The one indelible image of this year's fire season, which as of Tuesday had consumed 261,000 acres (or 408 square miles) from Santa Barbara to San Diego, has been the 405 freeway at night, the surrounding hillside ablaze like molten lava. The Skirball Fire, not far from what is technically the geographic center of L.A., cut a swath through Bel-Air, one of the city's richest neighborhoods. But the apocalyptic image of the simmering hillside seemed to speak more to the world than to the city. It captured a mood many of us have been feeling all year: The world is burning.
“The city burning is Los Angeles's deepest image of itself,” Joan Didion famously wrote in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse.”
Los Angeles, which once stood out as a sort of freak city — suburbanized, shallow, culty — has become less of an outlier, having exported its food and culture and mindset. You can find yoga and juice bars and vegan food in every city in America. L.A.'s disasters now feel more commonplace, too. Catastrophes are everywhere these days, like a television left on in another room. 2017 has been a litany of hurricanes, earthquakes, mass shootings, terrorist attacks — let alone the bullshit that Donald Trump says, does and tweets every day.
How do you tell when there's a fire if the whole world is burning?
By the ash falling on your car, by the smell of the smoke in the air, the way your throat goes dry and your lungs feel small. When you open up the newspaper and read that at least 54 horses have died, trapped in barns and stables with roofs caving in and smoke filling the air and flames consuming their flesh.
This year's fire season was already the worst in the state's history, before the six Southern California wildfires broke out. To blame: global warming, hillside development, lots of rain earlier in the year and a long, hot summer. And maybe just a bit of bad luck.
One of the most eloquent photos I've seen is by L.A. Weekly's Ted Soqui, of a day laborer riding his bicycle home. The air is a murky mustard color. He's wearing goggles over his eyes and an air filter over his mouth. There's just a couple of flames licking up the side of a bridge.
Unless your house or horse is on fire, most of us are just out here trying to live our lives, no matter what's on fire.
I love this city but I don't like it when it's burning.