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The Burning Season

09.30.2005 14:38 | DISPATCHES

I returned to Los Angeles yesterday from Washington, DC, to find that fire season had begun. Those who don't believe Southern California has seasons fail to appreciate the region's nuances. We don't have foliage, but in the fall the hills burn. The Santa Ana winds blow, hot and dry, and somewhere in the Santa Monica or San Gabriel mountains a parched branch or piece of chaparral ignites. The water-starved brush around it goes up as well, and soon you have a scene like we had yesterday over Sunset Boulevard: billowing gray clouds, blotting out the light and reducing the sun to an angry pinhead. Everything smells of smoke and ash, and though you can't see it from where I live you know that the valleys are on fire. I also know I won't be able to sleep. The air is hot and foul and lying down becomes stifling and uncomfortable.

For all that, I like the Santa Anas, and they are a good excuse to re-read Joan Didion, whose three greatest books--Slouching Towards Bethelem, The White Album, and Play it as it Lays are all dark valentines to Los Angeles. Here she is on the Santa Ana:

There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio passes, blowing up sandstorms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to the flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it, too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.

Like most great cities, Los Angeles is almost impossible to describe. But in her prime Didion came closest.


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