November 05, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

Pacific Palisades, California. -- I turned on the television Wednesday morning and watched the flames devouring chaparral, trees and the houses of the unlucky or the foolish.

They call them ''brush fires'' because most of the mountains dropping to the sea in this land God meant to be a desert are covered with chaparral and other gnarled little trees. But the words mislead because the fires are like an inferno when the desert winds called Santa Anas rise with the sun.

I went to the ridge overlooking Malibu and Topanga canyons. The air was still as the sun began to come up behind me. The fireline had not moved much since the night before. We had watched then from Temescal Canyon, above Pacific Palisades High School, open as a shelter for the families whose homes were threatened -- or gone.

We had stopped at the home of friends, Roger and Fran Diamond. While we were there, their daughter Marnie called to say that if they had to evacuate, please take her photo albums and scrapbooks. We had been there before, in the fires of October 1978, which did reach Temescal, and we did what everybody seems to do, pack albums and insurance policies first -- that is what you need to start over.

There is not much time when the fire is close. Some people waited too long and were burned to death when the heat melted the tires of their cars.

''The fiery evil'' was what the Los Angeles Times called the fires this time. I'm not sure that's fair. The fires were here long before the Times and the rest of us, even before the Indians came. Lightning would ignite the brush then, clearing the land and providing ash fertilizer for new growth. That is nature's way.

Nature periodically tries to get Los Angeles back. Fires, floods, mudslides and earthquakes remind the 6 million people in the Los Angeles Basin that we do not belong here, with our landfill and leveled hilltops, imported water and hazy air.

''Everything is imported,'' a Los Angeles historian named Richard Lillard once told me. ''Four-fifths of the water in Los Angeles comes from other places -- from as far away as 444 miles to the north. Nature has been pushed further here -- a long way indeed -- than almost anyplace on Earth.''

''Los Angeles,'' he said, ''is a triumph of American genius and greed.''

We, the people, are imported, too. The land here could probably support only 40,000 or so people -- that is an approximation of the number of Indians living here when the Spanish first came in 1769. We are tough. We have the arrogance to call nature the evil and to pretend that these fires are caused by accident or arson. Yes, one of this year's fires was started by a drifter, an illegal Chinese immigrant, starting a fire to keep warm at night. But one way or another, nature would have ignited the chaparral when it felt too crowded. The fires will come forever.

The sun is up now. A faint smell of smoke is in the air. As the day warms, the wind will kick up in the desert and find its way through the passes of the San Gabriel and Santa Monica mountains. By noon, the television says, the hot, dry winds will reach 45 miles an hour. Then the fires will move again. And, again, we will find a place and a way to stop them, probably by letting them burn out somewhere between the ocean and Sunset Boulevard.

Then we will see the green triumph of lawn sprinklers and the 12-month growing season. In three years, you will not be able to tell there were great fires in the Santa Ana season of 1993. Most of the victims will rebuild, tempting nature again. The rest of us will just forget about it -- until next time.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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