Struggling to make sense of the California wildfires

This Nov. 9, 2018 file photo shows the charred remains of a home after the Woolsey fire swept through Malibu, Calif. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

On Monday, I drove from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where I live, to Malibu. Normally this is not an event worth announcing; it is a straight shot of about 30 miles up the Pacific Coast Highway, much of it along gorgeous, idyllic coastline.

But for much of the last two weeks, Malibu has been on fire.

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We could see it from Loyola’s bluff that first night; like the tongues of some terrible unseen creatures, the flames licked along the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains that cup the west side of Los Angeles. A day later the fires were gone, but the west side filled with a smoky fog that smelled like something burning.

Some roads have finally started to open now and families are returning to their homes. Almost 100,000 acres of land have been burned, including 88 percent of the Santa Monica Mountains national parkland and over 1,100 buildings. The situation is even worse in Northern California, where over 150,000 acres are gone and 77 people are dead. The missing from the town of Paradise is 26 pages long and, as of Monday night, includes 993 names.

The fires there are so bad that 150 miles to the south the city of San Francisco has had to shutter its schools over air quality.

The fires there are so bad that 150 miles to the south the city of San Francisco has had to shutter its schools over air quality. Newspaperarticles are advising people on what kind of respirator masks to buy and where to find them. Uber drivers are even selling them. And the Air Quality Index in Sacramento is 300 and 350 in Chico—anything over 100 points is considered unhealthy.

Every day the papers share more stories of horror and heroism: the baby born in the fires, the wedding that went on in spite of them, and the many California prison inmates who are being paid $1 an hour to risk their lives as firefighters. Meanwhile, most of us just keep living our lives in Los Angeles. It seems callous. As playwright Arthur Miller once wrote, “Attention must be paid.”

And so I find myself driving up and around the western part of Los Angeles, looking for a back way down into Malibu. For most of the trip, everything is ordinary; the midday traffic on the 101 intermittently seizes up and releases without apparent cause. I am struck by the trees that hang along the sides of the highway, green and willowy—by the reality of life continuing to thrive so close to its total annihilation. But it is also true that as verdant as people imagine California to be, much of Los Angeles is a sprawling landscape of bleached-out strip malls on shade-less roads. We wither away under our harsh, inescapable sun. The night is our great release.

There is another slowdown on the 101. But this time as I come up over the hill, I discover it is not random; black hills loom before us, what remains of roads upon them just ashy white veins.

I thought what I would find here would look somewhat like the Badlands of South Dakota or the topography of the moon, ashy and bleak. But the reality is stranger; the blackened, burnt away mountains look somehow oily. Clearly, there is no moisture of any kind to be found here; this is a result of the heat. The mountains themselves have melted into a sort of sludge. It gives them a sort of pathetic, used-up quality, like something that has been wasted and thrown away.

As I turned off the highway I passed an advertisement for the Reagan Library’s new exhibit. Ironically, it is about Pompeii.

The canyon road off the highway quickly turns into a one-lane traffic jam. Rolling down my windows I am immediately hit by the rich smell of wood fire. It is not overpowering, more like the pleasant aroma that floats through neighborhoods on a cold winter’s night.

But then suddenly there is a sharp acridity in the back of my nose. I have the taste of smoke in my mouth.

It is so quiet here, both here where the fires raged and also in the nearby neighborhoods. Driving through Agoura Hills, I see a couple in masks silently walking their dog. It is as though sound, too, has been burnt to nothing, and will have to slowly find its way back to life.

As I turned off the highway I passed an advertisement for the Reagan Library’s new exhibit. Ironically, it is about Pompeii.

A disaster like this creates so many brutal little ironies. The wood frames of new luxury townhouses stand unaffected maybe 30 feet from tarry black. The Rev. William Kerze, the retired pastor of Our Lady of Malibu, had told me on the phone hours before of a volunteer in the parish, “a wonderful, wonderful woman” who lost everything. So did his brother’s neighbor, but his brother’s home was not affected. “Make sense of that,” he asks me.

Father Kerze was pastor of Our Lady for over 20 years. He has been through fires like this before. I ask him how he ministers to people in their aftermath. At Mass on Sunday, what can you possibly say?

“The preaching comes last,” he says. “What I’ve always done is have people talk” about what happened to them. “They all have their own story, and they need to tell it.”

I think about this as I arrive, finally, into the Malibu Canyon proper. There are not a lot of buildings burnt along the canyon road. And frankly, the few I see are so completely erased or changed that I only notice them after I have passed. The four men I see drinking beers are not sitting at a little rest stop that miraculously survived but in the ruins of their business.

A disaster like this creates so many brutal little ironies.

After miles and miles of this, I come around a bend in the canyon road and it is like I have just slipped into some other dimension where the fires never came. The mountains here are green with trees and shrubs. Sand-colored cliffs cut through and soar above, each stone upon it with its own definition and texture. Meanwhile, in the rearview mirror, the burnt mountains fade into black slag.

As I drove, I got a call from a Jesuit in Australia, where bushfires are equally destructive and likewise growing in frequency. I wonder what insights they have yielded. “We have to listen to the land,” he tells me. “What is the land telling us?”

Decades ago the California scholar Mike Davis proposed something similar: Given the regularity of fires to the Malibu area, the next time they come, why not let Malibu burn?

People were appalled. But really, what exactly are we expecting to happen, when we keep building further into the dry canyons and foothills of Los Angeles? Why exactly are we expecting things to improve when “extreme weather is shrinking the planet,” as the environmentalist Bill McKibben writes in The New Yorker this week.

Soon the canyon plummets into Malibu proper. Finally, hours after I left, I come to the Pacific Coast Highway. There is life here, passing cars and open businesses. At swanky oceanside restaurant Nobu, a valet glides by on a skateboard while checking his phone. Behind him, the Pacific Ocean is an azure and lavender sheet, lovely and serene.

The first few miles home I still come across scenes of astonishing desolation. One hits me so hard I have to stop and get out. There is nothing about it that is all that different from anything else I have seen, no ruined buildings or signs of tragedy. But something, the way it seems to go on and on endlessly into the distance, breaks through whatever notions I might still have of my relative safety or power over reality.

“Look on my works, Ye Mighty, and despair,” the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley imagines a long dead king telling those who would come upon the ruins of his kingdom. Standing here I do despair, of being in control, of being able to unilaterally direct my own destiny, of believing everything is always going to be fine. And I cannot quite tell if knowing that is just a reason for grief or also some kind of awful mercy.

Soon I am driving amid teenagers floating by on rented scooters while cars cut and fade between lanes, looking for a way to get where they are going faster. I need to gather the ingredients to make Thanksgiving stuffing. Life goes on.

But hours later as I write this I still have the taste of smoke in my mouth.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Will Niermeyer
3 weeks 3 days ago

One can only accept the will of God in cases as these. While that is very hard to drink so was the cup that Christ drank to redeem us. This happened for a reason. We must read the signs of the times, pray always and be alert knowing that our Blessed Lord will never give us more than we can handle.

Robin Smith
3 weeks 3 days ago

How about Hurricane Harvey that wiped out large swaths of land & homes in Texas. People had no flood insurance because "gubmint" didn't require it even though the land they built on was land fill. Know who runs Texas? Republicans.
It's CLIMATE CHANGE!

asian fanfics
3 weeks 3 days ago

California's forest fires have claimed the lives of so many people, I concur with these struggles.
wings io

Stanley Kopacz
3 weeks 2 days ago

If people want to live in these flammable areas, they'll have to build their houses to be fireproof, not out of sticks. Ensuring this would require government regulation but this would impinge on the American right to be stupid, a right extravagantly and lovingly exercized.

Mark M
3 weeks 2 days ago

Why struggle to make sense of this?
Rebuild, help your neighbor, be generous, count your blessings and move on with life.
“Making sense of this” is a useless exercise. Got your hands dirty helping out yet, padre?

Stanley Kopacz
3 weeks 2 days ago

There has to be some common sense applied. To rebuild in wood is a waste of time. Lessons must be learned. We're moving into a time of hostile climate and need to be prepared. The party is over.

J Cosgrove
3 weeks 2 days ago

A couple things. At a reunion at Stanford a few years ago, a faculty member who was an expert on drought and water issues showed the cyclical nature of droughts in the history of California. So the current drought as of a few years ago was nothing new. What was disturbing was the draining of the water table in the Central Valley for farming.

A scientist discusses global warming. http://bit.ly/2DQNIGz . Warning: Fox News and Mark Levin for those who are skeptical of both. He discusses the games played in the climate warming predictions.

Stanley Kopacz
3 weeks 2 days ago

All meteorogical phenomena have precedents. But when one in five hundred year events start occurring every couple years something has changed.
Predictions for temperature increase are on the order of 2°C for a doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial 270ppm to 540ppm. We are presently at 410ppm, 130ppm short of doubling. Again, 0.9°C seems reasonable given that even if we ceased all CO2 emissions today, we'd still rise to an increase of 1.5°C since we are still not in radiative equilibrium with the rest of the universe. Remember, sensitivity is logarithmic. Therefore it would take another DOUBLING of CO2 from 540ppm to 1080ppm to raise another 2°C. Anyway, I don't see how this guy can claim the models are so badly in error. He throws up a graph but doesn't explain much.
Also ignores that average temperature has increased more at the poles than at the equator. This is a signifucant driver of weather patterns.

J Cosgrove
3 weeks 1 day ago

Michaels is saying none of the climate models except one has predicted correctly. They are apparently way off. If you disagree, then provide the refutation. He is a climate scientist but anyone could be wrong. A critical part of science is prediction.

Stanley Kopacz
3 weeks ago

How do I refute a general statement that has no numbers? Like many cases of dealing with deniers, it is like boxing with fog. I already said that 2°C is the accepted warming prediction for a doubling if CO2 and is commensurate with actual warming. Perhaps Patrick Michaels is playing the same game across the board with models that he played with James Hansen's predictions. James Hansen projected three scenarios back in the late eighties. One assumed continuing exponential growth in emissions and generated the highest warming. Another assumed slower linear growth in emissions which actually was the case and this scenario closely matches the increase. The third assumed a slow decrease in emissions and predicts a too low increase. Patrick Michaels, in publicly criticising Hansen's predictions, deleted the second and third curves and only used the first scenario which Hansen said would only be applicable for exponential emissions increase. This example of intellectual dishonesty makes Patrick Michaels not credible in evaluating model predictions.

Stanley Kopacz
3 weeks ago

Read the previous post for refutation. I am referring to numbers. I can't refute foggy general assertions. I believe that Michaels is playing the same game he played with James Hansen's late eighties projections. Hansen modeled three scenarios, based on three emission projections. One was exponential growth in CO2 emissions, one was slow linear growth, the other was slow decrease. Emissions over the last three decades most closely matched the second scenario (slow linear) and the projected warming
closely matches measurement. Michaels deleted the second two scenarios and dishonestly used the first one as Hansen's only projection. He is not credible.

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