The images coming out of Los Angeles over the last three years have been apocalyptic—the stuff of stained glass windows and Hollywood thrillers starring the Rock. We’ve seen familiar scenes of Southland paradise transfigured by fire. The gracious slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains glowing an angry red in the predawn hours. Once-stately beachfront Malibu homes reduced to framing and rubble. Secluded canyon mansions made suddenly vulnerable and small against the backdrop of mile-high plumes of black smoke.
As long as this patch of earth has had a name, the people living on it have overlooked its inherent inhospitality, convinced they had found perfection on the edge of the continent. For over a century, frequent occurrences of wildfires, droughts, and earthquakes could not shake loose the promises made by boosters and advertising-savvy developers. But even lifelong residents of Los Angeles have noticed something different in the frequency and intensity of recent fires. Now, on the cusp of the traditional start of fire season, historians, scholars, and city officials are bracing for a new, climate change-adjusted reality: nonseasonal, year-round fires.
“There’s no number of helicopters or trucks that we can buy, no number of firefighters that we can have, no amount of brush that we can clear that will stop this,” Mayor Eric Garcetti tells New York magazine climate columnist David Wallace-Wells. “The only thing that will stop this is when the Earth, probably long after we’re gone, relaxes into a more predictable weather state.”
As last year’s Camp Fire in Northern California demonstrated, this problem extends beyond just Los Angeles. The Camp Fire, the deadliest in the state’s history, left 85 people dead and over 150,000 acres scorched. Six of the ten most destructive fires in California’s history have happened in the last 18 months, according to Bloomberg.
As a result of the Camp Fire, Bloomberg reports, the now-bankrupt utility company PG&E has issued a new plan to cut off electricity to at-risk areas during high-wind days. While the plan hopes to prevent another Camp Fire, which left the company exposed to an estimated $30 billion in claims after a downed transmission line likely started the blaze, it also threatens to leave entire cities in PG&E’s service area without power for days. (Los Angeles is not among them.)
“I’m worried,” said Governor Gavin Newsom during a budget briefing in Sacramento on Thursday. “We’re all worried about it for the elderly. We’re worried about it because we could see people’s power shut off not for a day or two but potentially a week.”
As for Los Angeles, Wallace-Wells suggests that the city has become a “model for normalization” for the rest of the state and the entirety of the western U.S., where yearly wildfire burn acreage is expected to at least double by 2050.
“Everyone I talked to in fire-prone areas knew to clear their brush, certainly by the end of May…” he writes. “Everyone knew their evacuation route by heart, but no one I spoke to anywhere in L.A. was moving, or planning to, out of fear of fire.
“Southern California is in violation of environmental common sense on every level,” environmental historian Mike Davis told New York. “But enough disasters occurred that the image of California changed from being the Garden of Eden to being the mouth of hell surrounded by the apocalypse.”