Wednesday, September 25, 2002

California Burning

Even from forty-odd miles away, we could see the column of smoke rising and spreading as we drove home Monday night. A 200-acre fire. Last night the smoke was a deep bruise across the southern sky. By this morning, the wildfire had spread to 2100 acres. It’s well south of where I live, but I woke this morning with a scratchy throat from the traces of smoke in the air.

It’s the fire season; in this hot weather, and as dry as September always is, fires are an annual threat. In 1991 the great Oakland/Berkeley Hills fire destroyed 1500 acres and killed 25 people. That was more than a fire; given the unusual heat, a 65-mph wind, and the steep, narrow canyons where it started, a single ember from a smaller fire rapidly became a firestorm.

Everybody knows LA is a desert city. But as an Easterner, I never thought of Northern California as particularly dry. Its image is so much greener and softer than the prickly landscapes I think of as desert. I thought of San Francisco as a rainy, cool, foggy city. It is cool and foggy; it is also a semi-arid city that gets only 19.9 inches of rainfall in an average year, most of it concentrated in the winter months of November through February. The moisture from the fogs adds an effective five to ten inches of rainfall to that number, making it as lushly green as many Eastern landscapes.

San Jose gets about the same amount of rainfall as LA: 14.6 inches average in a year. (For the sake of comparison: that’s less than a third of Jackson’s annual 48 inches; sunny Philadelphia averages 40 inches more or less.) Lacking San Francisco’s nourishing fog, San Jose, like LA, is a semi-arid climate, teetering on the verge of desert. You can tell when it’s winter here, because the hills turn green — a profoundly disorienting experience for a lifelong Easterner.

And fires are a natural part of the ecology here. As beautiful as California is, as densely populated as some parts of it, it’s still untamed. We can kill off the grizzly bears and mountain lions, grind the redwoods into toothpicks, but we’re not masters here. The fires and earthquakes and debris flows are California’s reminders that what people build is temporary.

Unfortunately, what people destroy is permanent.

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