The Mountain fire and California’s incendiary literary past
“The city burning,” Joan Didion wrote in “Los Angeles Notebook,” “is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself.” I kept thinking about that Wednesday night as my wife and I drove out to Hemet, where our daughter had been evacuated from her camp in Idyllwild due to the 19,600-acre Mountain fire.
Hemet may not be Los Angeles, but it’s close enough that Didion’s image — “at the time of the 1965 Watts riots,” she continues, “what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end” — has an unsettling resonance.
After all, as she observes in another essay, “Fire Season”: “Anyone who has spent fire season in Los Angeles knows some of its special language — knows, for example, the difference between a fire that has been ‘controlled’ and a fire that has so far been merely ‘contained’ …, knows the difference between ‘full’ and ‘partial’ control …, knows about ‘backfiring’ and about ‘making the stand’ and about the difference between a Red Flag Alert (there will probably be a fire today) and a Red Flag Warning (there will probably be a Red Flag Alert within three days).”
Didion is right, and what struck my imagination most indelibly about our late-night drive into the evacuation zone was the calm. My wife and I have been here long enough to understand the vernacular of fire (just as we understand the vernacular of drought and flood and earthquake); we never once feared for our daughter’s safety, never once doubted that the human part of the dynamic was (if such a phrase is even applicable) under control.
It’s at moments such as this that I am, paradoxically, most glad to live in Southern California, where we know how close to the edge we really are.
Fire, of course, has been a part of the literature of the region since there was a literature of the region: not just Didion, but also Nathanael West (whose 1939 novel “The Day of the Locust” revolves, in part, around a mural called “The Burning of Los Angeles”), Carey McWilliams, Ross Macdonald, Carolyn See.
As far back as 1840, Richard Henry Dana described the aftermath of a fire in Santa Barbara in his book “Two Years Before the Mast”:
“The town is certainly finely situated, with a bay in front, and an amphitheater of hills behind. The only thing which diminishes its beauty is that the hills have no large trees upon them, they having been all burnt by a great fire which swept them off about a dozen years before, and they had not yet grown up again. The fire was described to me by an inhabitant as having been a very terrible and magnificent sight. The air of the whole valley was so heated that the people were obliged to leave the town and take up their quarters for several days upon the beach.”
What Dana is describing is a wildfire ecology — or, in other words, the landscape in which we live. “The rhythm here,” Didion writes in “Fire Season,” “is not one that many people outside Los Angeles seem to hear.”
And yet, as Gregory Rodriguez argued in the wake of the 2009 Station fire, such a rhythm defines the place, as much (or more) than any of the myths we take for granted about who we are.
“Far from being the victory of hell in L.A. over heaven in L.A.,” Rodriguez wrote, referring to the “pyrocumulus clouds” that mushroomed over the Los Angeles basin like atomic fallout, those clouds “reminded me that in a very real way, we can’t have one without the other. The cloud is just what it looked like: two sides of the same coin; the one defines the other. Heaven, hell. Ugly, beautiful. Apocalypse, paradise. Los Angeles.”
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