Coastal Commuter

No rain, big flame

As I write this, California is dealing with yet another drought, something that’s been more the rule than the exception in recent memory. It’s kind of bizarre to be ensconced in the cozy fog-shrouded haven of San Francisco — droplets in the air and surrounded by water, water and water on three sides — and be concerned about a shortage of H2O. Yet, the rains have been scarce for many months, and we need to be concerned.

Shower-with-a-buddy-concerned? That’s the only good side of this problem. The current situation behooves us to do all in our power to not waste that precious liquid flowing out of the tap. It’s also imperative to stop watering the foliage with abandon — other than those all-important cash crops that are keeping the state alive. On the other hand, a damp lawn, field or forest is less likely to burst into flames or encourage a conflagration already in progress. This is particularly germane to me because I continue to house-sit part-time in the Los Angeles suburb/bedroom community of La Crescenta, just north of the gentrified Eagle Rock area, which is above the hipster-fied Echo Park neighborhood, which is just north of increasingly spiffed-up downtown L.A. itself.

We are heading into the same time of year when, in 2009, the wooded areas around the Los Angeles metroplex experienced what was called the largest fire in the history of the region. As it happens, La Crescenta is right next to the Angeles National Forest where the 2009 fire blazed out of control for far too many days, destroying property and wildlife and endangering the people living in the vicinity. One flaming emergency led to another. The weather was in the 90s. The heat was on, quite literally.

At the time, I was living in the Westwood area, closer to Santa Monica and the sea than to the fire. There was still a hint of smoke in the air here and there, and to the east, I could see dark clouds. My closest view of the devastation came via television coverage, including footage shot by someone standing on the roof of a house in La Cañada-Flintridge, a town adjacent to La Crescenta, and next to acres of enflamed woods threatening that entire string of suburban towns. Frankly, it was like a vision of hell.

Some hours after watching the newsreel, I visited a friend living in the hills overlooking Universal City in the Valley. Peering east from his back deck, my view was nothing less than harrowing. The sky was almost totally blackened by smoke, and in the distance, I could see what appeared to be a near-Biblical pillar of fire amid the peaks of the aforementioned Angeles National Forest. If I were a religious man, I’d have been “sore afraid,” as the Old Testament puts it.

Eventually, too many days later, the flames were extinguished. The damage was extensive and costly, to say the least. Before the fire, a drought had been in effect. Guess what? A drought is plaguing us, and it’s fire season in Southern California again. There’s a pattern here. I can only hope, as I gaze at the dry grass and the fruit trees in the yard at my La Crescenta digs, that we’re spared the sort of pyre that wrought havoc in 2009.

Gazing at the bay from the relatively safe vantage point of Russian Hill, it’s hard to imagine the extent of destruction that the drought could deliver. But in a sprawling area such as that surrounding Los Angeles, or in the Berkeley-Oakland Hills where the 1991 firestorm brought about such ruin, or the countryside east of Oakland and the counties in the North Bay, it presents a clear and present danger. Again, I’m not a religious man. Still, I’m praying for rain, and you should too.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and Thom Hartmann Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available online at and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster