California, the Most Calamitous Place on Earth

FRESNO, Calif. — I’ve lived in the middle of California for more than 50 years, which is another way of declaring my share of natural disasters. I’ve seen the land around me dragged through four long droughts, five big floods, a half-dozen earthquakes 7.0 or higher on the Richter scale and three of the 10 deadliest wildfires in U.S. history.

I’m now sitting in my home in Fresno on the edge of another historic blaze, the Creek Fire, counting the days for it to peter out, waiting for our collective amnesia to set down again like ash, so that Californians can go on with the madness of building in the same path of wildfire.

Figuring out this state isn’t easy. I’ve written more than a million words of history, memoir, essay, biography and journalism trying to get close. I’ve come to understand that the question of disaster and rebirth exists at the heart of our experiment. We’ve spent the past 170 years erecting a most intricate system — dams, aqueduct, canals, turbine pumps, power grids, roads, codes — to dull, if not defeat, nature.

Yet California remains one of the most calamitous places on earth. Drought, flood, wildfire, mudslide, earthquake — it’s a hell of a way to run through the seasons. When we’re caught in the clutches of one disaster, we forget all about the possibility of another. We consider this failure of memory to be our resilience. It’s a powerful force to behold.

William Brewer, who studied at Yale before coming west to survey California’s natural resources during the Gold Rush, watched the great deluge of 1862 erase the land. “Nearly every house and farm over this immense region is gone,” he reported. “America has never before seen such desolation by a flood as this has been.”

Credit...The Illustrated London News, via DEA/Biblioteca Ambrosiana—Getty Images

Yet Brewer had come to recognize the Californian’s peculiar fortitude to outlast everything. “No people can so stand calamity as this people,” he wrote. “They are used to it. Everyone is familiar with the history of fortunes quickly made and as quickly lost. It seems here, more than elsewhere, the natural order of things.”

My 22-year-old son, Jake, has outlasted the virus, the heat wave, the blackouts, the smoke and six months of lockdown by reading Dostoyevsky and Saroyan. He wonders if the wildfires herald the arrival of climate change. We talk existentialism over the hum of four machines that change our household air from “very unhealthy” to “good.” I remind him that California doesn’t need climate change to suffer disasters. We produce them quite fine on our own. Now that climate change has hitched aboard, we’ll see hazards we’ve never seen before.

Last month, Death Valley experienced what is likely the hottest temperature — 130 degrees — ever recorded on earth. More than 10,000 dry lightning strikes hit the state in a three-day period. Not even the Pacific Gas & Electric company, whose greed and folly sparked the deadly wildfires of 2017 and 2018, made for such a willful setter of fires. The lightning lit 600 separate blazes, and we’ve seen more than three million acres scorched. There are, if it helps to think this way, 97 million more acres of California left to burn.

Credit...Kent Porter/The Press Democrat, via Associated Press

California has always been too big for its breeches. The people, first Spaniard, then white American, took from the Indians a land mass near 1,000 miles long and then called it one state. Highest mountain, lowest desert, longest coast, most epic valley, riparian forest, Redwood forest, wetland, grassland, inland sea — each was its own state of nature.

When the lines of latitude cover 10 degrees, and the rain falls 125 inches on one end and seven inches on the other, and the people choose to live where the water isn’t, what is a state to do? And so began the infinite tinkering to even out the differences.

One of the most extreme alterations of the earth’s surface in human history took place in the Central Valley, where I live. The hog wallows, home to the Yokut Indians, were flattened by a hunk of metal called the Fresno Scraper. By dam, levee, canal and ditch, the Sierra rivers were sent to places rivers never went. The farmer grabbed the snowmelt and erased the valley, its desert and marsh. Cotton barons, chased out of Georgia and Virginia by the boll weevil, drained Tulare Lake, the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi, and transplanted the plantation — its mint juleps, its African-American farmhands — onto the dirt of California.

Alterations no less grand transformed Southern and Northern California. When the first taking proved insufficient to the conceit of our remaking, farmers and housing developers installed pumps that reached hundreds of feet into the aquifer. They dug out ancient water as the Forty Niners had dug out gold. The orchards, vineyards and vegetable fields sprawled from good soil to bad soil. Suburbia crossed into the desert and then into the forest. It hardly registered that we were pumping so much water out of the earth that the earth itself was sinking; the aqueduct, canals and roads were sinking right along with it.

This was the price to realize our dream: a world-class city in the south, a world-class city in the north, the world’s most industrialized farm belt in the middle and a second valley on the other side of the hill given over to its own mad pursuit of a chip.

You can look at the magnitude of this ambition and conclude that California is fated for apocalypse. That may be true. But it’s also true that the scale of our invention, our genius and our tragedy, requires us to keep reinventing, and these reinventions become not just our future but America’s future. It was in California where Luther Burbank, a horticulturalist known as The Wizard, bred the Santa Rosa plum, the Elberta peach and the Russet Burbank potato. It was here, in a bedroom and a couple of garages, where Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Google were hatched.

Last year, I headed up Highway 99 to the town of Paradise, where the deadliest wildfire in California history had taken place on Nov. 8, 2018. I wanted to understand the forces that had conspired to create a blaze of such anger that it took the lives of 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures.

Credit...Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

On a ridgetop where gold mining gave way to logging, and logging gave way to apple growing, a suburb had arisen. If you counted the sprawl up the mountain, 40,000 people had been living atop a geologic chimney. Hemmed in by two river canyons, they were sitting in the path of inferno, but somehow they kept building — scores of housing tracts without proper roads or sidewalks or spaces to defend against fire. The local politicians had allowed it. The state had turned a blind eye. When the spark arrived that morning, by way of a crumbling PG&E power line, the people had no good way out.

In that moment, the kindling of their houses met the kindling of the forest, an explosion 170 years in the making. In his 2001 book, “Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests,” George Gruell, a wildlife biologist, documents changes to the mountain range since the discovery of gold. The photos from the 1850s show swaths of the Sierra with only a scattering of trees. Today, what was once sparse is now tightly packed with pine, fir, cedar and manzanita. A forest with 64 trees per acre in pre-settlement times now boasts 160 trees per acre. Nature had been remade to fit the designs of the timber barons. “The landscapes of today may look attractively lush,” Mr. Gruell writes, “but the thickening forest threatens us with several problems.”

I left the ridgetop and headed west, into the Mendocino woods, where Richard Wilson was living alone on Buck Mountain surrounded by marijuana growers. An old cattleman, he had run the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in the 1990s. The Indians had given us a healthy forest, he told me. Much of it was patchy, and the trees grew to differing heights. This open ground and uneven canopy kept nature’s fires from raging. Flames burned the scrub and lower branches, and then lost wind. This is how new trees were generated. This is how the next fire stayed tame.

But in the 1980s, the big timber companies intensified the pattern of clear-cutting old-growth trees and planting new trees so uniform that when fire hit, it became a blowtorch. “The trees are nothing but matchsticks,” Mr. Wilson said. “Get a spark up, and she’s gone.”

In the early 2000s, a shift took place inside Mr. Wilson’s old department. Rangers in their khaki uniforms and flat-brimmed hats, assigned to manage the forest and carry out prescribed burns, began to disappear. Better-paid firefighters dressed in blue took over. Today, California firefighting has been restructured into a disaster-industrial complex with the warlike mobilization of all-terrain fire engines, Black Hawk helicopters and C-130 Hercules cargo planes. Putting out fires in California is now a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise.

In the days after the Paradise fire, 25,000 residents fled the ridge, a few as far away as Florida, but most to nearby towns on the valley floor. Some told me they were never coming back, waving off the chamber of commerce signs planted along the main road, “Rebuild, Recoup, Recover.” The six-year drought had killed too many pines and cedar, making for easy kindling, they said. And the state’s water delivery system, once a world marvel, couldn’t keep up with the wild shifts of weather and competing demands of nearly 40 million people. The system was cracking under the pressure of relentless growth. They wondered if California had finally reached its limit line.

The obits for California were premature, others said. How many times had the state been written off? California kept on reimagining and reinventing, and the people committed to the ridge would do the same. Kathy Peppas, who had watched her house and the houses belonging to a half-dozen family members go up in flames, believed they owed it to the 85 dead to fashion a smaller community better designed to handle wildfire’s peril. Rebuilt houses might require metal roofs and sprinkler systems. The fees to local government for proper roads would need to be higher. So would their insurance premiums. “I know the danger can never be completely taken out of the ridge,” she said. “But this is my home.”

As of last week, new ash pouring down from a fire just miles away, they were building a new Paradise.

Mark Arax is a writer whose most recent book is “The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California.”

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