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The fire this time

An inferno in the heart of L.A. may be just a preview of the summer to come, so clear that brush.

May 10, 2007

IT IS OFTEN SAID, usually by people who don't live here, that Los Angeles is a city without a center, a collection of suburbs in search of a downtown. In political or cultural terms, that may be true. But the city's emotional heart is somewhere near its geographic center -- the great park bestowed by Col. Griffith J. Griffith in 1896 and severely burned in a fire this week, serving as a near-catastrophic reminder that Southern California is embarking on an extraordinarily dangerous summer.

The sight of flames tearing across the slopes of Griffith Park, the tales of heroic stands to save the zoo and the merry-go-round, the smoke rising behind the regal dome of the refurbished observatory -- all bring home the fact that fire season has begun five months early, its threat immediate, not remote. It jeopardizes not just faraway foothills but the heart of the city itself.

Historically light rainfall and an early onset of hot weather have left all of Southern California exposed. Firefighters can barely recall a drier, more treacherous brush season. Indeed, even as Los Angeles' attention was focused on Griffith Park, other blazes in San Bernardino, Yorba Linda and Lake Elsinore made clear that the risk is close to omnipresent whenever the Santa Anas blow. That suggests a fearful stretch ahead, demanding stepped-up prevention. Perhaps the fires will finally spur action by public agencies to clear brush from land for which they are responsible.

While it was heartbreaking to watch Dante's View burn, this week also refreshed our admiration for what keeps the city intact. The L.A. Fire Department takes its share of knocks, but firefighters did a marvelous job of protecting the park's many landmark institutions from an unpredictable fire on treacherous terrain. Aggressive aerial suppression, including night-flying helicopters, kept flames away from exposed houses that had been efficiently evacuated by the LAPD.

The aftermath of these fires reinforces both the city's relief and its peril. Nearly 1,000 acres of a treasured park were scorched, trails and picnic spots obliterated, ancient oaks burned away. And yet, just one home -- whose owner clung to a shake roof despite decades of evidence that those roofs catch and spread fire -- was damaged. For two days, a fire raged across the center of the nation's second-largest city, and not one person died. If only the next fires go so smoothly.

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