World On Fire

Larry and I live in the Glendale/Pasadena area, just a few miles east of Los Angeles. On a clear day we can see the foothills to north, and the Angeles Crest Mountains stretching off to the east. Last week we could see all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Made you understand why people moved here. Long ago. Before the other people got here.

But today the world is on fire. When the sun came up this morning, it rose through a thick band of smoke and bloated into a blood red balloon. There was smoke on every horizon. By the end of the day, there was no more blue sky. Just smoke.

Nearly a million people have been evacuated statewide. San Diego is the hardest hit: one in three households. It’s hard to get your mind around a number like that. I heard about a single dad who barely got out of his apartment with his twin daughters. They couldn’t find the dog or cat before they left. Later they heard their apartment building had burned to the ground.

The fires are raging north of LA as well. Simi Valley, Valencia, Stevenson Ranch, Castaic, Agua Dulce. These are all communities north of LA. We used to drive through them on the way to visit my uncle in the High Desert. It was like driving through Hell. Dry rock, cacti, the occasional ranch. Hermits in shacks with rusted cars on blocks; who took comfort in knowing no one else would ever move there. Today that wasteland is sardine-packed with housing tracts and shopping centers and squares of grass to distract you form the fact you’re in Hell.

I shot a TV Western out in Stevenson Ranch in 1991. When it was ranchland. This past April I stopped there for groceries and gas. No ranch. Just one high-end housing development after another, zitted with Designer Shoe Warehouse and Ross and Linens 'N' Things and Toys R Us and Marshalls and Target and a Coach outlet where you can buy a leather key fob for $65.

And now it is all on fire. I feel for those people who pitched their overpriced tents in the middle of Hades, rolled out some grass and called it home. I hope they have homes to come home to.

It’s really a horrible thing. I feel very bad. But … people are already complaining. Officials, even. Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky is blaming the environmentalists for protecting the indigenous desert plant life that is now on fire. A fire chief is pissed off that there isn’t more coordination between government agencies. And with the landed gentry of San Diego piling up at Qualcomm stadium, it’s only hours before they get antsy. And hungry. And very very angry.

It’s Katrina, for rich people.

Southern California is a desert. You know, like the cover of “The Joshua Tree.” That's why we stole our water from Northern California. At first to grow oranges, then to water our lawns or the shrubs on the meridians in the shopping malls.

The Cassandras have been warning us that we are not prepared for a large-scale disaster. And they are right. There could be better coordination and more resources. But oops, the National Guard is in Iraq.

I’m having a hard time staying empathetic when we' offended that fire has destroyed homes in ... fire danger areas. "How dare mother nature do what it does." Or when we're shocked our nation's resources can't swoop in and make it go away. Our country is a mess. Please, pray for me and my bad attitude. No, don't. Pray for the people who are in imminent danger. They need help.


  1. Your entry was brilliant, Susan, because I feel the same way, almost down to the letter.

    One one hand, many people who don't have fire insurance or a homes elsewhere are absolutely devastated. It's awful. On the other hand, there's a reason people didn't naturally settle in Southern California for so many years...it was not made for so many humans to live there. Humans are meant to live in moderate climates where it rains where we've got water to drink...not necessarily as far north as Oregon, but certainly the Bay Area. As for Malibu, that place is KNOWN as a perennial forest fire area, and still development pops up everywhere.

    My friend Steve was telling me about Southern California and natural disasters a few months ago after reading "The Ecology of Fear" by Mike Davis. There's a chapter on forest fires.

  2. Yes, Jordan. It really is horrible for the people who don't have fire insurance. And it makes me mad to think of the ways insurers will try to get around paying out. But it is a desert here. I heard a captain of the LA forestry talk about it back in June, and he said the problem wasn't so much the fire, it was that people were building homes in areas that are fire hazards. but they build anyway.
    It doesn't take away from the sadness for the people who are affected.

    But yeah, a place with more rain. And believe me, Larry and I eye Portland every day. Especially times like these.

  3. not that there's a specific person or place to blame besides humanity as a whole. Developers, for instance, want to make money right away, so if they've got primo land that occasionally goes up in flames, why not sell and make some cash and keep the forest fire side on the downlow?

    This has become a massive tragedy, though. I always wondered why folks from the east took the Oregon Trail...why not head further south?

    Now I'm wondering if they had a respect for nature's power over humanity we don't understand.

  4. Here's an excerpt from Mike Davis' Ecology of Fear:

    It's only part of the chapter on fires in the L.A. area - the entire chapter also describes the disparity between the response shown for wildfires in Malibu and urban fires in poor tenement housing. Apparently he's a Marxist and he's writing to make a point, so take it with a grain of salt, but the way he describes how L.A. leadership has catered to developers and land-lords at the expense of the poor is astounding.

  5. My friends have a ranch just south of Tehachapi, some 30 miles north of Castaic (the northernmost LA county fire). Developers are trying to convince the locals that their valley will benefit from a brand new, self contained city. Larry's gone to their meetings with fears about water and services and fire danger. But they silence him with more talk about revenue. Maybe the latest fires will convince the neighbors to vote against it. But they voted in one of those Dick Cheney style Hunt clubs.

    And as for different standards for the poor, take a look at the digs at Qualcomm Stadium. Perhaps Qualcomm is a testament to lessons learned from Katrina. But the fire ravaged areas of Poway and Rancho Bernardo are homes to mansions. The mansion owners probably fled to the Marriott. So the middle class and the poor at Qualcomm are getting treated well.

  6. Great article. It's intersting how far we will go to change nature in efforts to make it habitable.

    Between 1999 and 2003 I lived in Colorado Springs. During that time the Springs and Denver had huge population surges. By the time I moved there were areas of high desert in East Colorado Springs that were now sprawling with houses and strip malls. Denver even looked at tapping into the water supplies of some of the mountain towns like Fairplay. I think there's even a South Park episode about it.

    It does make me think about New Orleans too. Here's a town built six feet below sea level that uses pumps, levees and canals to make it livable.

  7. Hi Susan and everyone else, I definitely understand your opinions, but by the same token, everywhere you live is going to have problems living with nature. Although southern California has wildfires, the gulf coast has hurricanes and the Midwest has heat waves.

    As a people, we were indeed supposed to live in moderate climates and in a garden-like environment, unfortunately for us, Adam and Eve got kicked out of the garden and we are all suffering as a result. Now there are so many people on the planet that we all need to live somewhere, some in fire zones, some in hurricane zones regardless, we have to live with nature.

    What seems to alarm me the most, and maybe as someone living in San Diego I may sound too sensitive to this or reading things that were not meant to be read as such, but it seems that the attitude with some here is that we should have known better or all be living somewhere else. However, everyday more people are being arrested in the arsons that caused these fires. This is not simply nature having her way, this is something caused by a few people and now hundreds of thousands of people are paying the consequences. It seems eerily similar to the whole Adam/Eve situation to me.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that people are imperfect, living in an imperfect world. We do our best to get by. Some people make wiser decisions than others, but ultimately we mess up and sin usually leaves consequences that other people will have to take on their shoulders. We just need to get up and try and do better.

    Another thing that I can say in regards to San Diego, (as truthfully, I have no idea about anywhere else right now) is that possibly because of recent mass disasters; from 9/11 to Katrina to the wildfires here four years ago, we have learned how to cope with such crisis. San Diego as a whole has adapted beautifully to what has happened. We have anticipated every need and have been up to the challenges set before us. There has been no mass panic or rioting, almost no looting; everyone has had a place to be. Every need from food to clothes to volunteers has been met. One of the most amazing things to see is how the churches and believers are the ones meeting this head on before the city even has to ask. This is a time that needs prayers, prayer for victims and survivors; that the winds will stay calm and people will be free from harm; but also prayers of gratitude that God had prepared us to be able to help people and show His love to the community.

    God did not want this imperfect world for us – this was never His plan, but He will see Himself glorified and I am so thankful that He has chosen to make His presence known in this place.

    Grace and peace from San Diego,

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  9. Heather,

    Your response is great. I completely agree that this is not the life God had intended us to live and sometimes stuff happens. In Colorado there were huge wildfires every summer and some that displaced families. Even my parents were to supposed to evacuate a couple times. Most of the time these fires were the result of cigarettes.

    However, I do think we are called to be good stewards of God's creation. I cannot speak for San Diego, but I can for what I saw in Colorado. The building there was out of control. There may not be other places to build, but in my opinion the city got greedy. It seemed like there were times that zoning laws and growth reduction plans were looked at. It seemed they always failed because there was a fear that if growth was stopped the economic boom would end and leave developers empty handed.

    The result is now when I visit Colorado Springs there are roads and expansive neighborhoods where there weren't seven years ago and I get lost easy. The upside is that I get stuck in stand still traffic long eneough to consult a map.

    I agree that "The Fall" makes it hard to live in a world where things like this don't happen despite our best efforts. And I agree that there's no easy answer, Earth's population grows larger by the day and there's only so many places to put all these people. We have to build cities on cotton bales and build Hoover Dams or the Three Gorges Dam in China to help accomodate everyone. It's hard to slow down and know how to correctly handle it all. A lot of our corrections are made in hindsight.

    It wasn't until after the Dustbowl, in which poor (but at the time much practiced) farming techniques coincided with a drought, that farmers reconsidered how to go about things.

    I'm not at all an expert on land management or city growth plans. I would think it's an incredibly hard job. But I do think at times we need to consider what's best for the people and not what's going to make the most amount of money.

    I mean I could live without Super Wal-Mart's, huge movie metroplexes, stripmalls if it meant taking better care of the planet. Maybe what's percieved as a higher quality of life really isn't.

    For an intereting article on the myths of economic growths check out:


  10. http://web.uccs.edu/ccps/Gazette.

  11. Excellent segue to my political pitch du jour - if you live in Oregon, PLEASE vote yes on Measure 49. It will help preserve some of the strength of Oregon's landmark land use regulations, which are being threatened by timber companies with deep pockets.

  12. Heather, thanks so much for signing in. It's easy for us to talk bout these fires when we're not affected. And it was great to know that churches responded so well.

    Teh LA Times just published an article about the growth of LA real estate pushing out into desert and fire-risk areas.

    We are strapped for land here in So. Cal. I know there is a need. But developers really must be taken to task on being upfront about the risks involved when they build these homes in fire-risk areas.

    Heather I am glad you are OK and that you reported in on what's happening. I hope and pray that the next time people ask, "What has the church been doing to hel?" they'll remember those kinds of things, rather than the crusades or the usual cries.