By Timothy Egan
Contributing Opinion Writer, Nov. 23, 2018
A sign designating the Corral Canyon Park recreation area stands amid landscape charred by the Woolsey fire in Malibu, Calif., on Nov. 13.CreditCreditReed Saxon/Associated Press
“AGOURA HILLS, Calif. — When I was a little kid I passed through a ghost forest in Montana, the blackened, standing skeletons of the largest wildfire in recorded American history. That was the Big Burn of 1910, which torched an area nearly the size of Connecticut in a weekend.
What remained of that blowup told a story: of hurricane force winds, of 100-foot trees that crushed firefighters, of a land so scorched by intense heat that it was decades before seedlings sprouted in some places.
But at least life returned. And over the last century, a healthy forest emerged along with a consensus political view that wild land was essential to our national character.
Today, walking over the ashen floor of another spectral land, I’m struck by how naked everything looks in the world’s largest urban national park. Almost 90 percent of the federal land in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area was burned in this month’s Woolsey Fire. The smell alone is mournful.
The story it tells is grim, a portent of nature altered and convulsive. It’s not just that this audacious experiment — a huge parkland on the doorstep of a metro area of 13 million people — is now on life support. It’s that, as we are the first species to radically disrupt the world that gave us life, much of that world may soon be unsafe for human habitation.
California used to have distinct fire seasons. Now the storms of flame and smoke are year-round, and all of the nation’s most populous state is a fire zone. One in eight Americans lives in a land that could turn catastrophic on any given day.
Last year it was the wine country north of San Francisco and the mountains above Santa Barbara. This year it’s the area around Yosemite National Park, the peopled canyons of the northern part of the state, and this last best open space on the shoulders above Los Angeles.
In the north, the town of Paradise was essentially wiped off the map, with more than 13,000 homes gone, more than 80 people killed, hundreds still missing, thousands homeless — the deadliest fire in state history. It’s a human tragedy.
In the south, it’s almost 100,000 acres put to flame in the mountains that meet the sea, with deer left charred in their tracks, an iconic Western-set movie ranch burned into black and white, the sweet-scented chaparral and sage highlands all of a moonscape. It’s a tragedy of nature.”