LOS ANGELES — When I first came to California 17 years ago, I used to laugh because the very best argument people could summon for living here was the weather. This seemed sad and pathetic for a city as big and as important as Los Angeles. The weather was nice, however.
Californians also claimed New York was dark and gloomy and cold. The buildings were too tall and gloomy. Even when the weather was good, they said, the streets were dark because the buildings were too tall. And you had to live indoors for more than half the year. Because of that, you talked too much and thought too much about things in general and whined a lot and got depressed and didn’t play beach volleyball.
But weather events have definitely changed since I moved here in 2002. The droughts are longer and more severe, and when the rain does come, it falls for days in torrents that can and do cause fire-blighted topsoil to flood downhill in life-threatening mudslides, and then, as the seasons turn, come the fires again, blown by fierce and shifting winds. Every year the wildfires are bigger, more evil, more destructive, more likely to get you. Every year I know more people who are being evacuated, and I have to assume my turn will come.
If you’re not affected by the fires up close, you’re still affected by them at a distance. It’s not just that you can sometimes see the flames and watch the towering cumulus clouds they create, hanging like anvils over the ridges and darkening the landscape. You also breathe the smoke. One of my sons who’s in the Bay Area texted me last week, “air quality is very low today.” He’s such a Californian. That’s the kind of thing we say; air quality is part of the weather report at this time of year. Up in Northern California, he was experiencing the effects of the Kincade fire in Sonoma: He was breathing the smoke and his office was closed because of a PG&E power outage.
I went out my front door while the Getty fire was burning in nearby Brentwood and the Tick fire was still not out, and it was like an ashy bath outside. When you’re at the distance our house is from these fires, you can tell how severe and close the conflagration is by how much ash builds up on your car, like snow. Some days, I’ve had to use the wipers before I can see. This fire season, you can have a friend over and he’ll say, “Everything’s ready, the photos are in the car, I took the art off the walls, dog food loaded, my glaucoma drops, and the kids and dog are ready to run.”
There’s something about the situation here this season that seems like a stage set for the current political moment: fires raging, a giant company, PG&E, responsible for so much of the death and destruction; the incredible salaries and compensation of that company’s executives, the huge shareholder dividends; the company’s decision to create giant blackouts for millions of people, presumably while it fixes the negligence that caused the problem in the first place. And all this, with 59,000 people living homeless in Los Angeles. This is the apocalyptic backdrop against which, it seems to many of us here, President Trump is trying to destroy the planet in so many ways. Of course, the builders of this set predate the Trump administration, but the script playing out on the set — the underlying themes and angles and shots — fits well with his direction.
One day last week, winds were gusting up to 70 miles per hour and humidity was way down. The temperature at midday was in the 80s. Outside, sirens were going crazy, with fire companies crisscrossing the region. When you hear the police helicopters cruising over quite high up and cruising back again, and the noise never stops, it means they’re watching the fires, along with the traffic problems from freeway closings, because authorities want to protect commuters from being burned to a crisp on the way home from work if a fire should “jump the freeway.”
How do all these fires begin? There’s speculation. I used to think fires started naturally, and then humans put them out, but my years in California have schooled me. Now I know that more often than not, humans start fires (try to think of PG&E as human), and more often than not, nature — with humidity or rain, lower temperatures and stilled winds — puts them out. In addition to utility companies, arsonists start fires, and careless people with matches or cigarettes or joints or illegal campfires start fires. A police car chase ended in a crash and sparks that started a fire this season. A few people have also proposed that some of the Los Angeles-area fires this season may have started in homeless encampments in the ravines, since obviously the homeless don’t have heat or kitchens. They maybe light fires. It’s one theory.
One way to make sure the homeless don’t end up starting fires might be to house them, which Los Angeles has not figured out how to do.
The recent run of fires seems to be coming to an end, but the homeless are still in the streets, as they have always been. Now there are so many more (up 12 percent from last year), so much more visible. On the Wednesday before Halloween, I had to drive to Pasadena at sunset, which is the most beautiful hour of the day in Los Angeles. I began my voyage on Silver Lake Boulevard. Silver Lake, a predominantly upper-middle-class neighborhood, sits on a hill above a reservoir, and at sunset it’s especially evocative of Italian hill villages. At that hour, the banana trees shine brilliantly in fire-season light, and there was this season a peculiar kind of doom written in the stark calligraphy of palm shadows against the white stucco of low-slung walls. In the circular cubbies of traffic lights, pigeons roosted out of the bright sun and ash. I drove through expectantly; I know the encampment in Silver Lake under the Sunset overpass, where the homeless live under a viaduct that was built in 1934.
I always expect the encampment to be gone; it’s in one of those areas where people make a big fuss about these things. I knew that the City Council had appropriated an initial $100,000 to deal with the situation. But the encampment, with its mattresses and sofas and supermarket carts and an array of furniture and tarps and tents, is still there. Its residents have walled off the arches in various ways for privacy and established an ad hoc dump for their trash, right before commuters’ cars enter the darkness of the underpass.
I couldn’t help thinking, as I drove past the dump and the tarped-off arches, of a real estate story from a few days earlier. A house in Bel-Air, not far from Brentwood and the Getty fire, had just sold for $94 million. It was conceived of and built as a “spec house” by a very successful handbag designer — American culture being what it is — and was first listed two years ago for $250 million, according to Curbed L.A. It has 21 bathrooms (but only 12 bedrooms). Four floors, three kitchens. A 40-seat screening room, a bowling alley, a candy wall (don’t ask), elevators lined with crocodile skin, this last a handbag-designer detail, no doubt. I forgot to mention two wine cellars, stocked. A 12-car garage, also stocked. The whole shebang is 38,000 square feet and its nickname is Billionaire.
First thought that came to mind that morning in fire season: a possible controlled burn of Billionaire by one of the nearby Getty fire’s firefighting brigades. But then, that would be wasteful, plus people like the handbag designer hire private firefighting forces to protect their investments. Now, driving past the Silver Lake encampment, I had a better idea. With all those bathrooms and all that space, Billionaire probably could be set up to house about a hundred or so homeless people. They would surely enjoy the infinity pool, and its swim-up bar would be more special to them than to the usual group of models and starlets and agents and machers and billionaires who would otherwise gather around it.
Meanwhile, all my neighbors are in the “resistance” against Mr. Trump and his policies. Which is lucky during this wildfire season, because it means they have something to take their minds off the fires.
I associate the term “resistance” with occupied France in World War II, but my friends are not running clandestine cells from attics and cellars, nor do the authorities seem to be following them or torturing them or executing them for their political activities. Instead, being in the resistance means that they are having postcard-writing get-togethers for “badass” women, men and children in their neighborhoods, or making placards with clever Instagrammable slogans and piling into their minivans and electric cars to attend marches. Or putting together events in their backyards to fund-raise for various Democratic candidates and for important causes like reproductive rights, climate change initiatives, homeless housing and criminal justice reforms.
One of their credos is “Hang Out, Do Good,” which is actually the name of one of the resistance organizations out here. “We show up often” it says on its home page. “And we do it all with a sense of joy, adventure, empathy and hope.” Best. Resistance. Ever. Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about Trump is that his presidency has pushed people to become civically engaged and militant — in their own way, naturally.
But we do care. Out here we live and breathe not just smoke and ash, but the every word, the every tweet, the every insane move that the president makes. We walk our dogs and look at one another over their leashes, shaking our heads. Kids’ soccer games are like resistance meetings for the parents. We don’t even need to mention which unbelievably embarrassing or dangerous thing Mr. Trump did that day. We know. People now answer the question “How are you?” by rote, with the answer “Fine, given the situation.”
No one is talking about California’s good weather right now, even though it’s a lovely 75 degrees on an early November afternoon in Los Angeles. This week, as the fires were finally dying down, President Trump added his voice — his hectoring tweets, rather — to the discussion about how to control his least favorite state’s wildfire season. With a wisdom born of sheer ignorance, Mr. Trump mocked California for failing to “clean” the forest floor, but as we and all the experts know, our recent fires were almost entirely chaparral and grassland fires, and share little with forest blazes. Another thing he probably doesn’t know, among so many things, is that some 57 percent of California’s forests are maintained by the federal government. So Mr. Trump can go sweep his own damn forests.
Anyway, we believe he likes to see us burn, to see us go up in flames, because we’re a headquarters for that joyful, adventurous, hopeful resistance.
And Adam Schiff lives here, after all.
Amy Wilentz is a contributing editor at The Nation and the author, most recently, of “Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti.”
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