There’s never a dull moment in California. Almost a universe unto itself, the westernmost continental state has something for every lifestyle, American or otherwise. But its 40 million inhabitants have to contend with nature like no other state, a point driven home by the late-autumn outbreak of killer wildfires. The treasure that is California comes with considerable added peril when fire joins earthquake.
The latest wildfires have hemmed in Los Angeles from nearly every direction. Angelenos often encounter the scent of smoke in the autumn air when the dry Santa Ana winds prime the surrounding hills to burn. The flames along the distant ridges light the night sky and prepare the land for a riot of wildflowers on the hillsides with the coming of spring. But the smoke blowing off the burn this year is dense and choking, with gray plumes carried by westerly breezes to spread over the Pacific, clearly visible in satellite photographs. The earth’s renewal is natural, but the apocalyptic conflagration can be frightening nonetheless.
More than 230,000 acres have been consumed in the so-called Thomas fire, burning or damaging a thousand houses and other structures, forcing as many as 200,000 Southern Californians to flee. This is the state’s second chapter of fiery disaster within two months time. Together with flames that ravaged the Northern California wine country, the fires have killed 44 persons and destroyed 8,800 structures, and 2017 looks to be the most destructive year for wildfires in the state’s history.
Gov. Jerry Brown of California calls the seasonal fires “the new normal,” brought on by “climate change,” and he panned the efforts of Republicans in Washington to cut taxes when his state wants many billions of dollars for disaster relief. California congressmen have requested $4.4 billion alone for “rebuilding” the wine country. That figure is sure to rise in the wake of the Los Angeles fires.
Donald Trump was forced to contend with “climate change” over the weekend when his Air Force One flight to Mississippi was delayed — by snow, demonstrating again that presidents and governors, however exalted they may imagine themselves to be, can do no more to alter the weather than shake an angry fist at the sky.
California’s subsurface trembles, rumbles and heaves incessantly underfoot, as it always has, adding to the anxiety. The state has experienced 189 earthquakes during the past week, 677 in the past 30 days, and 8,329 in the past year. Though many are small and undetectable by human senses, to be a Californian is to have a survival plan for contending with a killer quake surpassing San Francisco’s 6.9 magnitude temblor of 1989 or the Northridge quake of 6.7 magnitude in 1994.
Then there’s the “big one,” the long-predicted rip along Southern California’s San Andreas fault, that would chew up Los Angeles. That would be the day to pray early and often. California is the place where the adventurous can snowboard in the morning and surf in the afternoon, but the price is the ever-present risk of ruin. Californians have a choice, to love it or leave it. We’re betting on loving it.