Learning from the Fires

Thanks to weather that’s more or less perfect year-round, not to mention the best looking waiters in the world, Southern California is a place where many people want to live. Probably too many. Even with the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage industry and foreclosures on the rise, LA and San Diego County still have some of the highest median home prices in the United States, including $1 million Hollywood bungalows that would command a solid $175,000 anywhere else. Despite the onerous specter of earthquakes, mudslides, and, as we were reminded last week, wildfires, many citizens of the world dream of settling in sunny California.

Thousands of those folks lost their homes in the recent fires. Billions of dollars in damage was done. And the unhealthy ramifications of so much particle pollution in the air, rivaling the amount that we spew into the atmosphere with our snazzy trucks every day, won’t be known for years. Residents of the hardest hit areas described the scene as “hellish” and “an inferno,” recalling imagery found in Dante and the Bible. The flames, largely uncontrollable, consumed almost everything in their path, including the dreams and aspirations of good folks who, understandably, feel victimized by forces beyond their control.A Dangerous Job

Callous as it sounds in these raw moments following the devastation, we who populate Southern California have a direct and indirect impact on the frequency of “natural disasters” — and I don’t just mean because of the arsonists who live among us. Building and overbuilding in habitats that are best inhabited by snakes and lizards, indulging in a consumerist lifestyle that causes global warming and drought conditions that transform hillsides into tinder boxes, squandering water resources on “landscaping” that invites blazes — these decisions are not Acts of God. They’re firmly in our control, and, as we’re reminded every couple of years, they have consequences.

Nature is pretty clever. For billions of years Life has renewed itself, often on the heels of what looks at first blush to be a terrible cataclysm. Wholesale burn-outs actually produce healthier forests, more fertile fields, better crops. Huge fires are one way that Nature cleans house. The problem, of course, is the Nature makes no distinction between a chaparral-covered canyon that’s filled with brush and one that’s been developed as a master-planned community, with rows of wooden houses speckling the landscape. When we human beings stand in the way of Nature’s wrath, we lose.

Whenever herds get too large, Nature finds a way to cull them, often through starvation. Life out of balance begets devastation. So long as we use too much energy, devour too much land, gorge ourselves on more and more of everything, Nature will occasionally and without pity attempt to find equilibrium, even if it means robbing decent people of their homes. Until we find ways to live and be happy with less of everything, we’ll sometimes find ourselves with nothing.

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