Monday, August 31, 2009

Day of the Locusts

A sad and scary episode is unfolding in the hills north of Los Angeles, and I suppose it's crude to even consider the literary value of an apocalyptic fire while it's still raging, while people's lives are still at risk, but it's also irresistible. I felt the same way about the Australian wildfires, which included scenes of incinerated car wrecks and people submersing themselves in swimming pools as walls of flames swept overhead, and one hardy woman who saved herself and her children by hiding in a wombat burrow. Some day, some great literature will no doubt come out of all that.

It's easy to be smug about people building houses in hurricane zones or on fault lines or in desert hills that have always been prone to wildfires, but disaster can strike anywhere. And when it does, it illuminates what matters, what works and what doesn't, which provides raw material for potentially great literature -- or, considering the L.A. locale, perhaps an awesome (or, in the wrong hands, awful) movie.

I am far distant from the L.A. fires, and can only go by news accounts, facebook status updates from friends who live there, and my own experience of being trapped at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. During the latter episode, the park's now-legendary fires swept through in 1988 and forests and fields and cabins for miles around were consumed by flames that blackened the skies and rained burning embers down upon the small group of mostly reporters who hovered by the geyser, where the firefighters told us there was a higher oxygen level (the greatest danger from such fires, beyond being burned alive, is suffocation, because the fire consumes all the oxygen in its path). Everyone but the media and the firefighters had been evacuated before the fire jumped ahead of itself and crossed the only road to the inn, trapping us there, and that night, after it had swept through, we drove for miles through a hellish scene of burnt and smoldering forests, punctuated by lingering, small fires and the occasional still-torching trunks of trees. The sense of invincibility that we tend to carry with us through our daily lives gets torched by such an experience, too. 

So far, I've been struck by two accounts from the L.A. fires. One involved two foolish people who ignored evacuation orders for an area called Big Tujunga Canyon and attempted to ride out the firestorm in, of all things, a hot tub, which a sheriff's office spokesman said "did them no good whatsoever." The two survived but were severely burned.

The other, in an AP story that I assume originated in the L.A. Times, included the following quote from a man who had waited anxiously for news about his home. "It's the worst roller coaster of my life, and I hate roller coasters," said Adi Ellad, who lost his home in Big Tujunga Canyon over the weekend. "One second I'm crying, one second I'm guilty, the next moment I'm angry, and then I just want to drink tequila and forget." Ellad left behind a family heirloom Persian rug and a family photo album he had put together after his father died. "I'm going to have to figure out a new philosophy: how to live without loving stuff," he said.

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