October 29, 2007
October is the Cruelest Month - The Scorching of Southern California

John R. Guthrie

If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst into the sky,
That would be like
The splendor of the mighty one
--Baghvad Gita

It’s usually in October. A high pressure cell begins to build hundreds of miles away, somewhere in the bone-dry badlands of Utah. This area is known as the Great Basin, an area of high desert enclosed by the Sierra Nevada and Rockies. Since the high is building in an area with no outlet readily available outlet, it increases insidiously to a construct of immense energy and proportion. Finally the mass of dry air towers above the San Gabriel Mountains and begins to roll down the western slope into the lowlands of Southern California, picking up speed as it sweeps forward. The air mass circulates, bringing winds from the east and northeast to Southern California, just the opposite of the characteristic westerly winds of this latitude. As it falls, it compresses. In compliance with 17th century Irish natural philosopher Robert Boyle’s law, it warms as it does so.

The resulting windstorm is known by various names; most commonly Santa Ana, but also Satana, el Diablo and Sundowner. Joan Didion in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" dramatized the Santa Ana as follows:

We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks....The heat was surreal. The
sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called "earthquake weather." My only
neighbor would not come out of her house for days....In Los Angeles some teachers do not
attempt to conduct formal classes during a Santa Ana, because the children become

....It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa
Ana figures in the local imagination....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 affect the
entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The
wind shows us how close to the edge we are.

With winds that may gust to 110 miles an hour, the vegetation dry as tinder and the temperature in the 90s, fires are a given. Once they started mostly from lightning strikes. While this may still be a factor, sparks from equipment, from vehicles, from the carelessly discarded cigarette now account for many. Then there is pyromania, that peculiar perversion of the human condition that killed five good firemen in last year’s Esperanza Fire near Cabazon, California. Just last week in Santa Barbara, fire investigators discovered three disparate points of simultaneous ignition for a fire there, indicating that the fire was intentionally set. Five suspected incendiaries were arrested in Orange County yesterday.

Wildfires here are nothing new. The Spanish governor mentioned fire precautions when Southern California was still a part of Mexico. Fires are a part of the natural cycle of life and crucial for numerous California species. Knobcone, Monterey and bishop Pines, to take but a few examples, have tightly closed cones. They remain unshed for years until fire melts the resin that seals them shut. This exposes the seeds, which then eventually fall and germinate. Fire allows for exposure to full sunlight many seedlings find salubrious. It provides nutrients and conveniently destroys competing species. While fire may be good for a number of forest plants, this is not so for humans. As the population has burgeoned, people have now built in known fire zones, areas often scenic beyond the telling and too tempting for many to resist.

This time, it began in earnest last Monday. Winds gusted to above 70 miles an hour. Patio furniture was not only tossed about by the gale, but disassembled, pieces of it slammed into the corners of the adobe block wall that surrounds our house. Shards of pottery are tossed around. During a grocery store run, the car lurched and jerked as if struck by a giant fist as it was buffeted by the gusts. The smell of smoke, faint, a vague suspicion at first, then unmistakable, permeates the air.

There is evidence that the wildfires are of increasing severity as the planet warms. 2003 was also a notably fierce fire season. As one thirty year veteran firefighter said, "I’ve now seen three once-in-a-lifetime fires." 2007 has been the driest year recorded in 100 years here. According to environmental journalist Bill McKibben, average temperature in this region has increased by a degree due to global warming. This leads to drier conditions and increases the intensity of fires.

Tuesday: Ventura County schools were closed due to the fires. Temperatures peak in the 90s. The sky became overcast to a degree that brings to mind an approaching snowstorm in New England. But it is not cloud cover; it is smoke layered in a thermocline 2000 feet up, smoke in the most marvelous pallet; g n metal, battleship gray, almond, sienna, bruised plum, mango. The sun is a disco of muted, ruddy cerise, barely visible through the pall. Yet it is all enticing, quite lovely in its way, though eyes burn and skin feels itchy. Soot and ash collect on the window sills.

Fire control efforts have reduced the absolute number of fires, but this is detrimental to the environment. Less frequent fires allows time for the development of more dense underbrush. Chaparral flourishes so when fires do occur, they are all the more dangerous.

By Wednesday, some two dozen fires burn from Northern Mexico to San Diego to Santa Barbara County north of Los Angeles. Refugees by the tens of thousands flood into the San Diego Charger’s Qualcomm stadium, a circumstance invoking New Orleans’s Superdome post-Katrina. Over half a million people, by last accounting, have been forced to flee their homes. Over 2,000 of there families have no home to return to, their residences having been lost to the conflagration.  Hotels are packed.

While most see global warming as playing a significant role in the wildfires of Southern California, some see other reasons. Christian fundamentalist James Hartline, a recloseted gay, stated that:

"They (San Diegans) shook their fists at God and said, ‘We don't care what the Bible says,
We want the California school children indoctrinated into homosexuality!... And then the
wildfires of Southern California engulfed the land like a raging judgment against the
radicalized anti-Christian California rebels."

Be that as it may, as Hartline prayed for the redemption of debauched San Diegans, "radicalized anti-Christian California rebels" of a more practical bent rejoiced in the arrival of over a thousand fire engines. The engines, some in traditional fire engine red of my childhood but many of them lime green or Day-Glo yellow these days,  rolled southward on the freeways, often in grand processions, their diesel engines rumbling authoritatively as they traveled from Northern California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Nevada. Among the first to arrive were five dozen firefighters from the Mexican cities of Tijuana and Tecate who drove their engines northward to join the fray Sunday.

California prisons are bulging at over 200 % capacity. Most are incarcerated for low level, nonviolent offenses. Many such prisoners have been trained as firefighters. The prisons dispatched eighteen fire crews, each captained by a prison guard and staffed by inmates.

During the early morning hours of the fourth day, I awakened by the quiet. The winds that had howled around the house like some tormented creature for three days had abated. Though fires still leap and dance, NPR states that the firemen are now on the offensive, the fires coming under control.

Though fire crews still struggle against the flames that yet rage in some areas, with the Santa Ana gone, one expects that within days, engines and aircraft and weary firefighters are likely to be able to return to their bases. For this time, the last smoke jumper has chuted into the woods. On the immense tracts of burned over land, over 700 square miles scattered over Ventura, Riverside, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Orange and San Diego Counties, smoke is still issuing from embers here and there as firefighters search for hotspots. The ash and charred trees, the burnt chaparral, the ruins of homes, are silent.

As I work, the breeze freshens, clean and clear to the nose. Even before the flames are fully spent, already the earth is waking. California, with all its impermanence, its unreliability, is still the final destination. If the winds show us how close to the edge we are, even so, the Golden State is and has always been a land of new beginnings. The coming days will be filled with labor as the land begins to heal its wounds and the people of the Southland recover and build once more.

Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist.


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