New York Magazine


A bulletin from our climate future.

YOU COULD SEE THE SMOKE FROM SPACE. The plume from last November’s Woolsey fire swept out toward Catalina and into the Pacific beyond by the same Santa Ana winds that had carried the flames all the way down the Malibu mountainside to the beach. The aftermath was eerie, the sunsets gorgeous, toxic ash falling from the sky in heavy lumps. Horses and alpacas and a giraffe wandered the sand, having fled flames that tore through local stables and ranches and a vineyard’s private zoo. The burn scar on the land, when the smoke cleared, stretched 152 square miles through Point Dume and Malibu and up to Calabasas and Westlake Village: 96,000 densely populated acres burned, 300,000 people evacuated from 100,000 homes, a city of 10 million terrorized in ways both familiar and unprecedented.

In the mythology of Los Angeles, fires are an eternal feature of the landscape—more permanent than any human settlement and an intimation that the city and its people remain rugged, no matter how comfortably plastic and protected life in its wealthy canyon sprawl might seem. But in a time of environmental panic, last year’s fires played more like a portent of something new, even an End of Days. The same resident of Inglewood or West Hollywood or Culver City who might once have looked up from his driveway to see the same smoke plume suspended above the city’s flatlands or driven past the same flickering flames along the 405 and thought, California, now sees them and thinks, Climate change.

You can’t outrun a wildfire burning at full speed; some grow an acre a second, some three times faster still. You can’t outdrive flames carried by winds traveling 60 miles per hour straddling highways that had looked, moments before, like escape routes. At those speeds, you can’t defeat the fires, either—even with Cal Fire’s $2.5 billion annual budget; its hundreds of fire engines; its air force, 50 units strong; its army of thousands of professionals, thousands of volunteers, and 1,500 furloughed inmates drafted into the state’s annual war on wildfire and paid as little as $1 an hour.

“No one will ever be honest about this, but firefighters have never stopped a wildfire powered by Santa Ana winds,” the environmental historian Mike Davis told me earlier this spring, as we toured hills ravaged by past fires and—redeveloped and reinhabited in their wake—haunted now by future ones. “All you can hope for is that the wind will change.”

Los Angeles can seem, in this way, ahead of its time, a sort of preview of what the rest of the country is only peeking at through stretched fingers—communities across the city contemplating what is to come and wondering just how comfortable, or even manageable, life under those conditions could possibly be. The Woolsey fire was twice as big as anything that had burned through Malibu before, yet it represented only a tiny part of the worst fire year in the history of the state—only 5 percent of the acres that burned.

Fires ignite randomly—downed power lines, out-of-control campsites—and so they are hard to predict. The next few years are as likely to be erratic ones, climate scientists say, as they are to be cumulatively worse. But over time, the prediction becomes much clearer. It is expected that by 2050, the area burned each year by forest fires across the western United States will at least double, and perhaps quadruple, what it is today as a result of warming. That is just three decades from now—the length of the mortgages that banks have extended to the homes on those fire-prone lands.

After that, the picture becomes murkier—projections diverge, mid-century, in part because different scientists

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