California is burning. This sentence is all too familiar by now, a kind of mantra that is repeated every year with the onset of “fire season,” when live television broadcasts start to show homes threatened by flames and the wails of fire sirens cutting through the sweltering air.
This year as well, the fires have targeted mainly the cities of wine country above San Francisco and the upscale neighborhoods on the west side of Los Angeles. Both regions have been hit by blazes fanned by the desert winds that kick up every fall here, with an ominous rustle of leaves that is a harbinger of more and more devastating disasters.
Two years ago, the “Diablo winds” blowing in the north of the state caused a firestorm that consumed 1,200 homes in Santa Rosa. The fire reduced the town of Snoopy to less than a ghost town, with nothing left but row after row of blackened foundations on gray ash-covered plots, the only remnants of the suburban homes abandoned by the thousands of fleeing residents.
Last year, the Santa Ana winds pushed the flames toward Malibu, sowing panic among the Hollywood glitterati: among the dwellings that went up in smoke were those belonging to Kim Basinger, Miley Cyrus and Neil Young. But the real tragedy took place 500 km further north, in the town of Paradise, which was turned into an inferno worthy of a Stephen King novel, engulfed by a wall of flame which also cut off the only exit road, trapping hundreds of cars that were trying to escape to safety. It was a tragedy that took the lives of 85 people.
The Plains of Id
History keeps repeating itself, worse and worse every time – partly because of human pressures affecting ecosystems in which fires, much like in all Mediterranean-type areas, are part of the ecological cycle of growth, drought and natural fertilization, something to which the local fauna and native vegetation have adapted. This cycle, however, cannot accommodate the permanent presence of villas, SUVs and golf courses (“the Plains of Id,” as the architect Rayner Banham memorably described this architecture born of hubris and wealth).
The evacuations and scenes of mass panic are partly a result of a pattern of consumption-driven urban growth which is simply unsustainable,