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Los Angeles | Patt Morrison

Just Another Day in Our Postcard Paradise

October 28, 2003|Patt Morrison

It was Halloween week back then, too, a decade and a day ago, when fire put on its terrifying mask and went trick or treating.

It went door to door, hot-footing its way up the hillsides and down the canyons, from Altadena to Laguna Beach to Thousand Oaks. And by the time it was finished, nearly 600 houses were gone.

Now here it is, Halloween week, and fire has come back, right on schedule. Trick or treat again.

Already, more than a thousand buildings are gone, and more than a dozen people are dead.

The fires aren't even out, and I can tell you now what's going to happen next, once they are.

Pretty soon, it'll start to rain. The mud will slip down hills scalped of flora, and take a few houses along with it. The bare hillsides will sprout green with new plants, which will grow and dry out and burn all over again.

And we'll build more houses in the same places, and profess ourselves to be utterly dumbfounded when the cycle starts once more.

Insanity, Einstein said, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We, clearly, are no Einsteins.

Don't look at me. I live in the hills. I'm as crazy as the rest of you.

*

To all of those people who say L.A. has no seasons, I say, sure we do. We have four of them. Fire, flood, drought and quake.

Ronald Quinn does most of his research by waiting for a fire. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona, and spends solid time studying fire ecology in the San Dimas Experimental Forest, a biosphere reserve in the San Gabriels, about 17,000 acres of field laboratory that for 70 years has tested out just what water and fire can do to this place.

The other night, he didn't have to drive that far. Fire came knocking a block from his own door in Claremont. The neighborhood was evacuated. Quinn stopped in mid-chaos and said to his wife, "You know, I've always had to go to other people's neighborhoods to study this. This time, my work came to me." (His house was spared; his wife was unamused.)

Quinn grew up in the La Crescenta Valley, watching years of burn-and-green cycles. He went to Princeton but came back here to work, which is understandable given the shortage of wildfires in New Jersey.

Fire in these parts is as natural as snow in Vermont, and as important. "People ask, 'What would it be like if we could prevent all these fires?' and I say, 'What would it be like if there weren't any rain?' They say, 'That doesn't make sense,' and I say, 'Well, neither does your suggestion.' In all western ecosystems, fire is woven into the ecology."

The fires that can savage vast square miles of chaparral make way for plants to grow. That keeps the flora diverse, which keeps a balance in the animals that feed on the plants, and ... you see what I'm driving at. It's about as natural as it gets. Unlike us.

Humans have been fiddling with fire since we got here. Native Americans were torching the place to drive game when Cortez was still in diapers.

Now we're cramming ourselves into places that are only habitable because we spend money to keep them so. That postcard come-on of Southern California as a placid paradise? That was a sales pitch that would shame a telemarketer. We bought into it. We still do. We cram ourselves into places that are only habitable because we spend a lot of money to keep them so.

A USC professor once told me that this kind of behavior is like a love affair; "You get burned once, but you always go back." We are a people, as John McPhee wrote, who "would rather defy nature than live without it."

Quinn goes to firefighter conferences where everyone worries about the break point of all this pressure on land and water and space -- and the limits of their resources. They'd like to find a word for this kind of behavior; how about "fuel-hardy"?

*

Maybe you didn't notice amid the Arnold-mania, but in the new budget, 50 million bucks was just cut from the state's fire protection fund. For the first time, the state will be asking homeowners in the Flame Belts to make up the difference.

A new tax, masquerading as a fee? Surely not!

This has been floating at the edge of public policy for years.

Every time something in Malibu catches fire or slides downhill or gets walloped by waves, the public posse rides to the rescue, and then there's grumbling from the unscenic flats about the cost of saving the millionaires. "Let Malibu Burn," was the incendiary headline in an L.A. Weekly story years ago. During one fire, actress Shirley MacLaine, packing her car to make a getaway, said they should change Malibu's area code to 911.

Yet these same naggers may themselves be living in the L.A. River's flood plain and getting flood protection and subsidized flood insurance for their homes. Taxes on the houses in the fire hills pay for the sandbags in the storm-drenched suburbs; taxes on houses in the desiccated desert pay for the water-scooping planes for the fire hills. That, too, is a cycle. Does it make us good neighbors, or suckers?

Ask me next Halloween, when fire goes trick or treating again.

Patt Morrison's columns appear Mondays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com

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