Can Los Angeles Escaped The Fires?

FROM THE COAST, AT MIDNIGHT LAST TUESDAY, the thousand Oaks wildfire appeared as a pair of sunspots along the Santa Monica Mountains ridgeline. The two pulsated and flared in the Santa Ana winds that must be something like the hot tramontana land wind of Spain that Gabriel Garcia Marquez says "carries with it the seeds of madness." The fire had been started on a faraway golf course the previous afternoon. Soon Santa Anas would send it over the ridge, down to the Pacific. Then shifting winds suddenly off the water would push the fire back up the hillsides, roughly along its earlier path, back toward the once golden grasses off the 16th green at Los Robles, where it had all begun.

By then a dozen other fires had also broken out--a string of firecrackers exploding in the dry chaparral and sage of the Los Angeles Basin. The symbolism of fires encircling Los Angeles seemed all too appropriate. Eighteen months ago flames spread across the center of Los Angeles as arsonists torched more than 1,000 buildings in the riots. This was at the heart of the megalopolis, a down-at-the-heels, mostly black and brown part of town. In wealthier, whiter places, like Brentwood and Beverly Hills, residents worried (with little cause) that those fires would come their way. Last weeks fires were mostly all arson, too, not acts of God. But this time all but one of them-the Chatsworth fire, in distant northwest L.A.--burned outside the city limits and struck at the middle and upper classes.

The wildfires appear, at first glance, to be an economic leveler in a place where social disparities resemble those of the Third World. L.A.'s brush fires, like the mudslides that slurp Malibu mansions into canyons and ravines during the rainy season, have almost always hit the wealthy, who can afford to live on hills and oceanfront lots with magnificent views and cleaner air. But many of the shop owners in South-Central have little hope of rebuilding out of the ashes in still-empty lots, whereas the prosperous residents who were burned out in Altadena (northeast of downtown) or Laguna Beach (on the California Riviera) have generous homeowners' insurance and are already talking about starting again--many taking the opportunity to remodel kitchens and enlarge decks. Those who escaped relatively unscathed can thank their rooftop sprinklers and their pool-fed firefighting pumps. The chlorine may kill the bushes, but it can save the house.

Local papers duly reported the names of celebrities whose ranches and homes the fires had narrowly missed: Richard Widmark, Tom Selleck, Dick Clark. In the Eaton Canyon area, a stillsmoking Jaguar sedan sat in the remains of a garage; the car was charred, its tires melted right down to the hubs. Backyard pools were coated with ash. By one, a collection of metal lawn furniture stood arranged as if the residents were expecting guests. Down the hill the Gerrish Swim and Tennis Club offered lessons, but the sign is all that is left of the club. Of course, the fires' victims were not uniformly well-to-do. In Orange County, at El Morro trailer park, the fires left nothing of one row of mobile homes but a satellite dish, and, on the concrete pads, traces of white, the ashen residue of what had been.

The riot fires of the inner city and the wildfires of the hillsides and oceanfronts are only the most visible symbol of the fragile state of California. Not many years ago the place seemed uniquely blessed. But Prop 13 and the tax revolt chewed holes in bare public parks and the superb state-university system. Aerospace crashed. Real estate plunged. Bases closed. The state that, perhaps more than any other, immigration built, turned on its newest immigrants. The California Dream, once so well worn that it became a cliche, has become an oxymoron--mocked by the record-setting exodus from the state and vilified by those who feel trapped and left behind.

Los Angeles is particularly vulnerable. A true sense of community has never thrived here. Even in the halcyon days of the '80s, Los Angeles did not really cohere, as do other cities like San Antonio or Denver or Seattle. And now the city's underlying social fissures are crystallized for most of America in the gruesome beating videos of Rodney King and Reginald Denny. Los Angeles has come to see itself in those screen images as well: a place so divided by race and class that people have trouble distinguishing victim from aggressor. These days, to outsiders and insiders alike, the City of Angels looks increasingly like a devilish place to live.