Paradise Burns

GREG CRITSER

November 07, 1993|By GREG CRITSER

Los Angeles. -- "It's like this in winter in Katmandu,'' a friend of mine was saying the other day. Outside the enormous, Tudor-style window overlooking his carefully landscaped grounds (Chinese lantern trees, coral, infant sequoias) the sky was glowing in tones gold, ocher, pink, red. Just up the road, the Eaton Canyon fire was blazing. Houses were exploding in smoke. On TV, the local news anchors, usually a perky lot, looked grim. Paradise, the Los Angeles version, was burning.

My friend had traveled to many paradises, searching, like many of us, for the authentic. We had never, until today, put the obvious two and two together: We live in a paradise, and, as in many of the earth's great paradisiacal places, we burn.

And burn: Before the onset of mass agriculture and urbanization, between 5 million and 13 million acres of California used to burn every year. Some burns were ignited by indigenous tribes, and some by lightning, and for the most part these burns went uncontrolled. This natural fire ecology kept plant fuels from building up the way they do now, and so fires burned in a more predictable, and almost leisurely way. A fire in pre-modern California, in paradise untrammeled, was a natural, sometimes everyday event.

Not so in modern California. Irrigation, supervised fire districts, and suburbanization have disrupted the routes of the old burns, although not entirely. Since 1932, there have been seven wildfires that burned 100,000 acres each. In 1991 alone the California Department of Forestry recorded 6,244 fires that were started on its lands.

For the most part, we Californians, and particularly we Angelenos, do not talk about the combustibility of our ex-urban paradise. Perhaps that is because we know, at least subconsciously, as Ambrose Bierce once said, that ''the beautiful is always allied with the horrible.'' The green hillock across the way could, with the strike of a match, reach across the road and take our home and there would be little we could do about it.

So, as our cities expand to grassier and more far-flung fringes, our civic debate contracts around those issues we think we can control. The It's true: We adore nature, but we don't really deal with it.

L.A. City Council, for example, is just now concluding a momentous debate on . . . the licensing of pushcart vendors. There are codes on the books of some southland cities regulating the use of automatic leaf-blowers, the urban version of the short-handled hoe. Even tiny Sierra Madre, hard hit by last week's fire, achieved momentary notoriety as the first city in California to prohibit immigrant day workers from congregating on its streets. Paradise is to be regimented.

Or put on a shelf. The Eighties witnessed a boom in so-called eco-tourism, dispatching suburbanites to such exotic locales as Indonesia, Nepal, Peru, Kenya. Everyone had a slide show of a rain forest, a mountain village, an Amazonian tribal celebration. But we didn't talk much about the slash-and-burn agriculture these cultures still practice, or about why there seemed to be so much ash in the air everywhere we went. One thing, however, was inescapable: Those nice tapestries we brought back? They still smell a little of . . . smoke.

It's true: We adore nature, but we don't really deal with it. We don't tend our gardens and lawns anymore; we let the guy with the leaf-blower do it (after 8 a.m., please). When we do try our hand at it, we don't even plant seeds -- we go out and buy a ''color pack'' of pre-sprouted flowers that are ''guaranteed'' healthy. We want instant paradise, packaged paradise, not, God forbid, an ''interactive'' one. If the Bible once gave us ''dominion'' over paradise, today it's more politically correct to be its docent. Never mind that the uncut wildgrass, home to the endangered Stephens' kangaroo rat, will later be kindling for our house.

After a morning of watching for falling embers, it's clear my friend's home is safe. My wife goes up the hill to help another friend pack up wedding pictures, important documents, the irreplaceable items that, should the unthinkable happen, would form the psychic core of material continuity. Outside, the backyard is burning; in a few hours the potting shed will burn, but the house will be saved.

It is near noon. I drive home. The streets are filled with an enormous swag of debris: palm fronds, newspapers, leaves. The Santa Anas are winding down. Outside the school across the street, the gardeners are surveying the mess.

The leaf-blowers are on.

Greg Critser is an editor of the Los Angeles-based Buzz magazine. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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