LA Fires

Gregory A. Finnegan (Gregory.A.Finnegan@DARTMOUTH.EDU)
Sun, 7 Nov 1993 22:00:13 EST

Thanks to Steve Maack and others for the updates. For a sense of perspective
(especially, perhaps, for anthropologists used to 'human' scale rather than
geologic), I strongly recommend reading or rereading, as I did last night,
John McPhee's splendid and sobering essay "Los Angeles Against the
Mountains." It's pp. 183-272 in his book THE CONTROL OF NATURE ( NYC:
Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989.) It was orig. publ. in two parts in the NEW
YORKER magazine, 26 Sept. and 3 Oct. issues, in 1988.

It's part of McPhee's grand project of reporting on geology, so his focus is
the "debris slides" (watermelon-, car- and-bus-sized boulders make the word
"mud" misleading) from the world's steepest and most unstable mountains
("shattered" by quakes.) But since the mountains are so steep, it's mainly
the chapparal that holds the loose stuff on the them. And when it burns, and
massive (if rare) rains follow, down it all comes.

The essay is very impressive, and very good at establishing the role of fire:
"in a sense, chaparral consumes fire no less than fire consumes chaparral.
Fire nourishes and rejuvenates the plants." (p. 208) He shows that a fire
is 'normal' (with or without houses!) every thirty years or so. The essay is
also very good on the Angeleno cultural perspective on fires in particular
and earthquakes and debris slides in general, as the price paid for living in
paradise. As an expatriated San Franciscan in the North Woods, my NorCal
biases were reinforced, but in any event I recommend McPhee highly for
understanding both the physical and cultural ecology of the LA/San Gabriel
Mountain interface.
& Adjunct Assoc. Prof. of Anthro.
Dartmouth College Library
6025 Baker Library, Room 104
Hanover NH 03755-3525
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