You could see the smoke from space. The plume from last November’s Woolsey fire swept out toward Catalina and into the Pacific beyond by the same Santa Ana winds that had carried the flames all the way down the Malibu mountainside to the beach. The aftermath was eerie, the sunsets gorgeous, toxic ash falling from the sky in heavy lumps. Horses and alpacas and a giraffe wandered the sand, having fled flames that tore through local stables and ranches and a vineyard’s private zoo. The burn scar on the land, when the smoke cleared, stretched 152 square miles through Point Dume and Malibu and up to Calabasas and Westlake Village: 96,000 densely populated acres burned, 300,000 people evacuated from 100,000 homes, a city of 10 million terrorized in ways both familiar and unprecedented.
In the mythology of Los Angeles, fires are an eternal feature of the landscape — more permanent than any human settlement and an intimation that the city and its people remain rugged, no matter how comfortably plastic and protected life in its wealthy canyon sprawl might seem. But in a time of environmental panic, last year’s fires played more like a portent of something new, even an End of Days. The same resident of Inglewood or West Hollywood or Culver City who might once have looked up from his driveway to see the same smoke plume suspended above the city’s flatlands or driven past the same flickering flames along the 405 and thought, California, now sees them and thinks, Climate change.
You can’t outrun a wildfire burning at full speed; some grow an acre a second, some three times faster still. You can’t outdrive flames carried by winds traveling 60 miles per hour straddling highways that had looked, moments before, like escape routes. At those speeds, you can’t defeat the fires, either — even with Cal Fire’s $2.5 billion annual budget; its hundreds of fire engines; its air force, 50 units strong; its army of thousands of professionals, thousands of volunteers, and 1,500 furloughed inmates drafted into the state’s annual war on wildfire and paid as little as $1 an hour.
“No one will ever be honest about this, but firefighters have never stopped a wildfire powered by Santa Ana winds,” the environmental historian Mike Davis told me earlier this spring, as we toured hills ravaged by past fires and — redeveloped and reinhabited in their wake — haunted now by future ones. “All you can hope for is that the wind will change.”
Los Angeles can seem, in this way, ahead of its time, a sort of preview of what the rest of the country is only peeking at through stretched fingers — communities across the city contemplating what is to come and wondering just how comfortable, or even manageable, life under those conditions could possibly be. The Woolsey fire was twice as big as anything that had burned through Malibu before, yet it represented only a tiny part of the worst fire year in the history of the state — only 5 percent of the acres that burned.
Fires ignite randomly — downed power lines, out-of-control campsites — and so they are hard to predict. The next few years are as likely to be erratic ones, climate scientists say, as they are to be cumulatively worse. But over time, the prediction becomes much clearer. It is expected that by 2050, the area burned each year by forest fires across the western United States will at least double, and perhaps quadruple, what it is today as a result of warming. That is just three decades from now — the length of the mortgages that banks have extended to the homes on those fire-prone lands.
After that, the picture becomes murkier — projections diverge, mid-century, in part because different scientists take different approaches to estimating just what the fire environment will look like in a particular ecosystem once all its land has burned. In greater Los Angeles, that could happen as soon as 2050, when past experience, harrowing and biblical as it may seem, could cease to be any kind of guide for what’s ahead.
Already, the fires are different. Cal Fire used to plan for wind events that could last as long as four days; now it plans, and enlists, for 14. The infernos bellowed by those winds once reached a maximum temperature of 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, Cal Fire’s Angie Lottes says; now they reach 2,100 degrees, hot enough to turn the silica in the soil into glass. Fires have always created their own weather systems, but now they’re producing not just firestorms but fire tornadoes, in which the heat can be so intense it can pull steel shipping containers right into the furnace of the blaze. Certain systems now project embers as much as a mile forward, each seeking out more brush, more trees, new eaves on old homes, like pyromaniacal sperm seeking out combustible eggs, which lie everywhere. In at least one instance, a fire has projected lightning storms 21 miles ahead — striking in the right place, these ignite yet more fire. “California is built to burn,” the fire historian Stephen Pyne tells me. “It is built to burn explosively.”
Some fires no longer even need much fuel, not in the traditional sense. In Paradise, where on the very same day as the Woolsey fire an entire town of 26,000 was incinerated in just 12 hours, many of the trees survived, having evolved to endure conditions like these — indeed, to thrive in them. Instead, the fire leaped from man-made structure to man-made structure, an especially horrifying sight to anyone living in a well-paved subdivision or even a bare half-acre plot in the hills of Los Angeles. Clearing brush didn’t seem to be enough anymore. The trees that died were just the collateral damage; this time, homes were the fuel.
“There’s no number of helicopters or trucks that we can buy, no number of firefighters that we can have, no amount of brush that we can clear that will stop this,” Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, told me. “The only thing that will stop this is when the Earth, probably long after we’re gone, relaxes into a more predictable weather state.”
A native of L.A., Garcetti is now 48 years old; in the year he was born, wildfires burned 61,000 acres in California. In 2013, when he was first elected mayor, it was 602,000 acres. In 2017, the year he was reelected with more than 80 percent of the vote, the total was around 1.2 million. In 2018, as he contemplated a run for the presidency, it was 1.89 million.
Most of these fires take place in woodland, far from Los Angeles. But though they are often small, the fires that strike L.A. tend to be memorable. Mostly that’s because it’s one of the world’s great cities; while it’s one thing to wrap your head around wildfires incinerating entire uninhabited forests, it’s quite a bit more shocking to see flames breaching the heart of a modern metropolis (in this case, often across its highways). Of course, more people are affected in an urban fire.
Hollywood has been the world’s dream factory for a century now, exporting idealized visions of Southern California as well as apocalyptic ones, each rendering the other more intense by contrast. The city is also, again thanks to Hollywood, home to some of the world’s richest and most beautiful and most famous people, many of whom you could watch evacuating via Instagram Stories last year and the year before, their private firefighting forces arriving to replace them. This image inverts what the city has long promised, especially to its wealthy residents: that you could live in a kind of communion with the landscape, up in the hills, and still participate in the city’s spectacular bacchanalia of reckless, materialistic abundance; that pushing development deeper into the manicured fringe of Los Angeles was a form of living in meditative equipoise with nature; that you could endlessly chew into the environment without fear of its biting back. Climate change is altering that, too.
“There aren’t more fires now,” Garcetti said. “We just can’t control them the way we used to.”
Malibu residents talk about the Woolsey fire as a bad one. In fact, it was more than twice as large as the largest ever to hit the area before, and more than ten times the legendary Bel-Air fire — for decades remembered as the worst in the city’s history. But it can be hard to keep perspective when one’s memories are so crowded with horror stories. “The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself,” Joan Didion wrote in “The Santa Ana,” from 1965, about the fires that had swept through Malibu in 1956, Bel Air in 1961, and Watts in 1965. Didion updated her list in 1989 with “Fire Season,” in which she described the fires of 1968, 1970, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1982. Since 1970, the city has endured 57 fires of more than 5,000 acres; some areas around Malibu Canyon Road have burned six times.
“Malibu burns as often as the vegetation has regenerated enough to burn,” Davis says. “It’s absolutely an insane place. To believe it’s safe defies all reason.” Garcetti describes the aftermath of the Woolsey fire as “unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was the most vast wasteland.” A Malibu man, looking out from his concrete home in the hills down toward the sea, told me, “There’s nothing left to burn, except us.”
In earlier centuries, these hills would burn regularly, clearing the landscape of fuel and turning over the land like tilled soil. But half a century of fire suppression — across the American West but especially in places like Los Angeles, where real-estate speculation chased smaller scraps of wildness to develop — reduced that kind of fire, creating a ready-to-light stockpile almost half a continent in size. Now, given how many homes are there, it’s hard to manage what’s called a “controlled burn.” Even when low winds make it safe, there are residents who’ll resist.
There are many more of them in danger now, too. More than 60 percent of new residential development in the state since 1990 has been in wildfire-prone areas, and more than 1 million buildings in the state are already vulnerable given wildfire conditions today. The fire season is longer now, with hotter temperatures and drier weather making more fuel available and awaiting ignition for a longer stretch of the year. In Los Angeles, the season begins in June and runs all the way through December into months dominated by Santa Ana winds. Both fire scientists and firefighters have suggested dropping the word season; the threat, they say, is year-round. Of the ten years with the most wildfire activity on record in the American West, nine have occurred since 2000.
The world has always had droughts and floods and hurricanes, too, heat waves and famines and war. But while a future of so many more of them may seem unlivable, unconscionable, even uncontemplable today, another future is possible: one we endure in a world increasingly defined by the brutality of climate change by normalizing that suffering as quickly as warming produces it. Los Angeles is in this way, too, ahead of its time — its long history with wildfire offering a model for normalization.
Garcetti monitored the Woolsey fire mostly from the sky by police helicopter, not wanting to commandeer one from the fire department. “I’ve looked at a lot of fires, and this one was strange,” he said. “In certain canyons, you’d see just the ferocity, but it was more like a blade — it was like swords shooting out and stabbing certain homes or certain swaths of homes. Then ones right next door were absolutely fine. There was something very predatory about it. It was like a stalker — not hungry for everybody, but when it’s hungry, it’s ravenous.” Then he realized that the Woolsey fire might cross an eight-lane freeway. “The biggest thing was realizing this was going to run all the way to the ocean,” he said. “That was kind of unprecedented. I thought it wouldn’t cross the 101, and then suddenly it was like, There’s nothing you can do anymore. This whole thing is going to burn. And the only thing that’s going to stop it, thank God, is the Pacific Ocean.”
Los Angeles County is made up of 88 cities — this is the origin of the witticism, often misattributed to Dorothy Parker, about all those suburbs searching for a city. Almost half of them include what Cal Fire, the state’s expansive fire-and-forestry authority, calls “Very High Fire-Hazard Severity Zones.” Those 39 are: Agoura Hills, Arcadia, Avalon, Azusa, Beverly Hills, Bradbury, Burbank, Calabasas, Claremont, Covina, Culver City, Diamond Bar, Duarte, Glendale, Glendora, Hidden Hills, Irwindale, La Cañada Flintridge, La Habra Heights, La Mirada, La Verne, the City of Los Angeles, Malibu, Monrovia, Palmdale, Palos Verdes Estates, Pasadena, Pomona, Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills, Rolling Hills Estates, San Dimas, Santa Clarita, Sierra Madre, Walnut, West Covina, Westlake Village, and Whittier. Given the right conditions — dry, hot, windy — a catastrophic fire could start in any of them and then spread wherever the wind wanted to go.
These areas do not blanket the county, but, clustered around the mountain ranges that give Los Angeles its shape, they enclose it on three sides, as if trying to force a fleeing population into East L.A. In the south, there is the peninsula of Palos Verdes, country-club country, peeking out at Malibu across the bay. To the southeast are the Santa Ana Mountains, spilling into Orange County, which has wildfires, too — last August’s Holy fire torching 23,000 acres. In the northeast are the hills that zoom over Silver Lake and Echo Park, and around Eagle Rock and Highland Park. But the most important is the Santa Monica range, which begins at the ocean near Ventura and extends due east, the spine of almost everything you think of as alluring Los Angeles, both the glamour and the tackiness. The northern foothills spill into the San Fernando Valley to Calabasas, Encino, Sherman Oaks, Studio City. The southern ones are home to Malibu, Topanga Canyon, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Bel Air, Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Hills, and, all the way to the east, Griffith Park. Fire threatens all of these hills and the canyons that connect them.
The list of 39 cities is not, in other words, exhaustive; fires can start elsewhere, too: Topanga, Pacific Palisades, Bel Air. As recently as 2017, the Skirball fire, which broke out near the cultural center there, burned through 400 acres, forced the closure of UCLA and the Getty Center, and leapfrogged the 405 freeway. But Skirball was the lesser fire rampaging through the area at the time. In fact, it was tiny compared with the Thomas fire, which started north of Malibu and burned over 280,000 acres, forced the evacuation of 100,000 residents, and on its very first night destroyed 500 homes. The Great Chicago Fire, by comparison, burned just 2,000 acres, the Great Fire of London just 677.
In California, fires like Thomas or Woolsey used to strike once in a generation; some residents of Malibu told me they now expect them to hit every three years, or every two years, or every one. Smaller fires are already cropping up in L.A. more often, several times each season. When Woolsey hit, it was right on the heels of the Hill fire, 15 miles to the west, which jumped the 101 just 12 minutes after being sparked.
When conditions are ripe like this, residents are given a “red-flag warning,” but these can go on and off for weeks. On a red-flag day, you can’t park your car along evacuation routes, and smoke from hamburgers cooking on a grill can bring neighbors to your door, screaming and panicked. Every community has detailed evacuation plans, some laid out down to the particular street. Southern Topanga, for instance, empties via Topanga Canyon Boulevard past five “safety” or “survival” areas (Calmont School, Mill Creek Ranch, and the Topanga Community House, Pine Tree Circle, and Topanga Center strip malls) that are designated, mostly because of their distance from trees and brush, as safe places to take cover if you can’t continue.
For everyone in Los Angeles, Paradise presents the nightmare scenario: a community so aware of wildfire risk it regularly conducted fire-evacuation drills but whose roads out were so few and so narrow that, when the fire actually came, the evacuation turned into a deadly traffic jam. A recent study found many areas of Los Angeles have escape routes just as oversubscribed: Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Pacific Palisades, Rolling Hills. Rancho Palos Verdes’s ratio of people to exit routes is five times as bad as Paradise’s. Many other parts of L.A. that may not be quite as dense still rely on two-lane roads — one way in, one way out. And unlike hurricanes, which approach for days, or sea-level rise, which takes decades, wildfires, like earthquakes, arrive with almost no notice. An evacuation bullhorn can wake you up at 2 a.m., the monstrous fire sparked only since you went to sleep.
The map of the county’s fire anxiety is also a map of its class structure, which makes L.A. fires an anomalous climate menace. Most climate change threatens the poor first and most directly. But like Florida, Southern California is unusual: two postcard paradises erected at the country’s swaggering imperial peak on land long thought inhospitable (Florida was once dismissed as a swamp, Southern California for having the arid appearance of a desert). And as in Miami Beach, where the glitziest stretch of that sandbar is the most threatened by sea-level rise, in Los Angeles, the wealthier you are, the likelier it is that you live in the hills — which is to say, in the line of fire. Still, “the people of South L.A., I don’t think, live with this as a daily obsession even if people in Bel Air do,” says Garcetti.
That the threat is ever present does not mean fires are predictable or that you can properly plan for them (much like earthquakes, which threaten the city, too). If you know the terrain and how to read the wind, as the exceptionally skilled firefighters in fire-prone places invariably do, you know where the flames will go. But when the Hill fire forced the closure of the 101 on November 8, it trapped the motorists on it, who had no choice but to drive through the flames. Within 15 minutes, the fire had grown to 100 acres, big enough — and moving fast enough — that it drew firefighters and fire engines that might have been deployed just a few minutes later to Woolsey, so named for the canyon where it was first spotted. And when, less than 12 hours after it ignited, Woolsey swept over the mountains above Malibu and down toward the Pacific — a path every one of those firefighters would have known to prepare for — many of them were up north in Paradise, enlisted in the fight against the Camp fire, which was burning simultaneously. The firefighters who eventually arrived from elsewhere didn’t even know how to navigate the mountain roads with their trucks.
Those who elected to stay behind in defiance of evacuation orders did so with a certain cowboy pride, though it wasn’t always clear they knew at the outset what they were in for; you could collect enough horror stories to fill an anthology in just an hour spent in Malibu Lake or Point Dume if there were still doors to knock on there. One resident of Malibu Lake who stayed behind told me he understood that meant he couldn’t leave the house and then come back — he was there for the duration. Then the power went out, and the internet with it. “So you have absolutely zero information. You may as well be back in medieval times, living in a cave or something,” he said. “I slept in my bed fully clothed, one eye open, and from my bedroom I can see the fire glowing and cresting the hill four or five miles away. And it was terrifying. If the wind changed direction, this unbelievable fire moving at the speed of several football fields a minute was going to come roaring down toward us.”
Another man, who’d recently lost his wife, spent a week defending his home with the help of five teenagers he’d recruited, the fire encircling his house before eventually retreating. “It’s probably three in the morning, and we’ve got our flashlights and our hoses going,” he said. “This migration of animals came — from little to big to who really knew. Two of the boys, they climbed the tree, scared. I realized, The animals aren’t after me. They’re just trying to get out of there.” I heard about a man from Malibu living in West Hollywood who, not wanting to miss out, returned against evacuation orders to fight the fire where he had grown up but where no one in his family even lived anymore. I spoke to a woman who saw two different childhood homes of hers destroyed in the same fire and one whose home was so completely turned to ash that it felt like a miracle, she said, when, digging through the debris weeks later with the help of a local church group going house to house in HAZMAT suits, she discovered her husband’s tweezers.
Six months later, the houses that survived smell as if they’ve been submerged in ash ever since. It will take years to rebuild the others — two or three, probably, said those homeowners lucky to collect insurance payments generous enough so they can talk, with some guilt, of erecting “dream homes” from the burn scar. By the time new homes are finished, much of the local flora will have recovered, too. Then, come summer, it will turn brown and dry, baking in the heat and waiting for the wind.
In late winter, Los Angeles was visited by 41 consecutive days of rain — an epic deluge for a drought-stricken state but also a mixed blessing. In the forest areas in the north, drought and heat can reliably create fire conditions. But in greater Los Angeles, the better predictor is actually the availability of grassland, which grows more bountifully when it rains. This sequence of extreme weather may sound paradoxical — historic rains followed quickly by fear of fire — but climate change promises to make everything more extreme, including sudden meteorological reversals. By 2100, one recent study suggested, parts of the planet could be hit by six climate-driven natural disasters at once.
In 2018, then-Governor Jerry Brown called the fires “the new normal,” then adjusted to “the new abnormal.” A better phrase would be “the end of normal,” since climate change promises to cascade away from us as long as we continue to burn fossil fuels. Among those living in fire-prone areas, apocalyptic talk often unfolded alongside quotidian concerns and a kind of personal utopianism. A woman who’d made her home in Malibu long enough to live through nine fires was considering moving now, she told me, only for personal reasons. I spoke to a surfer who complained that for months last winter the water smelled like fire and tasted like ash, but he kept surfing. I talked to several people who refused mandatory evacuations, callused by “false alarm” evacuations in the past and eager, at the same time, to fight the fires themselves, should the flames really come. None planned to honor orders the next time, either.
No one I spoke with who lost a home expected a long reprieve from fire, but all planned on rebuilding anyway — to do otherwise would mean losing their insurance money. Nobody’s premiums were even going up yet, though on NextDoor, the private-community bulletin-board app, residents of Malibu feared AIG might decline to renew their policies. (They pointed their finger at one homeowner who they said kept his gate locked, against code, preventing firefighters from getting through.)
But house prices weren’t falling, not really anywhere in the city; in Malibu especially, people talked about the problem of “limited supply.” Along with everything else, the wildfires are a real-estate story — in the case of Woolsey, a $6 billion one. In the aftermath of such an event, the renters move elsewhere; the less well off and less well insured can’t afford to wait or rebuild and tend to leave too. Everyone else bides their time, works with architects and contractors specializing in fire resistance, then returns. Not coincidentally, the houses get bigger. “You have to remember,” Davis says, “fires gentrify too.”
They also stoke mythologizing. “I think it sort of gives people a sense that they are part of the story of California,” says Dana Goodyear, the poet and journalist, who has spent 15 years in Los Angeles and nearly that much time covering fires. “It does not make people say, ‘We’re going to pick up stakes and reverse–Dust Bowl move to Oklahoma; we’re going to retreat from this climate disaster to a safer spot.’ Oh, no. It is the opposite. It is, ‘We’ve been tested by this fire.’ They think of themselves maybe as those native trees whose potential is unlocked in a disaster like this. The Woolsey fire only affirmed, for people who stayed and survived it or who lost their homes and came back and rebuilt, how much it is their destiny and fate to be linked to that place, that this is the history of this place and they are entering that history in moments when they experience these things. I tend to feel it more as entering apocalyptic history — Oh my God, this is what it’s all going to be like. It all feels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to me.”
During the fires last fall, it was impossible to feel, anywhere in the city, that the threat was distant. Those who lived farther from the flames talked more about the smoke — the gunk you could feel in your lungs, the toxic-seeming clouds floating out over the ocean and back again, the Technicolor sunsets that the ash and chemicals produced when dispersed. They talked about asthma, headaches, panic attacks. They bought surgical masks from Amazon, mostly the wrong ones, and spoke of heavy metals suspended in the air, which they weren’t. They downloaded air-quality apps for the first time, comparing the city to the Bay Area, clotted with smoke from the Camp fire, and to Delhi and Beijing, from the burning of fossil fuels.
One woman, with the air full of wildfire debris, brought her 5-year-old son to the emergency room with “shallow breathing, like he was a little frog, that skin pulling across the collarbones,” she said. Six months later, on NextDoor, they were trading diagnoses and self-diagnoses, asking who with what breathing trouble had been doing what on which property and when — the suffering of others a kind of guide to what they should be anxious about themselves. “It’s everywhere, and it’s the thing that you have to do: breathe,” one woman told me.
Stories from the fires were passed around like trading cards, as though they might contain some wisdom. But what lesson could you draw? Everyone already knew to back their cars into their driveways and garages, as Cal Fire suggested, with full tanks of gas, and to keep a go-bag by the door; they walked past it every time they left the house. Many had been packing and repacking those bags for years, like monks preparing for death by ritually sorting through their cherished belongings. At first, the bags were heavy with photo albums and keepsakes, but in the smartphone era they grew lighter, carrying prescription drugs and crystallized coffee and lying by the door like deflated parade balloons.
A Malibu Lake woman I spoke with, sorting through her things after a 2 a.m. bullhorn, paused with her favorite ring halfway down her finger, thinking, I can’t believe I’m accessorizing for an evacuation, and left it behind. Her husband didn’t take a bag at all, promising her they’d be back — he’d been through three evacuations before. When he did return, it was by hiking up the hills on foot; the roads were impassable because of downed power lines. His brand-new Tesla sat melted in the driveway. Even the chimney was gone. She saw the barren plot for the first time on the local news.
Everyone I talked to in fire-prone areas knew to clear their brush, certainly by the end of May. Homeowners across Los Angeles told me that was just the beginning, that probably they’d need to uproot and remove all of the region’s most flammable trees — eucalyptus especially, but palm and fir as well, none of which were native growth but which had been transplanted into Southern California soil by waves of real-estate speculators to make the arid landscape look more like a Mediterranean land of plenty. As fire approached, some had called for the trucks to spray their homes with retardant foam — “Ghostbusters,” they called the service, and complained it took days longer, each time, than promised. (“They always stop at the Kardashians first.”) Everyone knew their evacuation route by heart, but no one I spoke to anywhere in L.A. was moving, or planning to, out of fear of fire.
Davis compares people obstinately living in the path of fire to victims of domestic violence, “the kind who continue to believe that their husband’s really a good guy, or that it’s their fault,” he says. “They let themselves be battered again and again, to the point where some of them die. That describes, pretty much, the attitude of people here.”
Davis is a complicated figure with a complicated reputation in California — a radical intellectual, obscure by any Hollywood standard, who nevertheless became an infamous outcast from California society in the middle of a vagabond career on the left (trucker, meat cutter, organizer, freelance academic). Now 70-something and frail from cancer, he lives just outside San Diego, which he describes as the most heavily militarized territory in the entire United States. Theoretically, he is at war with the Border Patrol and the Navy base, the conservatives who fill the megachurches of the city’s expansive sprawl and the real-estate developers he identifies as the main force driving Californians — blindly, blithely — into harm’s way. But he also loves the weather and the land where he was raised and where he is still raising a second round of kids.
Outside the state, Davis is probably best known for his 1990 book City of Quartz, a dense, virtuosic study of the architecture and class hierarchies of Los Angeles. In California, he is more famous for Ecology of Fear — which is to say, reviled. That book, published in 1998, argues that the state was built so much in defiance of nature that even the way its citizens imagined and portrayed apocalyptic disaster, in Hollywood movies especially, was a form of delusion: a desire to see the natural cycles of the local ecology as some terrifying, unnatural visitation rather than the inevitable phenomenon of the real world puncturing Southern California fantasy.
“Southern California is in violation of environmental common sense on every level. But enough disasters occurred that the image of California changed from being the Garden of Eden to being the mouth of hell surrounded by the apocalypse,” he says. “Still, if you look at it from the standpoint of environmental history, what was characteristic of the 20th century was the deficit of disasters. Seen from a long-term perspective of centuries, it was a period of unusual seismic quiescence.” He shakes his head. “Sometimes I get really attacked by people: You’re such a pessimist. I tell them, ‘I’m not a pessimist, I’m just scared shitless and always have been.’ If I’m depressed about things, that is the question you should be asking: Why aren’t you depressed about that? ”
I didn’t mention Davis to Garcetti; he mentioned Davis to me. “The Mike Davis thing, I hate playing into the cliché of like, Oh my God, Los Angeles is uninhabitable and why do people live here?” He compares L.A. citizens’ experiences with fire with those they have with earthquakes: “The trauma is deep, but if you haven’t been directly affected, it fades away pretty quickly.”
So quickly, according to the fire historian Stephen Pyne, we forget the threat is even real. “We think that cities don’t burn — maybe the fringe will lose a house or two, or maybe a strip, but actually propagating through a city is something that doesn’t happen anymore,” Pyne says. “But it does. It’s like watching an old plague — or measles. You know, ‘Hey, we don’t have measles anymore; we don’t need to vaccinate.’ ”
Pyne calls himself “a pyromantic — not a pyromaniac, important distinction. I take a fire-centric or pyro-centric view of things.” For him, the story of the planet and of human civilization is one of fire, which makes climate change one as well — a matter ultimately of what we’ve chosen to pull out of the Earth and burn. But trees are fossil fuels, too, in their way; they store carbon, and, like coal, when burned, release it — which may be enough each year via wildfire to wipe out all of the emissions gains achieved in the state through green policy.
Pyne’s prescription for Southern California is ten times more fire, though of the controlled-burn variety. Without that, and with continued wildland development, “we’re going to have horrific fires, and we’re going to have a lot more of them,” he says. “What is the cause of all this? What are the drivers, as people like to say? I would respond to that by saying I think a fire is a driverless car: It’s barreling down the road; it’s integrating everything around it. The prevailing narrative is one of dumb Westerners building houses where there are fires, but I think what we’re seeing — and this is a combination of land use, climate change, and other factors — is that the fires are going where the houses are.”
“I think we’re a place with more resilience and a shorter memory simultaneously,” Garcetti says. “But no place is supposed to sustain life” — not like we expect it to today, with skyscrapers and imported water, modern sewage systems and endless air conditioning. As you’d expect from a mayor, he is careful to praise the initiatives taken by fire departments across the county, citing new equipment and techniques of fire mapping, increased focus on water resilience and monitoring homeless encampments in fire-prone areas. They are contemplating some controlled burning in Malibu now, and the new governor, Gavin Newsom, came into office with a “45 day” immediate-action plan and a wildfire “strike team.” Cal Fire, Garcetti says, has never been stretched so thin, and yet, as a former Navy man, he compares it favorably to a military operation — which would make California something like a state under occupation by wildfire.
But in some ways Garcetti doesn’t sound too different from Davis, the environmental prophet, when he talks about the root causes and solutions for the fires. “It takes like a decade to turn the corner on something like homelessness,” he says. “To turn the corner on something like global warming, it’s like grasping at clouds. You’ll never hold it, even if you are trying to. And there will be those days and moments where we realize the Earth is sending us a cry for help every single time this happens.”
“Beauty has been so domesticated in our imaginations here,” Goodyear says. “We’ve cheapened it by making such a pop-culture product out of it, where it’s the background to every car commercial, it’s a sold image. I think that dulled the awareness that what you were looking at was a picture of danger. But anyone who thought about it for a second, or even who didn’t think about it, I believe, probably unconsciously could feel that in those pictures of the coastline in California — with the dramatic cliffs and the sparkling blue oceans — that the beauty is the danger. It is the expression of the danger, of the seismic activity, of the relationship between the water and the land, which threatens the humans who would build along that strand. You feel it there, and you call it majestic or stunning or any of the things you might call it. But what you feel is awe, and awe is terror.”
It may seem hard to hold those two perceptions in your head at once — intuitions of doom alongside everything beautiful the world has to offer. But while climate change may force us to think in those terms, in ways that make us uncomfortable, we may just take the bargain anyway. “When people say it to me — ask me how do I live in California — I kind of think, Oh, okay, go ahead, don’t live here,” Goodyear says. “It’s a cliché, but I’ll go ahead and enjoy California, thank you very much.”
*This article appears in the May 13, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!