Photo: Media members report on a burning home as a firefighter douses flames during the Hillside fire in the North Park neighborhood of San Bernardino, California on October 31, 2019.
California's wildfires may be a compelling made-for-TV disaster, but the media doesn't always capture the true role that fire plays in the region. Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

The fire-scorched state’s history has long been marked by calamities. But its latest disaster did not come to teach Californians a lesson.

One of the oldest narrative tropes about California is that human habitation here toes the edge of what the environment allows. The meme often comes with a moral: Living on land that so readily burns, shakes, and slides was the state’s original sin. And one day, this place will teach its people a lesson.

So when a crisis of nature strikes, as it routinely does, judgment comes out in force. Consider the past week’s flurry of reactions to the seasonal wildfires that have so far left 200,000 acres scorched, air basins choked with smoke, hundreds of structures destroyed, and three people dead. Last week, planned blackouts designed to preempt further ignition created their own sub-crises by leaving three million without electricity. Even for a disaster-plagued state, these are seriously bad times. Some headlines implied: end times.

In “It’s The End Of California As We Know It,” New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo concludes that, between the fires, blackouts, and California’s addiction to cars and sprawl, something fundamental has broken: “California, as it’s currently designed, will not survive the coming climate. Either we alter how we live here, or many of us won’t live here anymore.”

California Is Becoming Unlivable,” read the headline on a story in The Atlantic, CityLab’s sister publication, where Annie Lowrey drew a sharp connection between the twin pressures of the high housing costs and wildfire pushing Californians further into danger.

Then, from the San Francisco Chronicle, came a thinkpiece by Carl Nolte that arrived at the always-unsettling conclusion that the “lesson” emerging from the smoke and the sprawl is to cap growth: “Fires are nothing new in California. The population of nearly 40 million is.”

And, in the Washington Post, an essay from Patti Davis mourned the loss of wet winters and sense of “legacy” in California, though the author’s father, former California governor and U.S. president Ronald Reagan, did no favors to the environment: “My father’s library will likely survive the fires, but the California of my youth is gone.”

Setting aside the cosmic absurdity of that last one, all of these types of stories spoke to real, deep anxieties born of this year’s wildfires. They also speak to real, intractable, life-or-death crises that the flames help reveal: the implications of global warming, the state’s epic economic inequalities, the American tendency to sprawl that California-style living helped popularize.

Still, their big pronouncements missed the mark. To say that something elemental is disappearing from California, or that the fires have come to teach us some kind of lesson, doesn’t just skip over important evidence to the contrary. It elides the larger fact that a state is not a fable. California is 40 million people spread across 165,000 square miles of land. How they relate to their extraordinarily diverse environment will have to change in the face of new and unprecedented challenges. But the place isn’t falling into the Pacific yet.

”Every crisis is not an apocalypse, and every fire isn’t either,” said Jon Christensen, an environmental historian, writer, and professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “These are serious challenges, and progress is uneven. But to cry ‘apocalypse’ in the face of every crisis is not useful.”

Historically, environmental doomsaying is a literary sub-genre unto itself in California. The novelist John Fante repeatedly returned to the image of Los Angeles on fire in his 1939 classic Ask The Dust. Sacramento’s Joan Didion elevated the California brand of eco-anxiety in 1968 when she famously wrote about the powerful Santa Ana gusts that whipped up fires every fall: The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.” Hollywood disaster flicks have long treated L.A. as the world’s most expendable town, and the title of a 1973 TV documentary about the seismic mega-event bound to destroy San Francisco, The City That Waits to Die, neatly distilled that region’s fatalistic allure. Southern California, as urban theorist Mike Davis wrote in his 1998 book Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, is an “apocalypse theme park.”

Don DeLillo once called out the pleasure that outsiders seem to get from witnessing California cataclysms: “Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, mass killings, et cetera,” he wrote in his 1985 novel White Noise. “We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets.”

Why is this? Probably because the state has long been billed as a kind of utopia, thanks to a century-plus of developers, politicians, songwriters, and religious leaders who sold a powerful myth of year-round sunshine and swimming pools for all. When that myth falters, “there seems to a certain amount of schadenfreude,” said Rebecca Solnit, the San Francisco-based author, historian, and activist whose prolific writing frequently deals with the state. “There’s this sense of California as this kind of beautiful but corrupt woman who deserves punishment.”

Dramatic and cinematic, wildfires readily play to that media narrative more than, say, droughts or heat waves.

Yet the California dream was never real for everyone. “It always obscured the injustices, social challenges, and even genocides that occurred here,” said Christensen. The California that someone always laments is “ending” is just one version of it, as he points out in an essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists this week. While this year’s wildfire season brought destruction and blackouts to affluent urban enclaves and rural communities alike, low-income communities, especially those of color, have been breathing the residue of environmental injustice throughout the state for decades; that ongoing disaster is less dramatic, but no less devastating.  

“The idea that it’s a paradise has always been a contradiction,” said Aura Bogado, an Oakland-based writer and investigative reporter at Reveal News focused on immigration and marginalized communities. “California is so many different places.”

The fiery wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. (AP/Arnold Genthe)

Yet the state has proven resilient, remaking itself through social and environmental calamities going back more than a century. Solnit’s masterful survey on what happens after disaster, A Paradise Built in Hell, revealed the societies of mutual aid that rose from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, helping forge the city’s (complicated, flawed) progressivism in the ashes of collapse. It was a partly self-imposed calamity—the suffocating automotive smog of 1960s Los Angeles—that led Californians to set a new national standard for vehicle emissions in the 1970s. More recently, the state has made efforts to establish itself as a refuge for immigrants and activists in the Trump era. Its laws and lawmakers are slowly moving to reflect its people, with an increasingly diverse legislative body.

And the idea that California is now paying a karmic toll for its car-centric ways is complicated by the fact that, 40 years after it set the nation’s cleanest emission standards, the state has become the de facto U.S. leader in the fight against climate change. As national leaders regress on environmental policy, current and former California officials play prominent roles in international climate diplomacy and set ever-higher bars for renewable energy and vehicle efficiency. Locally, its booming economy shows the potential for a low-carbon future: “Over the last ten years in particular, California’s economy has grown at almost twice the rate of the rest of the country, even as our per-capita emissions plummeted,” Alissa Walker pointed out in Curbed last week.

Also noteworthy, if little discussed: This year’s fire season has so far caused a fraction of the damage than the previous two did, thanks to experience, preparation, and investment by the state’s firefighting forces, as well as serious luck. (Of course, there are still two months left.)

From certain angles, the state is as close to its utopian promise as ever. And as far. As Devorah Major, a writer, professor, and former poet laureate of San Francisco, put it in an interview: “California, as much as anywhere, is or is not.”

The challenges before the state, as they are before the planet, are enormous. Wildfires has always been part of the state’s natural ecology, but they now burn five times as much land every year in California as they did in 1972, according to one recent study. The state also faces a fiendishly complicated power generation and distribution dilemma that has contributed to this fire escalation. And while nature has become more threatening, many Californians seem as intransigent as ever in certain respects to the environment. The state hasn’t fixed the building codes and zoning restrictions that would allow more people to live here sustainably; out of economic necessity or lifestyle preference, too many Californians are living at the flammable fringe of society. The state’s track record on climate may be stronger than that of the rest of the U.S., but it’s not nearly adequate.

So perhaps it’s time for new narratives, big and small, for California’s coming wildfire seasons. Bogado and Solnit both pointed to numerous examples of how up-close wildfire reporting can transcend the apocalyptic tropes, including the Los Angeles Times’ report on the housekeepers and gardeners who showed up to work in evacuated L.A. neighborhoods, as well as the Pulitzer-winning Santa Rosa Press-Democrat’s daily coverage of wine country fires, and a Washington Post’s video feature on what happens when the power goes out. “The closer you are, the better it is,” Solnit said. And in a state where (for example) 40 percent of the population is Latinx, a greater diversity of writers can bring a greater diversity of stories, Bogado said.

What about the meta-narratives? Stephen J. Pyne, an emeritus professor of environmental history at Arizona State University who has written dozens of books about fire, believes that people ought to focus more on the flames themselves, and less on the politics of fighting them. Fire is neither good or bad, he said, it simply is, especially in dry ecosystems that evolved to burn. In his view, human history is synonymous with the story of fire, from the evolution of the human brain to the way internal combustion helped reshape 20th-century cities. As a tool, fire can be closely wielded or deployed at a distance; as a force of nature, it can be invited into cities with ill-maintained infrastructure and shoddy construction codes, and or kept at bay with smarter planning. “California is built to burn, and fires aren’t going away,” Pyne said. “But we can build differently and better to keep our communities from being obliterated by them.”

That task is just one of many that await in the centuries of transformation required to salvage the planet, Christensen said, and this struggle to defend our cities and adapt to a warming Earth won’t be decided in this one fire season: “It’s the work of a lifetime and more.” In that sense, the story of how California endures is as important as its many follies—not because those follies aren’t real and abundant, but because its survival is, too.

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