Tuesday, July 15, 2008

En fuego

Summer in California means wildfire season, and this year's is looking set to be one of the worst ever. A rare lightning storm last month ignited forest fires across the state, and the fire services have been battling ever since to get them under control.

The scale of the problem is hard to comprehend. California has huge areas of natural woodland, and recent winters have been drier than normal. All that dense, dry underbrush is just waiting for a spark, and once the flames take hold they're hard to stop. The recent fires have burned more than 1,300 square miles of land, an area twice the size of Greater London. At one point there were a total of 1,781 individual blazes, apparently a state record. That this total is now down to under 300 is partly due to the efforts of the 20,000 firefighters tackling them, but also because many of the smaller blazes combined to form larger conflagrations.

Here in San Francisco, the only sign of the fires still burning comes when the wind swings round to the wrong direction, blowing smoke over the city like a dense smog. The air becomes noticeably harder to breath, and sunsets take on an apocalyptic beauty. But earlier this year, during a visit to Tahoe, I went for a walk through the "burn zone" (pictured) which had been left near where we were staying by a major fire there in 2007. The ground was still scorched down to the dirt and, while the black stumps of some trees had been left standing, others had been consumed completely. All that remained of them were holes in the ground where their roots had continued to smolder down into the earth.

But, like earthquakes, the threat of devastating wildfires is just a fact of life in California. My wife and I visited Malibu for a wedding in October last year, and the rehearsal dinner was held in the groom's parent's house, which had a spectacular view over this celebrity-strewn stretch of southern Californian coastline. It looks like the safest place in the world, but the groom's father told me that the family's first home on the same spot had been destroyed by a wildfire a few years before. He was philosophical about it, saying that they had been able to rebuild and, while they had lost almost everything, at least they were all alive and well.

This was true, of course, but I was still surprised at how relaxed he seemed about it all. Then, just over a week later another series of fires broke out in southern California, one of which led to the evacuation of Malibu and the destruction of some homes there. And then the same thing happened again in November. With the help of good insurance, it's amazing what you can get used to living with.

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