Some thoughts on disaster journalism, fire, Southern California, and resilience

Fire Heads For Valley

This conversation triggered by Faith Kearns’ comments about memories of Santa Anas got me thinking about an old piece I wrote a while back and never published. I didn’t publish it because the editor I was pitching didn’t want it, but in retrospect I’m glad it never ran. It seemed ill-timed then, and on a morning when we’re glued to our screens watching fire in the Southern California of my childhood, it makes a point that’s as ill-timed today, but that needs to be made. So here goes, with some tweaks to bring it up to date….

One of the problems in the perception disaster journalism gives us of disasters is the narrowness or broadness of the lens with which we view things. We see the fire, but not the not fire. This biases our understanding.

The news across the Southern California of my childhood was stark in the last days of September 1970. A fire that had ignited in Lytle Creek Canyon, in the mountains north of what is now Rancho Cucamonga, was growing. Forecasters were predicting fierce Santa Ana winds.

Living in Upland, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, the Lytle Creek fire was our fire. I know now that there were many fires burning in those apocalyptic weeks across Southern California, but from the vantage point of our childhood, there was only this one. Chaffey College, where my father taught art, was in its path. As the winds kicked up the afternoon of Oct. 1 and fanned the flames, school disbanded early. My friends and I walked the few blocks home from our sixth grade classroom at Valencia Elementary School under a sky that seemed ablaze, the sun red-orange color through smoke fanned toward us by the hot dry winds.

Dad’s school evacuated too, and my sister, Lisa, and I remember packing the car to evacuate. Dad and I climbed onto the roof to wet down our wood shingles as we watched the fire burn through the afternoon and into the evening across the hillsides above our suburban corner of paradise, watching the chaparral that was our childhood playground go up in flames.

Lytle Creek was our fire, but of course it was not the not only one. By one count 773 wildfires burned across Southern California in those remarkable two weeks from late September through early October 1970. According to a history by emergency manager Dale Rowley nearly 600,000 acres – more than 900 square miles – burned, destroying 722 homes and killing 16 people.

Rainfall the previous six months had been the second lowest on record across Southern California. The arrival of the Santa Ana winds, a hot bolt out of the desert, gave life to one of Joan Didion’s most famous descriptions of life in Southern California. “[T]he violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability,” Didion wrote in 1968. “The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

The last few years in Southern California have been like that. Last year the Blue Cut Fire again burned again through Lytle Creek, and this morning we watched our screens spellbound as the Skirball Fire tour down the 405 and into Bel-Air, burning the jockeys off of rich people’s lawns, to borrow the memorable words of Frank Zappa. We are reminded of Didion’s powerful description of Southern California’s fragility. But is “fragility” the right way to think about this?

Drawing on the work of ecologists, scholars who study “resilience” look to the ability of a human community to absorb a shock and retain its basic structure and function. By that measure, in the nearly five decades since Didion wrote those words, Southern California has demonstrated that it is anything but fragile. Fires, fueled by drought and a warming climate, have beaten us at our margins again and again. They will ever do so, because we have built cities in Southern California and across the West is places prone to fire, extending ourselves into the inevitable wildland urban interface.

But the city I grew up in, Upland, ever threatened by fire at its margins, has retained its basic structure and function, has thrived as a human community in the decades since the Lytle Creek fire. It is a story repeated across Southern California. Even as fire batters us, Southern California has retained its basic structure and function in the decades since dad and I sat on the roof hosing down the shingles and watching the hillside above our house burn. Disaster journalism shows us those burning margins, as it should, and life there is terrifying. But they are only the margins.

This is not to minimize the suffering of communities and ecosystems hit by wildfire. But we should not extend our fear from stark headlines and smoke on the horizon to a broader fear that Southern California as a whole is, as Didion wrote, “close to the edge.”

8 Comments

  1. I wonder if recent fires are burning into towns and cities more, though? Santa Rosa, now Ventura. Maybe not so “at the margins”.

  2. Chris –

    I was endlessly frustrated by the news coverage of the Napa/Sonoma fires, because the pictures of the devastate neighborhoods, which were horrific, didn’t give any sense of how much of Napa and Sonoma counties *wasn’t* burned. If you look at the final fire maps, you can see that the fires, devastating as they were, were at the margins. Most neighborhoods didn’t burn.

    Ditto the current situation in Southern California. Again if you look at the fire maps you see that, devastating as they are in the places where they are, the fires are happening at the margins.

  3. Yes, that’s historically been the case, but my question is whether cities/towns are becoming more at risk, with hotter average temperatures and less precipitation in the West. I wonder if there’s been any historical research on this.

  4. P.S. The “how much of Napa and Sonoma *wasn’t* burned” comment reminds me of a line featured on John Oliver recently by a Roy Moore spokesman, in defense of his actions, pointing out how many teen girls weren’t molested by Moore. It’s hardly a convincing assertion.

    I see on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_California_wildfires#Largest_fires), that if you sort large to small on structures burned, the top 3 most destructive to urban area fires were in the last 15 years, and the top 10 were in the last 30 years, except for one in 1970. So it could be said that a trend is happening: either fires are getting to urban areas more, or urban areas are spreading into fire areas, which is basically saying the same thing. So it might make sense to pay attention to this. I know that there has been concern for years that people are building residences too far into the wilderness. It could be though that fires are getting bigger and hotter and are coming into the towns and cities, increasingly.

  5. Chris –

    You’re arguing against a straw man that is not the argument I made.

    I am not arguing that the fires are not horrible. I am not arguing that they may not, in fact, be getting worse – destroying more homes, threatening more cities. I am not arguing that building in the WUI has not made things very much worse.

    I was quite specific in what I am arguing – that, to cite the concept of resilience, in doing so they do not threaten the underlying structure and function of Southern California. I am arguing that Southern California has the ability to retain its basic structure and function in the face of these shocks – that, to reiterate what I wrote for emphasis, “we should not extend our fear from stark headlines and smoke on the horizon to a broader fear that Southern California as a whole is, as Didion wrote, ‘close to the edge.'”

    I am arguing that the oft-cited apocalyptic rhetoric of Joan Didion, and John Rechy, and the other giants of Southern California literature who have argued from the Santa Anas and their fires to suggest the very impermanence of the place itself, is wrong.

    P.S. The comparison to Roy Moore’s defenders was deeply offensive.

  6. re: Roy Moore, it was an attempted joke. Sorry, if it was offensive.

    And I’m sorry that it didn’t sink in that you were arguing against an apocalyptic vision of Southern California. I wonder how many actually share this view, and therefore the impact of coverage by the media. My family lives down there, I am from S. Calif. No one I know subscribes to such a view. I always took Didion’s view as literary license; mostly coming out of the 60’s extreme culture. So maybe that’s the straw man.

  7. The way Didion herself is frequently quoted on days like this, making the point about the fragility of L.A., seems evidence that it is a point some people will make, and make, and then make again. Mike Davis is another, the genre of apocalypse, a tragedy narrative, that L.A. has no place here and that fire will bring its collapse, or earthquake. The genre does not limit itself to L.A. – the same line of thinking has been applied to Phoenix, and South Florida, and on. The “tragedy narrative” literature is vast, quoting Didion every time fires erupt in L.A. is but one manifestation. And it is my work to push back against it, to try to evaluate the postulated apocalypse in terms of adaptation and resilience theory. It is good that know one you knows subscribes to such a view.

  8. Okay. I hadn’t realized it was such an issue, not watching local TV perhaps which is always about the next killing or other “catastrophe” in our lives. The statement about there being more un-burned than burned threw me. Since it’s obvious it wasn’t apparent immediately why you were making the assertion.

    Keep up the good work. I’ve referred to your book in discussions of the state-level Sierra Club water committee.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *