We Fiddle While California Burns

As I breath ash from a fire 20 miles away, I wonder how many more fire seasons California can survive.
Sand Fire as seen from the author's home 20 miles away.
Sand Fire as seen from the author's home 20 miles away.

I live in a rural part of the Santa Monica Mountains called Topanga Canyon. It’s a community of artists, musicians, writers and still home to a good number of hippies who first put Topanga on the map in the 1960s. While it’s changed a lot since then, the Topanga spirit is real and we long-time residents are fond of saying “Don’t change Topanga; let Topanga change you.”

When people first see my little town, they generally are blown away by its natural beauty and can’t believe they are technically still in urban Los Angeles. They invariably say they don’t know how we drive our winding canyon roads every day without puking ― or worse, getting in a head-on collision.

When first-time visitors arrive at my front door, they’ve often been driving lost for at least 30 minutes ― Topangans aren’t keen on house numbers or street signs and often give directions like “turn left where the big oak used to be.” We live with our chickens and alpacas roaming on our land and packs of coyotes who eat our cats and dogs if we’re not careful. A five-point turn on any road can land you and your car over a cliff. And I’m not the first person who has had rattlesnakes and raccoons come in through a doggy door.

None of Topanga’s many inconveniences have ever been enough to get us thinking about leaving. But there is one thing that does: the fires. 

The popular joke goes like this: Southern California has four seasons ― mudslides, drought, earthquakes, and fire. The first three we accept and manage as being part of the price of living in paradise. But fire season is a different beast ― one that strengthens in might every year it seems. I write this as I choke on unnaturally hued air ― a thick layer of fire ash that has traveled more than 20 miles from the so-called Sand Fire. When night falls, I can see the flames against the dark sky from my bed, knowing the fire is devouring homes and wildlife. It’s the animals that get me. The homes are likely insured and will be replaced. The animals’ lives, they are not. 

The rest of it, I can justify. Fires are nature’s way of purging and reclaiming. Forests today have more trees than they used to, but those trees are not as large or healthy. Established trees have to compete with undergrowth for nutrients and space. Fires are nature’s way of clearing the weakest trees and returning the forest to health. Those homes in the way? Maybe they ― we ― shouldn’t have been here in the first place.

Whenever there is a fire ― even this one 20 miles away ― I am reminded of the time years ago when it was Topanga’s turn in the fire spotlight. I was in the Los Angeles Times’ newsroom working when I heard about the out-of-control blaze in Topanga on the police scanner. I jumped in the car and headed home to rescue my dog, flashing my press pass to get around police roadblocks ― not that they would have stopped me anyway. As I was fighting my way in, there were solid lines of cars on both sides of the road trying to get out. Some people pulled horse trailers behind them, but many more held their horses and goats on leashes through their car windows. Some rode out on horseback. When I got to my house, I ran inside, grabbed my dog and fled. I took nothing. Choppers were dumping fire retardant on us as we left in the eery light and heat. We weren’t allowed back in the canyon for five days and I spent them glued to a TV hoping not to see my home.

That fire did destroy some homes, but not Topanga’s soul. Still, every year during fire season, I am reminded of the power of nature and our ineffectual effort to tame it. I live one lit cigarette carelessly tossed from a car window away from the destruction of my home and life here in Topanga. Please don’t let it be yours.



Los Angeles-Area Wildfire Consumes Landscape