Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Letter from California-October 25, 2003

Ah, fall! In the much of the country, the leaves on the trees are putting on their dramatic color show to the delight of picnickers and tree freaks. Further south, there’s a crispness that’s slowly starting to wash away the last of the harshness of summer. Way up in New England, there might even be a light dusting of snow around now, and families will be gathering around a first autumn fireplace.

Here in Southern California, we have a weather pattern marking this time of year too. It involves a light dusting of ash and a metropolis of 10 million gathered around a first autumn forest fire. Yes, it is fire season again, the hallmark of summer’s end, and a chance to reflect on Californians and their too-cool-to-worry attitude toward danger.

First, the facts. You might have heard of the various forest fires that started last Friday. At this writing, they’ve burned about 280,000 acres of the San Bernardino National Forest and other places as well as a few hundred homes. Yeah, yeah, you’ve read things like this a hundred times… x number of acres burning in blah-blah National Forest. Most of those fires happen in more remote locations, the vast National Forests or outback areas of Arizona or Nevada or someplace where only an unlucky handful will even come near it.

This fire, on the other hand, is basically burning at L.A.’s doorstep. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s in a National Forest. It’s in San Bernardino, a city of almost a million people that’s basically connected by urban sprawl to the City of Angels. That means about 10,000,000 people get the smoke, the smell, and the ash falling on freshly washed cars like snow’s evil twin.

Not to mention the danger of being burned up in a catastrophic fire. Yeah, there’s that too.

In fact, I drove by a separate forest fire last weekend just as it was getting started. A dark brown plume was rising from the hillside and must have gone up about 3 or 4 miles and stretched about 30 miles from end to end. I was on my way with the family to ride a vintage train to a pumpkin patch, and the flames burned about a half-mile from the freeway. We cheered the spectacular flames and congratulated ourselves on getting past the fire before they shut the highway. We thought maybe it would keep the crowds away from the train ride, which embarked only 6 or 7 miles from the fire.

No such luck. It was a full house, with the train heading right back in the direction of the fire. The conductor told us with pride that if we came in on the 126 freeway, we wouldn’t be going back that way, because the fire had jumped the road and it was now closed. Hooray for everybody on this side of the fire!

It was a little smoky and gusty, but everyone enjoyed the pumpkin patch. I suppose it’s possible that the fire could have taken a terrible turn for the worse and come sweeping across the corn field, causing us to have to beat a hasty retreat (on a train from the 1930s that maxes out at about 25 miles per hour) to escape the fire. No reason to let that stop you from enjoying a jack cheese and tri-tip sandwich while picking out an exotic variety of pumpkin for carving.

Geologists say that California was created by the violent collision of the Pacific Ocean with North America, and that the place is pretty much designed to generate fires, earthquakes, floods, and droughts. It doesn’t explain O.J., but it does say a lot about what it takes to live here.

Earthquakes, for example, can strike almost anywhere in California at anytime. Unlike hurricanes, you don’t get a week’s notice and a chance to pack a cooler full of sandwiches. It’s a little frightening if you let yourself think about it.

So, the best thing to do is to pack up a First Aid kit, a few dozen gallons of water, and a couple days worth of food, and forget about the fact that a giant fissure in the earth could appear in the middle of breakfast or that a teenager with a cherry bomb could spark a fireball big enough to swallow a city. Forget that some B-rate celebrity could get arrested for almost anything and cause traffic snarls of biblical proportions. David Cassidy, do us all a favor and keep your nose clean! We’ve got places to get to!

People deal with fear by confining it to a place where they can live with it. It’s like sending a bad kid to his room. You know he’s there, and you have to deal with him, but at least he’s not knocking over houseplants on the carpet all day. Here in California, the natural environment keeps us on our toes and occasionally, we might even worry about it.

But nothing would be less Californian than letting anyone know that. On the other hand, even a cool Californian is not too cool to say a big thank you to the very brave firefighters from all over the region for what they’re doing to beat the blaze back. Beat that fire and be safe!


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