Why Fire Illuminates the Best of Southern California

“Nothing breaks the spirit of a Californian like a fire. It starts quietly and then grows; moves and acts as if with conscience; taunting you with a schoolyard bully’s joy.” — Gary Goldhammer, Below the Fold, 2007

ONCE AGAIN, AS I’VE DONE so many times before, I awoke to the smell of smoke.

Fire in Southern California is as natural as the sun and sand. It’s a script we revisit with all too frequent regularity. And it’s the one thing, more than anything else in this jigsaw puzzle of a culture, that reminds us who we are and what we can hope to become.

As I think and pray on the fires pummeling San Diego, I thought I’d share an excerpt from a 2008 blog post about another series of fires and their impact. For me, it’s a good reminder of what really matters — and how something so destructive, so terrible, can unite our fragmented region.

From November 16, 2008:

“Nothing breaks the spirit of a Californian like a fire.” I wrote this a little more than a year ago, after fires in Malibu, in San Diego, and near my Orange County house destroyed thousand of homes and lives. I knew people who were affected, which made the fire real – more so than the smoke and ash in my backyard or the dryness at the back of my throat.

The past few days have seen more fire in the tinderbox we call Southern California, this time in Santa Barbara County and once more in Orange County. And again I know people affected, including a close friend who had to evacuate her Anaheim Hills neighborhood, not all that far from my neighborhood.

Again the sky took on that ubiquitous red-orange glow. Smoke filled the lungs and fire consumed not just our property but our minds. We cursed the wind and prayed for the firefighters and our neighbors.

Fire holds a special place in my psyche. About 18 years ago when I was a reporter, I covered another Santa Barbara fire. I remember my car filling with smoke as I searched blazing hills for the fire command center, then taking cover under a desk as an AP stringer and I shared the only working phone so we could call in our stories (no Internet, e-mail or cell phones – yes, I’m that old.)

I remember a fellow reporter getting out of his car, forgoing his job and objectivity to climb onto a stranger’s roof to help him hose it down. I remember the homeowner who gave me a tour of the smoldering embers that used to be his living room. And I remember standing next to a group of firefighters working to knock down a flare up, wondering whether the heat would burn my notebook before it burned us.

If I didn’t have a job to do I’m sure I would have been scared to death, but fortunately there was no time. Fear comes later.

I feel that fear far more now than I ever did on the fire line. I felt it watching the 24-hour local news coverage of neighborhoods and towns I’ve known my whole life go up in flame. I feel it for my friends who are too focused and busy to be afraid for themselves.

Maybe if I lived somewhere else I’d feel the same way about floods, hurricanes or tornadoes. I know many other places experience the same things during similar situations; the admirable response of man and machine is a human trait, not a California one.

Yet I can’t help but feel there is something about Southern California and Los Angeles that make them different. I find both to be complicated places, more so than anywhere else I’ve lived or visited in the United States or abroad.

This region, with its diversity and unconscious yearning for a collective soul, is capable of uncommon poetry and passion. It speaks to us in times of tragedy and triumph – and then quickly retreats into its freeways, Bluetooth headsets and industries of make believe.

Nothing breaks the spirit of a Californian like a fire. And nothing except a fire can make this disparate people whole.

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