Wildfires scorch a hole through Southern California's mythology of paradise

Southern California is the landscape of dreams, or so the mythology goes. Newcomers arrive. They raise the roof beam high over the simplest foundations and pass on to a new generation the hope that they too might believe in this sun-drenched paradise.

Time, however, has cast a shadow on this pact, and it sometimes feels like a distant romance. Yet glimpses of it can still be seen, as the fires of this last week have shown.

Beginning Monday night, the conflagration has been indiscriminately cruel, incinerating homes, killing horses and upending lives. It has touched mogul and farmer, homeowner and renter, young and old alike.

Flaring up almost at random, it has linked disparate cities and neighborhoods — Ventura and Sylmar, Santa Paula and Bel-Air, Malibu and Bonsall — and forged a common experience among dusty inland horse ranches, coastal mansions, oak-hidden enclaves and ocean-view apartments.

In this climate and on this landscape, fire is the great equalizer.

But all natural disasters are. They provide a glimpse into the vulnerability of others no matter their place in life. Houston. Florida. Puerto Rico.

Only it wasn’t supposed to be this way, not here at least. Palm trees aren’t supposed to ignite like matchsticks.

Follow live coverage of the Southern California wildfires »

“No place on earth offers greater security to life and greater freedom from natural disasters than Southern California,” The Times wrote in 1934.

We’re learning otherwise.

“It’s never been easy to make a home in America,” said D.J. Waldie, author of “Holy Land,” a memoir of growing up in a Southern California neighborhood. “We are not unique, except we have a burden of a mythology that presents California — especially Southern California — as somehow exempt from the difficulties, I would even say cruelties, of making a home in America.”

But fire is the cruel joke of Southern California, and the irony is rich: Everything that makes this place special — the mountains, this salubrious climate between desert and sea — is the reason for the wind-driven destruction.

Our naiveté is to blame as well, a willingness to forget that these fires are nothing new. “Disaster amnesia,” as Mike Davis called it in “Ecology of Fear.”

Yet abandoning illusions is never easy, no matter the reality at hand.

Unlike New York or Chicago — cities of concrete and steel — Southern California is a landscape of chaparral amid stretches of undeveloped and undevelopable land, the ruffles in the Transverse Ranges: the Puente Hills, the Santa Ynez Mountains, the Verdugos, the San Gabriels, the San Bernardinos, the Santa Monicas.

So when Santa Ana winds blow, lips chap, eyes sting, there is little doubt of what lies ahead when a fire starts. Skies turn a burnt orange; cars are dusted with ash.

Last week, the escalation was especially fast.

In the flood of media reports, firefighting became spectator sport, driven by statistics: more than 175,000 acres burned, more than 790 structures destroyed or damaged, 5% containment.

Small talk was quickly informed by the language of the fight: “cat’s eyes” for the embers that glow at night, “skunk” for the fire’s sneaky incursions beyond the front line.

Soon the region was collateral damage: schools closed, freeways shut down, air unbreathable.

We took stock, going through that terrible drill: 10 minutes to evacuate, what would you take?

For those who fled the fires, it was a violin, a photo album, a neighbor’s collection of running medals. It’s only stuff, but it’s stuff that makes them who they are — not all that different from us.

One man had just returned home in the hills above Ventura to watch the final licks of fire consume a cherished piano.

A couple loaded trailers with wild-eyed horses outside Ojai as the smoke of the approaching blaze blotted out the sun.

An elderly woman was afraid she would lose the home in Bel-Air that her husband built for her 30 years ago.

They are strangers, but it is as if they lived next door. Given the capricious nature of these wind-whipped infernos — leap-frogging block to block, covering 15 miles in a few hours — they might as well.

Others stood ankle deep in ashes, the open sky above them where once there was a roof. Shovels in gloved hands, they searched for old spoons, pieces of jewelry, fireplace tools — talismans of their past.

Like the Avon Mother’s Day plate from 1982, glazed with a cartoon of a little boy holding a bouquet of wildflowers. “Little Things Mean Alot,” reads the scripted legend.

It doesn’t matter if it was Rupert Murdoch with his Bel-Air estate — mostly unscathed — built in 1940, with its memories of past owners, the titans of Hollywood. Or if it was a family with their Craftsman-style home — destroyed — in the Santa Ynez Mountains, where there were weddings in the backyard.

Their dreams are the dreams of this landscape, separated only by matters of degree.

“I very quickly fell in love,” Murdoch once said when describing his $30-million property, words most everyone has spoken before.

An affinity for place — be it a horse ranch in Little Tujunga Canyon or a mobile home in northern San Diego County — cuts across all divides, and when it burns, it burns down the illusions of the past, so tenderly clung to, so quickly lost and so eagerly reclaimed.

But for now, the battle is all there is, with the reassurance that soon the burning will stop. And it will.

“Fires are luridly dramatic,” Waldie said. “They have a narrative arc with a beginning, a middle and an end. They feature battles with a monster as the action rises and falls.”

This story too has its heroes: the firefighters, of course, and their support crews, and a few strangers along the way.

They were five friends, high school buddies who, upon seeing a palm tree ablaze above an empty home in Ventura, grabbed garden hoses and went to work as embers rained upon them in the gusting wind. They had driven from Camarillo, drawn to the flames and to a neighborhood 15 miles away.

And they didn’t even know whose home it was.

thomas.curwen@latimes.com

Twitter: @tcurwen

Copyright © 2018, Hoy Los Angeles, una publicación de Los Angeles Times Media Group