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Southern California’s Uncanny, Inevitable Yuletide Fires | The New Yorker
"Who or what is causing these outbreaks? There are two schools of thought. Those who study historical fire patterns argue that the sources of ignition are irrelevant. The fundamental fire equation in California has three variables: the fuel mass, including the age and dryness of brush; the extent of residential and other development into chaparral and forest ecologies; and the intensity of the wind. Wildfire, in other words, “happens” with or without human assistance, although traditional Smokey-the-Bear-type fire prevention, which reduced the frequency of fires and thus preserved unnaturally large areas of old brush, made great firestorms more likely. Today this irony is fully understood by fire professionals, but their efforts to reduce fuel accumulation through controlled burns comes up against the ever-increasing presence of residential development in foothills and mountains. For one thing, homeowners have hungry lawyers who love to sue public agencies after a burn goes wild or simply generates too much unhealthy smoke.

The other school of thought focusses on chronic sources of ignition. The Witch Creek fire, to take only one example, was caused by an arcing power line in the San Diego backcountry. San Diego Gas and Electric, while insisting that the blaze was an act of God, eventually paid out two billion dollars in damages to fire victims. (The utility’s attempt to shift part of that cost to ratepayers was recently defeated in court.) Poorly maintained power lines are prime suspects in some of this fall’s fire outbreaks as well. And there is the additional worry that terrorists, domestic or international, may someday become part of the fire cycle. A friend of mine, a world-renowned authority on wildfire, once told me about a nightmare he has during periods of high fire danger, in which a single, determined arsonist, with a map and a cigarette lighter, rides a motorcycle.

News coverage of great conflagrations runs in the well-worn grooves of cliché and sensationalism. Needless to say, the hoi polloi in incinerated trailer parks or tract homes get no more traction in headlines than the forgotten and uncounted victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The destruction of celebrity property, on the other hand, is always on the front page, and last week it looked like a few burning super-mansions in Bel Air and the phony fire threat to the Getty (one of the most fireproof structures on Earth) would dominate the news. Then came the tragic story of racehorses at the San Luis Rey Downs training facility, in San Diego County, and most people instantly forgot about the plight of Rupert Murdoch’s Bel Air vineyard.

At San Luis Rey, workers, together with the professional trainers, refused to flee the Lilac (or Bonsall) fire until the danger became acute and one trainer was set ablaze (he’s still in critical condition). Approximately fifty horses burned to death, but, thanks to the courage of their caretakers, many of them Mexican immigrants, hundreds more escaped. A photograph of these thoroughbreds desperately galloping to safety is currently among the most iconic of the myriad fire images on the Internet.

There’s an even more uncanny aspect to the Lilac fire, which is that it was described in detail in a forgotten 1956 novel by the science-fiction author Ward Moore. Moore lived in Bonsall at some point in the late nineteen-forties or early fifties, amid a hundred or so chicken ranchers, horse breeders, avocado growers, and their employees. His novel “Cloud by Day” portrayed an intolerant little community organized by a hierarchy of bigotry—against Jews, radicals, Mexicans, and blacks, in ascending order—that is reluctantly forced to unite to survive an apocalyptic Santa Ana fire approaching from the east. The geography of his fictional inferno (he provides a map), and his strikingly precise description of its dynamics, prefigure the current fire in amazing detail. When I first pondered this example of fiction prophesizing an actual event, I thought that the coincidence must be fantastically improbable. But, the truth is, if you write a story about a fire and set it anywhere in Southern California, someday it will come true."
mikedavis  socal  losangeles  2917  california  fires  wardmoore  1956  nature  urban  urbanism 
december 2017 by robertogreco

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