The Fire Next Time

Natural disasters, an anemic economy, and Ah-nold. California, here we come.

In the aftermath of California's most recent flowering inferno, politicians and their constituents remain unwilling to acknowledge a pattern of willful contempt for ecosystems whose flora requires, among other inconveniences, periodic scorches. Malibu, for instance, may be the most fire-prone community in the United States (the area has hosted 15 major firestorms since 1930), but its millionaire residents aren't about to abandon their privileged paradise—they prefer to rebuild after every fire or mudslide or earthquake with the generous contributions of federal funds. No wonder then, as native daughter Joan Didion observes in her recent memoir, Where I Was From, that the "extreme reliance of Californians on federal money so seemingly at odds with the emphasis on unfettered individualism that constitutes the local core belief, was a pattern set early on, and derived in part from the very individualism it would seem to belittle."

Something's rotten in the state of California, and it's not just the economy, stupid; it's a postsuburban way of life that cannot be psychologically or environmentally sustained. In 1991, Orange County demographer William F. Gayk wrote that adjacent "Riverside and San Bernardino counties are now serving as new markets for people unable to afford a home in Orange County," where they work. "The result is that the volume of vehicle miles traveled surges upward, the transportation system is taxed beyond its limits, and air quality deteriorates." Gayk's description of those recent fire epicenters scans statewide, glossing the frustrations of the Gray Davis-haters from San Jose to San Diego who wonder why their diminishing California dream has to be paid for. Predictably, they've elected another actor who won't ask them to settle up. For decades, California has been preparing for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the collective consciousness of our celebrity-obsessed nation, California represents the continental last stand of manifest destiny's westward expansion. The Golden State promises us passage from obscurity to stardom. But as California's keenest observers, from Nathanael West to David Lynch, have understood, that's just a Hollywood variation on a Horatio Alger theme. With nowhere left to go but the mall, these all-American ambitions lately drive in circles along a lost highway. Californians once raced obliviously down scenic coastal roads, orange groves to the right, blue Pacific to the left—James Deans, above the speed limit, cheating death. Now they sit in neutral, surrounded by thick traffic and imprisoned inside the vehicle of their deliverance under a smog-brown sky, a power brownout waiting at home.

Benjamin Strong is a fourth-generation Californian born in Hollywood, now living in Brooklyn. He received his master's degree in English literature from UC-Santa Barbara, and has worked as a book editor in Chicago.

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