We live in the desert and on the desert's edge, in an arid land that cleanses itself by fire. Calling it "Malibu" doesn't change that. Piping in water from hundreds of miles away doesn't change that. Paying a lot of money for the house of your dreams, or deciding that Los Angeles should be the capital of the 21st Century, doesn't change the need for the land to sweep itself with fires; the way it doesn't change the likelihood that the faults are going to crack--maybe crack so big and bad, some scientists say, that a magnitude 8 quake will cause many more fires than we've had in the last two weeks. All the computers in the world aren't going to change that.
Voting for Republicans or Democrats doesn't matter when it comes to what the terrain demands. We live on the edge of a desert and the only thing that's going to make it \o7 not\f7 the edge of a desert is if a quake changes the topography enough so that we live on a string of islands. Neither Pete Wilson nor Hilary Rodham Clinton can change that. Michael Woo wouldn't have been able to change that any more than Richard Riordan can. Even Michael Ovitz can't change that.
Last week, firefighters, journalists and residents often talked about the fire's behavior as though it was alive. Well, it doesn't have what science would define as life, but it \o7 is\f7 part of a living process: the process of replenishment. A terrain with little or no rain doesn't rely on water to break plant life down into soil again--it relies more on fire. Such processes are immense and irresistible, and if your house happens to be in the way of that process, it will burn. The floods of last summer were also part of an huge, long-term process of natural replenishment. We are a civilization that doesn't take into account processes of replenishment--they seem always to catch us unawares.
The politicians, who can do almost nothing in this matter, are trying to make their nothing look like something by blaming arsonists. It is true that there are always a few human beings who, when they see some fires over here, feel compelled to start another fire over there. The human concept of Hell in most cultures is a place of fire, and these people are born with a little more Hell than others to hold inside them. The mobs who burned Rome and the soldiers who burned Atlanta--to name two of history's more famous cases of arson--never watched TV and didn't, as far as we know, consume street drugs. Arsonists, too, are always with us.
Where you have dry brush, arid air and high winds, fires are going to start. Whether they start by natural causes (as most do) or are started by downed powerlines or arsonists (as some do), it is the condition of the landscape that causes the fire, more than the particular means of combustion. I'm all for arresting arsonists, but that won't stop such fires.
Fifty-four years ago, in "The Day of the Locust," a book that many read now but almost no one read then, Nathanael West prophesied that fire would be the ultimate doom of Los Angeles. His protagonist is an artist who paints the people he knows into a large painting titled, "The Burning of Los Angeles." West thought the natural phenomenon that would torch Los Angeles would be the part of Mother Nature called "human nature"--a human nature ultimately so infuriated at the gap between what it has and what it wants that it doesn't care if it destroys itself as long as it destroys the city, too.
West believed people felt cheated by Los Angeles. He said it was dangerous to goad people to dream if those dreams remain forever out of reach. But our recent fires put West's conflagrations in another context--or, if you like, in another light.
Los Angeles, the city of dreams, is so volatile \o7 geographically \f7 that the "haves" are ultimately as unable to protect what they have as the "have-nots." Of course, the haves have insurance, and the have-nots have not. But the very need for insurance is an admission, however reluctant, that you don't really have what you think you have. Insurance is a symptom of constant fear of loss. Anything can be taken from anybody, even if you're a multimillionaire with an expensive security system in the Malibu Colony--and this fear was ignited in all of us last week.
We've constructed a city--and, in fact, a civilization--on the hope that the inevitable won't happen--the fires won't burn, the quakes won't quake, the social upheaval will fizzle. At least, we hope it won't happen to us. This is both irrational and selfish. And it creates some strange behavior. At every disaster, every fire, every earthquake, every riot, all the channels broadcast the same scenes again and again: a dazed human saying, "I can't believe it."