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.