HOLLYWOOD, Calif.— Some 20 years back I took my visiting brother to an upscale jazz bar atop one of Hollywood's few high-rise buildings. From its penthouse vantage point at Sunset and Vine we had a splendid view of Los Angeles, if you could see it through the smoke. We were seated in the "no smoking" section but surrounded by smokers, and maybe that's a good metaphor for the tragicomic secret life of sunny Southern California.

This week, the "perfect fire" nearly surrounded the city of Los Angeles and once again we were completely smoked out. The fires came at the end of an extended drought in a season of high temperatures and dry hot air, fueled by a years-long build-up of combustible brush in forest areas as roaring Santa Ana winds (we never call them hurricanes here) gusting well over 100 m.p.h. produced another spectacular California extravaganza. One fireman, interviewed briefly on radio, said the week's massive inferno—which burned about 1,800 homes, killed at least seven people (seven more died during evacuations of some 630,000 people) and blackened 772 square miles of the state—made the huge California blazes of 2003 "look like a campfire."

A recent update listed 64 people (more than 50 of them firefighters) injured in the current catastrophe. As the fires continued to wane Sunday, helped along by much improved weather conditions, this year's fatalities would likely remain far less than the 22 fatalities recorded in the 2003 California firestorm, and with injuries and fatalities of both 2003 and 2007 combined totaling far less than the devastating losses attributed to the Katrina hurricane.

Not without justification, many compared the inaction and ineptitude during Hurricane Katrina with this week's speedy, extensive and far more efficient response to the California emergency, rarely failing to mention hugely expensive homes and rich, white Republican residents south of Los Angeles as a contrast to the simple homes of the poor, black Democrats of New Orleans.

But there were complaints, probably justified, that even in California the state and federal government had failed to provide needed equipment, including planes and funding requested even before the fires. And there was ineptitude and inaction, too, in smaller anti-tax communities that had failed to adequately equip their own fire departments. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose popularity has soared as high as the flames this week, argued in response that the planes couldn't have been sent earlier because of the high winds.

After the disgrace of Katrina, President George W. Bush couldn't get to California fast enough. As these issues were debated, others were all-too-obvious; and not least, the fast-growing California population, for which there has been little more planning than in our preparations for our occupation of Iraq.

Communities like Stevenson Ranch that were more prepared and clearly fared better than others, but the winds were so fierce in some places that no matter how much ground had been cleared or how many power lines were buried or fire breaks dug these areas would have burned anyway. Nature, at least, has egalitarian ideas. The winds threatened to push the fires everywhere, and they nearly did. Terrifying hot spots flamed to life over 675,000 acres in seven counties and three national forests.

At our TV sets, we saw the state burning in large, horrifying patches from Ventura County north of us all the way down to Mexico. The smoke blew into those and then untouched areas, including the City of Los Angeles where it is likely to stay trapped by the rim of coastal mountains that even on our clearest days produce the "haze" noted by Indians here three centuries ago.

Miraculously, although more were anticipated, there were only six known fatalities until Friday morning when the bodies of four men who may have been illegal aliens were found by firefighters in San Diego County. But danger may lurk in quiet ways. As with the damaging air that has affected workers at New York City's Ground Zero, Los Angeles doesn't yet know the impact of the gray, stinking air that has spread a sickly pall over the Southland.

In 1990, scholar and journalist Mike Davis wrote a brilliant book, "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles," about the heart of Southern California as a dangerous place, perilous as much for its mix of a former white power elite and the vast, powerless underclass as for its extremes in weather—its paradisiacal sunny winters to the hellish droughts, floods, mudslides, earthquakes and occasional tornados. Davis followed the book with another highly readable best-seller, "Ecology of Fear, Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster."

I share the view of those critics who say Davis's second book is way over the top, but he's right about one thing: many of our problems just keep growing, and we don't pay much attention.

In the Southern California areas that suffered fires this past week, there were now some 125,000 homes as compared to 61,000 homes in the same areas in 1980, according to a University of Wisconsin study noted in the Los Angeles Times. There's been some planning and more talk of planning (a concept regarded for years in some areas as near-socialistic) and California is moving ahead with new building codes, but there's rarely been any serious mention, especially in a booster economy, of restricting growth.

In a powerful Jan. 25, 2004, article journalist Lee Green noted in Los Angeles Times Magazine  that one in eight Americans live in California. Green wrote, "The human wave that's breaking over California is flooding freeways and schools, bloating housing prices and wreaking havoc with the power and water supplies. It's going to get worse, and ignoring reality isn't working."

And yet, as in New Orleans, the band plays on. For California, there's always an upside. Unlike New Orleans, where money for rebuilding has gone largely to privatized outsiders and where too little has reached ordinary residents, the rebuilding of California (even of homes burned and rebuilt a second time) will probably help the state's economy. For the wounded housing market, the timing is also "perfect," leaving behind at least 1,772 homes to rebuild. And the fires may discourage some from running across the border or moving into California, reducing the stress on state resources.

Long ago, people said they couldn't survive here because there was not enough industry. Then came World War II and the mushrooming aircraft industry; in Southern California weather, planes could fly all year. After the Korean war, when the fixed-wing aircraft industry was in serious trouble, the Space Age found a manufacturing base in Southern California, attracting engineers to high-paying jobs by the tens of thousands.

Californians may pride themselves on the state's independence but it is tied to Washington by government contracts few other states can match even after that industry burned out in the '90s.

There are some other ways the state's future doesn't look so bleak. On the bright side, the fires in 2003 cost maybe $2 billion dollars and the current ones may cost just $1.3 billion or less (80 percent of the fire was in San Diego County, which had a loss of about $1 billion).

That's only three days of the money we burn in the Middle East, and compared to the President's request for $46 billion to pay for the next three months of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this week's conflagration may be a "campfire," too.

 

By Ron Kenner — CALIFORNIA'S TRAGIC FIRES HIDE A SILVER LINING www.RKedit.com