or more, then arched across the road. The firefighters were ready, though — within seconds, a dozen converged on the new flames, and beat them to death. This time, the firefighters won.
In the distant past, the fires came from lightning. Later, when Indians moved into the area, they would start fires intentionally, to clear land for farming. Now, some people set fires just for the crazy thrill of it.
From September to December, though, the desert shrubs and grasses are so dry that a fire may break out when a driver pulls off the road to take in the view. The heat of the car’s muffler sets off the flames.
State and local governments have tried to cut down on the damage of fires through such measures as strict building codes requiring fire-resistant materials. They also require homeowners to keep the land around their property free of the vegetation that provides kindling.
Fire-resistant materials do not stand much of a chance against a big fire, however, and clearing the land of vegetation leaves the land unanchored, prey to mudslides that wreak havoc from December through March.
Each year, the fires cause millions of dollars in damage. California state government spends more millions fighting the fires. Some years, firefighters die in the flames. Yet California residents usually oppose stricter measures, such as outright building bans where the dangers are highest.
That, they say, would violate their property rights.
All over the world people build in flood plains, in places where the Earth shakes, in hurricane zones and in fire zones. It is easy to understand what draws people to the hill country of southern California. The place can be a paradise — a salubrious climate, quiet trails wending through the canyons, Pacific beaches and the attractions of one of the world’s premier cities just a few minutes away.
After the inevitable happens, they rise from the mud and ashes and cry to the skies, “I won’t be beaten. I’ll build again.” That is the heroic part of the human spirit. Yet there lands where humans should not intrude. Nature, not human beings, rules there.
Mankind the unconquerable may be an ideal, but learning to live with nature instead of in conflict with it should be an even higher ideal.
Dan Hall is the former editorial page editor of Messenger Post Newspapers. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.