The Flames of Nemesis

The Chumash lived by the wisdom of natural limits. There was simply not enough water, and too many regular fires, to sustain a large population.
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I've lived in California for thirty years near -- but not in -- the coastal Santa Monica mountains next to Malibu. With regularity the fall fire season comes.

The hot, dry "devil" winds howl in from the deserts into the canyons like the mistral in the south of France or the sirocco in north Africa. By October it usually hasn't rained for at least six months, so the chaparral shrubs that cover the mountains are dessicated, devoid of moisture like hay. The mountains that were green as a golf course in March are now dull gray and brown. Looking up in the sky, you see the Canadian geese migrating south -- and the bright yellow fire-fighting planes flying the other direction because someone has thrown a cigarette into the bushes, a power line has gone down in the wind or an arsonist has fulfilled his fantasy.

This year is no different, only worse. The winds persisted for days, some reaching hurricane force at more than 70 miles per hour. And, no doubt, the climate disarray from global warming has made it worse. Two years ago we had an unusual deluge of rainfall that caused a burst of wildflowers and grasses that, by now dried out by drought, only add more fuel for the flames.

Why, then, would people build houses on these perennially vulnerable hilltops and canyons? Every year as the plumes of smoke reach high into the sky, raining ash and darkening the daytime, we ask this question but never listen to the answer.

That's because a real answer undermines the whole improbable idea of southern California, a contrivance of the petroleum age and vanishing water resources.

John Steinbeck, the Nobel author known for his California stories, put down our native Indians, the Chumash, for being nutgatherers who didn't have the stuff of civilization that, for example, the Maya or Aztec did. But that is because, by necessity, they lived by the wisdom of natural limits. There was simply not enough water, and too many regular fires, to sustain a large population. The Chumash name for what is the LA area today was "the valley of smoke."

There were only a few thousands of them, not a huge civilization like the Maya's, because they lived in the environmental conditions of Mayan demise, after the demise! Even the Spaniards only built a few missions up and down the coast.

Long story short, all this was ignored in the optimistic American century. Water was brought down in huge pharoanic-scale canals from rivers far to the east and from the snow melt up north. Cheap energy from the petroleum age stimulated sprawl reaching into the wilderness as Los Angeles and San Diego became a vast space of flows instead of places, commuters crisscrossing immense arid tracts to get from home to work and shopping and back.

Even as developers pushed the sprawl into the danger zones, Californians famously rejected increased taxes to pay not only for protecting themselves from the flames licking at their folly, but investing in mass transit or water infrastructure.

(I remember the year Arnold Schwarzenegger was first elected governor in the recall. I was speaking to a group of businessmen in Orange County as flames crowned the surrounding mountains from yet another fire. I predicted with confidence that Schwarzenegger would reverse his position on the issue that made him popular -- cutting the car tax -- because those taxes went directly to firefighting. I couldn't have been more wrong. In 2007, more fires, but still no more taxes for the firefighters.)

All this has led some wags to rightly call California a plundered paradise. How many disastrous fires of this sort does it take to get the message through? When will we learn that building homes in fire-prone zones is an American delusion, not a dream.

The fires only signify a larger reality. The southern California region cannot sustain a population of 20 million people, still exploding with the great influx of Mexican peasants migrating northward. There is not enough water for that many people, as we are finding out. And how will we get around these vast spaces as the petroleum age winds down?

To be sure, it is easy to be irrationally apocalyptic when flames line the horizon; it is easy in such a time to imagine that California will one day look like one of those paintings in the museum of goatherders frolicking in the ruins of ancient Rome.

But I fear that is where it is all headed. Already the politicians are vowing to "rebuild" as if this were some terrorist attack like 9/11 instead of a self-inflicted wound. Though politically incorrect, it might be wiser to remind dreaming Californians that hubris invites the flames of nemesis.

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