The Mission manzanita, a hardy native shrub whose berries the Chumash used to make into juice, is one of many California chapparal plants that, in the words of the Catalina Conservancy, "require fire for optimal seed germination." When drought browns the hills, and the Santa Anas come tearing through the sky five months early, it's boom-time for our fire-dependent flora. "These plants," the Conservancy notes, "have very hard seed coats that are scarified by fire and thereby 'activated.'"
The most pleasant surprise of last week's Griffith Park and Catalina blazes was that it turned out Southern Californians were ready and able to be "activated" as well. And it wasn't just the firefighters, though they surely deserve the most praise (you try to protect four geographically scattered historical landmarks, plus a museum, cemetery, two golf courses and hundreds of homes ... at night, in steep and treacherous conditions, with wind changing conditions at will).
My first inkling that people were rising to the occasion came on the drive home from work on the worst night of the Griffith Park blaze, when I took Vermont Ave. north from the 101 and drove straight in the direction of a fire that was spilling down the hillside toward the homes on either side of Vermont Canyon. It was an awesome sight of raging oranges and seething purples against a twilight sky, a thousand times more distracting than a fender-bender on the side of the freeway, yet people drove calmly up and down one of the city's busiest traffic arteries. Turning into the mall parking lot near Barnsdall Park, there were dozens of neighborhood looky-loos, quietly watching the fire head down our direction. Up the park steps and on the mini-hillside were literally scores of Angelenos, most of them taking pictures in a very professional manner (some of which ended up on the L.A. Times' terrific user-generated photo site.
If ever there is a metaphorical "hard seed coat" around a particular class of Angelenos, it's our much-maligned local TV news broadcasters, and I say that as someone who'll stack up his Hal Fishman fandom against anyone. Night after night, their diet of non-newsworthy cheesecake, pointless found video, and new-study-proves-it medical scaremongering deserves at least half the scorn it receives. But when the big fires hit, the rest of us are left choking on their ashes.
KCAL 9 helicopter pilot Larry Welk hovered above the flames for hours on end, dissecting both the daring nighttime aerial water-drops and the subtleties of shifting winds with all the world-weary expertise of Bob Dylan picking out a Woody Guthrie tune. Ageless CBS 2 sports anchor Jim Hill was calm and upbeat as can be, describing the scene from his cell phone and praising the kindness of strangers...and his house could have burned down! (Same goes for Police Chief William Bratton, whose eyes during an interview kept darting over the next hill yonder, where his house lay exposed.)
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the rest of the city's disaster-response leadership were impressive and seemed to be cooperating well, but the star of the show was clearly 4th District Councilman and Griffith Park mega-booster Tom LaBonge. Like Las Vegas, LaBonge is an acquired taste, but you can't help but suspect that those unable to make the acquisition just aren't very happy people. In a Council otherwise filled with think-global idealists, grumpy ex-cops and nakedly ambitious political climbers, LaBonge is the rah-rah pothole guy who loves his job and his district so much you almost want to laugh at him. That's okay; he's usually laughing, too.
But not last week. At Greek Theater press conference after press conference LaBonge lurked behind the various fire chiefs, occasionally darting in with absurdly specific planting histories of various scorched groves, cheesy tales of personally evacuating locals (he knew their names, of course), or anguished recounting of watching a lovely and frightened Griffith Park deer leap westward, away from the flames. On just about any other politician, this cornball act would look like shameless self-promotion; but on LaBonge last week it made me glad to live in District 4.
All in all, a bravura performance in a tense week, especially from the firemen who managed to limit damage in Los Feliz and Avalon to just a handful of structures. Too bad it's just Round One of a long and dangerous season, but it's good to know L.A. seems ready for the fight.
Matt Welch is assistant editorial pages editor. Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.