May 16, 2007 / 1:04 PM / 12 years ago

California history, culture haunted by wildfires

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES, May 16 (Reuters) - The ashes are still smoldering from Southern California’s second major wildfire in a week, a sign of what authorities warn could be one of the drought-plagued state’s worst fire years.

But to the locals, the burning hills have also long been a part of life and key ingredient in the state’s folklore and identity — immortalized in art and popular culture from Nathanael West’s 1939 novel "The Day of The Locust" to "L.A. Woman," 1960s rock band The Doors’ dark homage to the city.

Wildfires are inevitable in the bone-dry brush around Southern California, where early summer is known as the start of "Fire Season" and hot Santa Ana winds blow in from the desert — signaling that thick black smoke will soon pour over cities and ash will fall in the streets.

"It’s hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself," writer Joan Didion said in her essay "The Santa Ana."

"Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana effect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles," Didion wrote.

During Santa Ana conditions, fires can be sparked by lightning or by people through arson, machinery running near dry brush, campfires or carelessly tossed cigarettes.

Though California wildfires make worldwide news as the latest natural disaster to befall the state, experts say they have been occurring regularly since before the region was settled by Europeans.

"It’s a natural phenomenon, just part of Mother Nature’s way of cleaning out the forest," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said. "Sometimes we hear, ‘This is the worst fire season ever.’ But its really an ongoing thing."

If there was a "worst fire season" in the last century or so, Berlant said, it would probably be 1936 — when flames swept across more than 1,250 square miles (3,235 square km) of California, an area roughly the size of Rhode Island.


Three years earlier, in 1933, 29 men died battling a blaze in the city’s landmark Griffith Park — which was scarred by a wildfire again this month. The 1933 fire was the deadliest in the city’s history.

Iconic Los Angeles crime writer Raymond Chandler published "Red Wind," his short story about the Santa Anas, in 1938. The following year, West, possibly inspired by a fire in the Hollywood Hills, came out with "The Day of the Locust" — with a main character who works obsessively on a painting titled "The Burning of Los Angeles."

In 1970, 10 people were killed and some 400 houses destroyed when a 20-mile (32 km) wall of fire burned over a mountain ridge toward the town of Malibu and the sea.

A year later, acclaimed crime writer Ross MacDonald published "The Underground Man," in which the so-called Rattlesnake Fire rages in hills as the backdrop to a murder investigation.

"Unless the Santa Ana stopped blowing ... Rattlesnake might strike across the city all the way to the sea," he wrote.

That same year, that The Doors released the band’s evocative "L.A. Woman," featuring singer Jim Morrison intoning: "I see your hair is burning, hills are filled with fire."

Berlant said firefighting has improved since the 1930s, when crews helpless in the face of massive wildfires were sometimes forced to let them burn.

But at the same time, the state’s population explosion and aggressive development into canyons and foothills has given wildfires the chance for more destruction.

Those issues and the fact that California is in the grip of a severe drought, part of a cycle that experts say can last for decades, have prompted Los Angeles officials to eye 2007 warily.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, touring the Griffith Park fire, urged residents to cut back brush around their homes and avoid open fires such as barbecues.

"We are facing an incredibly difficult fire season," he said. FACTBOX-Five facts about California wildfires [nN16466525]

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