The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is meant to be, in Southern California, the start of rainy season. Not this year. The Thomas Fire, the worst of those roiling the region this last week, grew 50,000 acres on Sunday alone; it has now burnt 270 square miles and forced 200,000 people from their homes. There is no rain forecast for the next seven to ten days, and as of Monday morning, Thomas is just, in the terrifying semi-clinical language of wildfires, “10% contained.” To a poetic approximation, it’s not a bad estimate of how much of a handle we have on the forces of climate change that unleashed it — which is to say, hardly any.
“The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself,” Joan Didion wrote in “Los Angeles Notebook,” collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. But the cultural impression is apparently not all that deep, since the fires that broke out last week produced, in headlines and on television and via text messages, an astonished refrain of the adjectives “unthinkable,” “unprecedented,” and “unimaginable.” Didion was writing about the fires that had swept through Malibu in 1956, Bel Air in 1961, Santa Barbara in 1964, and Watts in 1965; she updated her list in “Fire Season (1989),” describing the fires of 1968, 1970, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1982: “Since 1919, when the county began keeping records of its fires, some areas have burned eight times.”
We could use further updating: Five of the 20 worst fires in California history have now hit since just September, when 245,000 acres in Northern California burned — devastation so cruel and sweeping that two different accounts were published in two different local newspapers of two different aging couples taking desperate cover in pools as the fires swallowed their homes. One couple survived, emerging after six excruciating hours to find their house transformed into an ash monument; in the other, it was only the husband who emerged, his wife of 55 years having died in his arms. As Americans traded horror stories in the aftermath of those fires, they could be forgiven for mixing the stories up or being confused; that climate terror could be so general as to provide variations on such a theme seemed, as recently as September, impossible to believe.
But if last week’s wildfires were not unprecedented, what did we mean when we called them that? Like September 11, which followed several decades of morbid American fantasies about the World Trade Center, the brushfires that began last week north of Santa Paula look to a horrified public like a climate prophecy, made in fear, now made real.
That prophecy was threefold. First, the simple intuition of climate horrors — an especially biblical premonition when the plague is out-of-control fire, like a dust storm of flame. Second, of the expanding reach of wildfires in particular, which now can feel, in much of the West, like a gust of bad wind away, and never impossible no matter the time of year. Over the last few decades, the wildfire season has already grown by two months, and by 2050, destruction from wildfires is expected to double (for every additional degree of global warming, it will quadruple).
But perhaps the most harrowing of the ways in which the fires seemed to confirm our cinematic nightmares was the third: that climate chaos could breach our most imperious fortresses — that is, our cities. With Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Americans have gotten acquainted with the threat of flooding, but water is just the beginning. In the affluent cities of the West, even those conscious of environmental change have spent the last few decades believing that, and behaving as though, we had — with our street grids, our highways, our superabundant supermarkets and all-everywhere, all-enveloping internet — built our way out of nature. We have not. A paradise dreamscape erected in a barren desert, L.A. has always been an impossible city, as Mike Davis, among many others, has so brilliantly written. The sight of flames straddling the eight-lane 405 is a reminder that it is still impossible. In fact, getting more so.
One response to seeing things long predicted actually come to pass is to feel that we have settled into a new era, with everything transformed. In fact, that is how Governor Jerry Brown described the state of things this weekend: “a new normal.” The fact that the news cycle has already moved on, while the fires are just as out of control, is another sign of our eagerness to normalize these horrors — or at least to look away. But normalization is problematic, as perversely comforting as it may feel to think we’ve settled into a familiar nightmare. Climate change is not binary, and we have not now arrived at a new equilibrium; as I’ve written before, the climate suffering we are seeing now is a “beyond best case” scenario for our future. With each further tick upward in global temperatures — each tiny tick — the effects will worsen. And further ticks are inevitable; the question is only how many. It would be much more accurate to say that we have passed beyond the end of normal, into a new realm unbounded by the analogy of any human experience.
But two big forces conspire to prevent us from normalizing fires like these, though neither is exactly a cause for celebration. The first is that extreme weather won’t let us, since it won’t stabilize — so that even within a decade, it’s a fair bet that these fires will be thought of as the “old normal.” Whatever you may think about the pace of climate change, it is happening mind-bendingly fast, almost in real time. It is not just that December wildfires were unheard of just three decades ago. We have now emitted more carbon into the atmosphere since Al Gore wrote his first book on climate than in the entire preceding history of humanity, which means that we have engineered most of the climate chaos that now terrifies us in that brief span.
The second force is also contained in the story of the wildfires — the way that climate change is finally striking close to home. Striking, in fact, some quite special homes: Last Thursday, for instance, there were reports that the fires were threatening the Getty Museum and Rupert Murdoch’s Bel-Air estate. There may not be two better symbols of the imperiousness of American money in the country.* One imagines that Murdoch will not be writing tweets like this one again anytime soon; then again, who knows?
When, on Thursday, I tweeted that NBC News was reporting that Murdoch’s vineyard was on fire, it immediately spawned a thread of gleeful, crowing responses, more than a thousand of them. But, of course, his property and the Getty were not being singled out; they were fighting off flames because the entire rest of the county was, too, and — no matter how well-equipped or well-defended or well-heeled they were — having just as much trouble. Which is, as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, a very useful allegory for the rest of us to keep in mind.
By accidents of geography and by the force of its wealth, the United States has, to this point, been mostly protected from the devastation climate change has already visited on parts of the less-developed world — mostly. The condition of Puerto Rico, nearly three months after Hurricane Irma hit, is a harrowing picture of what climate devastation can do to the least among us. That it is now hitting our wealthiest citizens is not just an opportunity for ugly bursts of liberal Schadenfreude; it is also a sign of just how hard, and how indiscriminately, it is hitting. The wealthy used to build castles to defend themselves against the world; more recently it’s been a more modern kind of fortress, cities, enclosing more and more of us in an illusion of man-made security. All of a sudden, it’s getting a lot harder to protect against what’s coming.
* This article originally stated that the Getty villa, not the Getty Center, was threatened by the wildfires.