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Heat in the Hills

The Southbound passenger train was running late out of Ventura so I passed the time sipping coffee over the pages of my newest read, Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. I kept tabs on the sun as it grew closer to the hills and I found comfort in knowing that the days were only getting longer. The captain's voice came over the loud speaker and announced our arrival in Glendale, a neighborhood among the rolling suburbs East of Hollywood. It was just then that I noticed the first gleams of light from a brush fire out on top of a far ridge. It seemed to be under control (for the most part) as helicopters hovered back and forth, dumping tons of fire extinguishing debris over the orange blaze. I marveled at the fierce power of wildfire and remembered the brazen embers falling last month over the beloved Hollywood sign. It appears to be no rarity in these parts.

My train arrived in Los Angeles a little later than I expected and I towed my luggage in the most uncouth way out to the Metro Red Line and up to the city street at Vermont/Sunset. Riding the escalator up to that municipal hamster box, I was greeted by an unexpected change in temperature. It was if I had been gulped up into the bowels of summer's inferno; I had left California's cool coastal breezes and ventured into the muggy swamps of the southland. I could hear Sunnyland Slim and Little Walter wailing the blues away on their harps, paving their way down Highway 61. I began to sweat.

I passed the usual sites on my walk to Jimbo's new apartment in Silverlake: the glassy windows of the Children's Hospital of L.A., a looming leviathan of a crane sitting in the vacancy of a Von's parking lot, a sordid, strung-out fellow in blue sweat pants, and the neon green lights of the Vista cinema. The further I walked, the hotter it became. It was if I was walking into the center grate of an oven and some devilish cook was slowly closing the door behind me. I was within two blocks of the apartment when I diverted my eyes west toward the Hollywood hills where a spectacular fire raged in the brush. Suddenly, I could hear the hum of several helicopters, and in the glimmer of the fire's light I could make out the incessant plume of fire retardant being dusted across the hillside. Every minute a new tree would catch fire, igniting as if someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail in an act of pillage. It was a diabolical scene that mysteriously rendered itself just.

As I write, Catalina Island burns in the night and by tomorrow it will probably have reached the outer limits of Avalon. A town like Avalon is a fire's threshold, reaching a defining boundary that ultimately defies containment. Each little wooden cottage is but a tinderbox waiting in quiet anticipation, sitting idle as fodder for the biting beast.

All of California is subject to Nature's mercies. It is an unforgiving landscape - seismically active and ready to burn - and yet people continue to build their million dollar homes on the brink of precipitous cliffs and among the tangles of chaparral brush. Just this past January Suzanne Somers (a cit-com celebrity and middle-aged beauty) lost her Malibu mansion to the stampede of fire. Over the years, thousands have lost their homes in mega-quakes along the San Andreas fault and others have fallen victim to coastal erosion.

I leaned heavily on the railing of the apartment porch and stared up at the fiery hills. I thought about Southern California's population explosion and how it's no surprise to see new homes built in particularly vulnerable places. In the case of the Griffith Park fire madly raging above me, it would just so happen that only a few buildings were destroyed. But in time, I surmised that future fires might hold greater heat and fervor; that more people will be affected by these searing storms and that fire will provoke us in a way we never imagined.

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