Los Angeles, the Combustible Megacity

A densely populated region has had a long, rocky marriage with its landscape.

Feeling the heat.

Photographer: Kyle Grillot/AFP/Getty Images

I’ve been anticipating this week’s dreadful fires without having any real idea what that means. I’m new to Los Angeles, having spent my adulthood living in and around East Coast cities. Those cities don’t spontaneously combust. This one does.

Each weekend, for the past few that I’ve been here, I’ve hiked through one of the much-trafficked parks or pathways through Los Angeles canyons. (That famous Hollywood sign? You can hike right up behind it -- even on horseback.) To someone accustomed to New York’s Central Park or to some of the less famous and fussed over parks and trails outside the city or the landscape east of the Mississippi, these canyons are odd and unnerving. Dusty and dry, their brown, crusty hills are pocked with desiccated vegetation that clings to rock, dirt, anything that affords a grip. The sun doesn’t resemble a match so much as a trick birthday candle. You can’t blow it out.

Wind is the other element in the demonic equation. Unlike hurricanes, which give plenty of advance notice and arrive with a roar and a flood, the Santa Anas are quiet and deceitful. They slip a shiv in your back when you’re looking away.

Los Angeles is the second biggest city in America. L.A. County has a population of more than 10 million. It’s liberal, multicultural and economically dynamic, with lots of ambitious people from elsewhere. In many ways, it feels like home. But it’s not. And when the chips are down, it doesn’t behave like home either.

When you drive through other parts of the West, the mountains and the deserts, it’s easy to see how the people and culture are shaped by the land. I’ve often wondered if I might be more spiritually inclined if I awoke every morning under a Big Sky, or in the shadows of the Little Big Horns. When you’re surrounded by human-made things, as in New York, it seems natural to focus on the humans who make them.

L.A. is a rocky marriage of Western landscape and Eastern population density. The land is not only ill-suited to the population, it periodically files for divorce. Only instead of throwing its mate’s clothes out on the sidewalk in a heap, it ignites them.

Climate scientists say that by mid-century, climate change will have sapped more humidity from the Santa Ana winds, which arrive after the dry summer, increasing their ability to spread fire. And when the region is fortunate to have a wet winter, caution is the proper form of celebration. The seasonal moisture produces more robust vegetation, which dries in summer and fall, and provides more fuel for fire.

I’ve spoken to a couple experts this week about what can be done to mitigate risks. I haven’t heard anything surprising – certainly nothing that would pose more than a marginal deterrent to catastrophe. “You need water to deal with the problem,” said Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, an environmental group based in Escondido, California. Sprinkler systems around buildings can do a lot to fend off flames, but water is hard to come by naturally in Southern California. Given that, Halsey recommends higher development standards, and retrofitting, that incorporate fire resistance.

I received my first phone alert last night before bed, warning about the approach of high winds. I didn’t know how to interpret the message. Did that mean the wind was blowing hard in our direction or that the wind was blowing fire in our direction? Should I remain wakeful? I had just been reading about the extraordinary speed with which the Ventura fire had spread, and was still spreading. Roads and fire breaks weren’t slowing it much.

For what it’s worth, our neighborhood seems safe. I spent some time looking at the map last night, making sure the blazes remained distant. But, of course, a couple days ago other neighborhoods seemed safe that are now threatened, or consumed, by flame. You wouldn’t think such an essential element would be so mysterious and surprising after all these millennia. But I’m from New York. I don’t have a clue.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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