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The Big Burn: Admiring Fire in the Foothills

Although catastrophic, the destruction and creation caused by southern California wildfires is a beautiful cycle to behold.

The Big Burn: Admiring Fire in the Foothills

Whenever friends of mine living in other states speak disparagingly of L.A., the reason's always the same: “I couldn’t live without four seasons,” as if year round sunshine and idyllic temperatures are a big drawback instead of a huge asset.

But there are four distinct and well-rounded seasons, I tell them--Fall, Spring, Rainy and Fire.
My friends have never experienced towering waves of fury blotting out the sun in a hazy burn, rolling like the ocean over a wilderness as it consumes it, reducing a forest teeming with life to a desert of comprised only of remnants lingering like afternoon shadows.

And it’s these remains that hold the promise of future greenery.

As the summer’s fire season lays waste to a vibrant landscape, sending it into a winter of barren death, the next rebirth awaits it. It’s an unfamiliar cycle to those dwelling in more “traditional”  climates, and perhaps uncomfortable, that life could be so dependent on death.

But the fire season is what makes the landscape here thrive.   

And so it goes every year, the city of angels sacrificing acres of outlying wilderness to the burn, one of the most amazing natural spectacles to behold--that is, if you don’t get too close to it.

Every year, homes are devoured by hungry flames and occasionally, people’s lives are swallowed in the carnage.

I’ve always been amazed how in Florida, one hurricane after another levels homes and mansions alike in a watery, airborne torrent, reinstating the ebb and flow of eternally shifting shores. Yet, despite knowing that a hurricane of some namesake or another will unleash holy havoc upon homes and the people who live in them, they choose to rebuild in the same spots.

Meanwhile, I’ve always thought the dangers we in the southland face--wind storms, mudslides, flash floods and earthquakes--aren’t as easily pegged down or named. We don’t know where they’ll happen--just that they will.

Beverly Hills has been shaken awake twice in one week, following on the heels of numerous other nearby tremors, in the same phenomenon that crafted the San Gabriel Mountains and its 970 square miles of terrain so rugged that surprises await even is experienced admirers.

Beset on the north by the infamous San Andreas Fault, the young range is crumbling even as it's born, scarred by the fault it wears like a birth mark, charred from recurring fires and baring the signs of violent cleansing.

But even fire season in the San Gabriels can be managed by knowing not only which way the wind blows, but the pattern of fires.

Rather than carrying out extensive brush clearance, which some have posited can lead to even bigger “megafires”, the U.S. Geological Survey recommends looking at where fires have occurred historically and avoiding building in those areas.

The most recent searing scourge has already resulted in an upwards of 12,000 evacuations over Labor Day weekend. According to the USGS, about 1000 homes are destroyed each year in Southern California, and not everyone can afford to rebuild.

Fires is human’s greatest tool, and it’s well-established that far from allowing wildfires to ravage villages, Native Americans utilized fire to shape their landscape with controlled burns. They also learned to allow fire, and all of nature’s forces, to shape the way they lived.

When residing in a landscape that’s beset by flames once a year, the wisest choice may be to steer clear of mother nature’s destructive path rather than plopping down in its midst and trying to get her to flow according to your whims.

Because if you don’t get too close to the flames, fire season unleashes a dazzling display of the violent and mysterious birth of the beauty we are fortunate to call home.

It’s the other terra-forming habit of Gaia--those earthquakes--that I really worry about. But strangely, my faraway friends never complain about those.

Have you seen the Williams fire?

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