Main Street: California fires

Rich Wandschneider

Our family joined the post-World War II migration to Southern California in 1952. I was 10, and lived there until 1964, when I graduated from college. My parents are gone now and I don't go back often, but this week's fires have taken me to that time and place, and to thinking about the rapid changes we humans make in our worlds, and on what sometimes comes of them.

In 1952, Oceanside, bounded by Camp Pendleton to the north, was one of the small communities that hugged the coast south to San Diego: Oceanside, then Carlsbad, Encinitas, and the race track where Bing Crosby sang that the "turf meets the surf at old Del Mar." North of Camp Pendleton, the large Marine base that drew thousands of young men from across the country to Southern California during the War, a similar string of small coastal towns stretched to Los Angeles. Inland, away from coastal fogs and breezes, summer temperatures were routinely twenty and thirty degrees warmer. There were few inland towns, and I realize now that the settlements and agricultural activities that supported them were largely determined by the availability of water - valleys with runoffs from the coastal range, and Palm Springs, Borego Springs, and other springs where water from the same mountains bubbled to the surface.

The climate on that thin ribbon of coast is superb, cool in summers, mild in winters, and sticks poked into the ground grow avocados, citrus and palm trees. Places with water hard against the mountains are also cool in summer, mild in winter, and in my time were known for their gardens and orchards. But the land in between was harsh with heat and scrubby chaparral.

In 1952, U.S. Highway 1 snaked along that thin coastal strip from San Diego to Seattle with few inland breaks. A tougher road, El Camino Real, "The King's Highway," followed the trail of missions from San Diego to Northern California, darting in and away from the ocean where missions and settlements had grown near the coast and around inland rivers and springs.

San Diego was a coastal mission, but San Luis Rey, our mission, hunkered along a small river five miles from the sea. I learned years later that the early economy of Southern California and these inland missions was based on cattle herds that were raised for hides and tallow which were shipped to old Mexico and maybe to Europe. Indians and packs of dogs disposed of the meat. The inland population was sparse.

I don't know what the population of Southern California was in 1952, but I know that Oceanside had fewer than 15,000 souls when we arrived, and that Highway 1 was a two-lane road. I don't remember big fires, but there were occasional fire bursts in the harsh country "back of town." I remember admonitions about starting fires when our Boy Scout troop camped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and when we gathered mistletoe for Christmas sales in a small dry forest only 15 or 20 miles inland.

And I remember Santa Ana winds at this time of year, when night football games were damp and foggy unless we had them. We wondered more about the houses that were built right against the ocean - there was sometimes a news photo of one sliding into the sea. Later, after I'd moved away, I remember stories of fires east of Los Angeles in high end communities with sprawling houses with cedar shake roofs. And homeowners vowing to rebuild and scorning regulations against wooden roofs. But I never put Santa Ana winds, fire, houses and San Diego together when I was growing up.

Return trips have grown less frequent over the forty years, but on every occasion the sight of more homes and roads and buildings and golf courses stuffed along the coast and into that broad band of chaparral between coast and mountains is surprising. Where are they coming from? Where do they get the water that has allowed Southern California to fill in all of the places that were once marginal for humans? And the power that fuels air conditioning and makes it possible for large numbers of people to live there in summer comfort?

Los Angeles's takeover of Owens Lake water was long over when we arrived in California, and Colorado River water was feeding California agriculture, and probably, although I didn't pay attention to it then, feeding us in Oceanside. So the filling in of California - especially of that harsh middle-land between mountains and coast - has been made possible with massive electric power and the greater and more efficient and suburban use of the outside water supply.

And now, watching the Southern California fires on television - the exploding homes, naked swimming pools, and scorching chaparral on yet undeveloped steep hills; the winds picking up spiraling flames and dropping cinders haphazardly on houses, cars, animal shelters, and firefighters - the match of suburbanization and fire seems as inevitable as dirt.

We can dodge, hide, build walls, fences, and freeways; dam rivers, doze roads and parking lots; and predict weather patterns. We can move away from fault lines, harsh winters, and hurricane coasts. But earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods, and other forces of nature are not going to stop doing what they've forever done. They will eventually eat up some of the defenses we've constructed against them and the hubris that made us think we could defeat them. They will burn the places we plant with borrowed water and flood the low lands we level.

I hope now that a humbler, more modestly sized patch of humanity puts itself back together in the valleys of Southern California, and that others who live on coastal cliffs, at canyon mouths, and in the shadows of dams and mountains and forests take note.

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