California’s Apocalyptic Cycle

The state is often on the cutting edge. In fear and denial, too, we are leading the way.

A firefighter battles the Woolsey Fire in Malibu
A firefighter battles the Woolsey Fire in Malibu (Eric Thayer / Reuters)

It was my mother who first alerted me to the Woolsey Fire in northern Los Angeles County. She’d been cutting down a few withered branches of a banana tree outside her home in Pacific Palisades, and one stalk had become lodged against her roof shingles. These tar-coated rectangles are supposed to be flame retardant, but my 88-year-old mother, having lived through the fire bombings of Osaka during World War II, is ever vigilant about fires—surviving an incendiary attack has a way of doing that to you—and she was worried that an ember from this new blaze could set her house alight. I asked, “What fire?”

To answer my mother’s call, I had stepped out of the writers’ room on a forthcoming Netflix show premised on the idea that Earth has become uninhabitable, in part because of environmental calamity. The human race has dispersed to other planets and moons in the solar system, colonized through a process that in the writers’ room we call “terraforming” but that we don’t actually understand and certainly can’t explain. I was standing in a hallway in Hollywood, miles from the fire that had just jumped the 101 Freeway and was now burning down the dry brush chutes into Malibu. In a matter of minutes, it had made the journey from the Valley to the Beach, and now my mother fretted that it would soon threaten her, at least 10 miles from where the fire was currently consuming chaparral at the rate of an acre every 15 seconds, or so one television reporter breathlessly explained through her biohazard mask. I assured my mother that her dead banana branch posed no particular fire threat, but as I said so, I immediately doubted myself. What did I know about the flammability of a particular species of dead flora? I kept such concerns to myself, as a 50-minute drive through traffic to remove one stalk struck me as an impractical use of my time. My mother said she would periodically hose down the threatening branch until I could arrive to remove it.

My childhood was spent in acute awareness of fire seasons; they started in early fall and ended with what passed for rainy season in Southern California, 10 days or so of showers in winter. Particularly memorable was the 1978 firestorm that burned all the way down to Sunset Boulevard, charring houses on both sides of Temescal Canyon. My friends and I rode our bicycles there and then smoked marijuana in the ruins. There was another fire in the early 1990s that lit up the Malibu hillsides and turned the sky a threatening, otherworldly orange, the glowing conflagration seeming almost animal as it approached, the spotlights of planes and helicopters whirling in the night like probing antennae of the fire itself. Each time the fire threatened our home, some good fortune intervened to save us—a change in wind direction, a particularly dewy night of high humidity. And in the immediate aftermath we returned to normalcy, forgetting what a risky proposition it is to have millions of human beings perched at the edge of a very dry dessert.

These days, when a fire starts, my routine is different, but the return to normalcy is the same as it’s always been. I go online and price pool pumps, as such a contraption, costing anywhere from $1,200 to $5,000 or so, could transform my swimming pool into a cistern with sufficient water to save my house. That seems like a wise investment, doesn’t it? Then the threat passes, and the urgency recedes. I don’t buy the pump.

Those of us lucky enough to survive the latest blaze unscathed forget the quickening and fear that we felt when it seemed that this time, it was headed toward us. Perhaps living in California—where fires are so frequent that I have heard people describe the ashy embers that accompany fire season as our version of snowflakes—conditions one to persistent denial. Coming right up to the edge of disaster, then moving on; that’s the California way.

The morning after my mother’s phone call, I drove to work with funnels of smoke in my rearview mirror, rising up in the Santa Monica Mountains behind me. The commute felt apocalyptic. Then I spent my day dreaming up post-apocalyptic story lines. My daily life and my work life had come together in calamity as they sometimes do in California. But not just in California. The state is often on the cutting edge—of tax reform, new technology, culinary innovations. Perhaps in fear and denial, too, we are leading the way. Wherever you are, the many dangers of climate change have heightened some already present danger: The floods are worse, the droughts more severe, the hurricanes gustier. Then you go home and escape into an imaginary future that’s even worse. We are all Californians now, dude.

The Camp Fire that erupted in Northern California almost simultaneously with the Woolsey Fire in the south was more dangerous and fatal. The Woolsey Fire, as of this writing, has burned more than 95,000 acres and killed three; the Camp Fire has burned more than 150,000 acres and killed at least 77. I focused on the fire close at hand and my own concerns—the flammable branches on my mother’s roof that might be kindling for a stray ember. And then one cooler night, when the Santa Ana winds died down and the firefighters seemed to gain the upper hand, I stopped worrying altogether.

I drove up the coast Sunday morning, curious about a parcel of land that I had considered buying a couple of years ago. It was about a half-acre between a hairpin curve, with lovely ocean views north and west. There was no running water that far up the canyon. But the developer, a friend who had also grown up in Pacific Palisades, and built a few other houses in Malibu, had assured me that there were plans to lay pipe. There were already houses up and down that winding road above Trancas Beach, all built with the expectation that running water was a matter of years, if not months, away. In the meantime, they made do with wells that produced murky water, and tanker trucks. On Sunday, the police waved me off around where the fire had burned down to the Pacific Coast Highway, the branches black and the shrubs ash—or was this the scarring from last year’s Bel Air Fire, which burned all the way down to the 405? I wasn’t sure. I called my friend and asked him about the lot I had come so close to buying, and the houses on that block. “Toast,” he said. “Totally gone. Every house.”

The exact count of structures destroyed in the Woolsey Fire now stands at 1,452, but it will certainly be revised upward. “I hate to find a positive in this,” my developer friend told me, “but this means a lot of new buyers on the market.”

Later that day, I stopped and removed the branch that had been leaning against my mother’s house. My mother stood there, in a biohazard mask and sunglasses, her apron belted in the Japanese manner, with a hand towel folded over in front of her stomach. She looked ready for fire.