I wish it weren’t true, but this region we live in is meant to burn every now and then. And when we fight fires, we only add fuel to future flames.
Two of my former colleagues did a brilliant job detailing these “Unnatural Disasters” in a series for The Sun the summer after the devastating 2003 wildfires. And, coincidentally, Dave Gardetta has a piece in this month’s Los Angeles magazine, which came in the mail Friday, about how fires really are the biggest threat to the city.
The men and women whose job it is to fight Southern California wildfire perish by all possible means and in every circumstance imaginable. In the Angeles National Forest, a helicopter flying at night lands in darkness atop a second chopper already parked on the helibase. Two airmen die. In the same forest, a fire chief and his crew are surprised by advancing flames. The crew flee in one direction; the chief escapes in another, untilâworried of his men’s fateâhe returns through fire in search of them and is killed. Above the northern San Fernando Valley, 12 firefighters are caught in a wind shift along a steep ravine that swirls superheated gases over them, raising the tiny canyon’s temperature to 2,500 degrees. A fire engine driver racing to a call flies over a San Bernardino rail crossing and is smashed to death by an oncoming train. Beside Bryant Canyon, high in the Angeles Crest, a burning rat runs at two men in heavy brush, surrounding them in fire . On a San Diego blaze a firefighter pauses to talk with a passing bulldozer operator. His trousers become entangled in the machine’s moving tracks, and he is pulled under and crushed. While fighting a blaze in Orange County, a fireman drops dead of pneumonia.
Wildfire in the Golden State, and especially in Southern Californiaâthe nation’s maximum fire-prone landscapeâis the most dynamic, violent natural event that people engage with. In sheer energy and unpredictability, a hurricane is as close as you can come to the riotous mien of a Los Angeles chaparral fire. We do not attack hurricanes, or earthquakes, or tornadoes. We do attack, however, what is essentially photosynthesis thrown into reverse, as foliage instantaneously releases stored solar energy in the form of hot gasesâwhat we see as flames.
The 19 largest and most costly fires in 100 years have ignited within the last quarter century. Yet wildfire for Angelenos has typically remained an occurrence that happens “out there” âin the unseen San Jacinto wilderness, somewhere above lonely Morongo Valley, on a distant Los Padres plateau. Stories of firefighter deaths and injuries, or images of entire forest communities left in ashes, with lives ruined and fortunes lost, are annually beamed into the living rooms of Hancock Park, Alhambra, and Encino, like scenes out of Iraq. Usually, the smoke cannot even be spied from backyard porches. The misery on household TV screens might as well be happening in another country.
With the history of fires in Bel Air and Malibu, I’m not sure I agree with that. But fire certainly feels like an imminent threat for Angelenos now.
(Photo: Brett K. Snow)