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Los Angeles is Burning

" When the hills of los angeles are burning
Palm trees are candles in the murder wind
So many lives are on the breeze
Even the stars are ill at ease
And los angeles is burning"
-Bad Religion

As you can see, I, like everyone else, am consumed by the stories of the fires in San Diego. The pictures of homes, crying children and lost pets are almost easier to face than those of the firefighters, masks in hand, eyes clenched against the ash. The area is covered in a blanket of smog that is simply overwhelming.

The idyllic city, all pale stucco and blue skies at the time of my last visit, is no more. In its place are small pins on a map, white plumes of smoke drifting across a satellite image like the breath of some dead dragon god, and stories of loss and longing.

A state of emergency has been called. Families have no contact, cell phones are off, residents are in their houses, watching the edges of the burning zone and praying that their home will remain outside it, untouched.

One imagines there must be a modicum of guilt. "If I wish that my house be spared, is that as good as wishing that theirs be destroyed?"

The question of order to the chaos is an empty one.

Instead, there is the drama of the first responders, lives on the line as they face miles and miles of a deadly firewall that is being fanned by the Santa Ana winds and aided by dangerously low humidity. Imagine facing your mortality in the face of eight foot flames. Imagine wishing for a moment of calm, for a breeze to catch your breath, knowing that breeze might be the one that turns the fire back on you.

Even if the breeze brings you a moment's calm, the air is caustic. Simply being outside is an exertion, every breath brings a convulsive cough as lungs fight for lost oxygen.

Meanwhile, the home owners watch as one house is spared, another burned. Like tornadoes, fires are capricious in their destruction, and they leave behind the stink of the burn: on photos, on glass, on skin, and in the soil and the memory of the earth, cleansed for regrowth.

As the smoke settles, we will watch these same owners try to salvage their lives one phone call at a time. Money will tighten. Some will never regain what's been lost--was that check, that call, that company that's your "good neighbor" the right one to choose, or will you be left empty-handed, picking up the pieces?

We leave to this planet nothing but our dust, and hope all the while that it will be made the richer for it. They, their belongings, their memories and beliefs, have become part of the soil they will no doubt rebuild on. Hasn't that always been a habit of humanity?

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November 2007
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