Fire has always been a part of life in Los Angeles, said journalist David Wallace-Wells in New York magazine. But now bigger, hotter, and more frequent infernos are turning the hills around the city into a desolate hellscape.
You could see the smoke from space. The plume from last November’s Woolsey Fire swept out toward Catalina and into the Pacific beyond on 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 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. “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.”
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. 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.
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.
“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, tells 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 re-elected 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.
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 10 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’ 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.
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 says. “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 says. “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.”
Every community has detailed evacuation plans, some laid out down to the particular street. For everyone in Los Angeles, Paradise presents the nightmare scenario: a community so aware of wildfire risk that 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’ ratio of people to exit routes is five times as bad as Paradise’s.
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 Nov. 8, it trapped the motorists on it, who had no choice but to drive through the flames. 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 during the Woolsey Fire 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. 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 4 or 5 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.”
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 alarm sounded, 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 by the end of May. Homeowners told me that was just the beginning, that probably they’d need to uproot and remove all of the region’s most flammable trees—none of which were native growth but had been transplanted into Southern California by waves of real estate speculators to make the arid landscape look more like a Mediterranean land of plenty. 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.
Mike 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. 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 city 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.
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?’” But in some ways Garcetti doesn’t sound too different from Davis, the environmental prophet, when he talks about the causes of 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.”
© New York Media, LLC. First published in New York magazine. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.