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Waking up from the California dream in the age of wildfires

by Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker |

A year ago, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history started in Paradise, a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas; on the same day, in Southern California, the Woolsey Fire broke out, eventually leaping two highways, killing three people, and destroying more than five hundred structures. Paradise was essentially wiped off the map. Malibu, which was devastated by the Woolsey, is just beginning to recover.

In recent weeks, as millions of Californians sat in the dark, subject to planned power outages – a desperate, and ultimately failed, attempt to prevent fires caused by faulty electrical equipment—another field of fires bloomed, forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes. The Kincade Fire, in Sonoma, burned seventy-seven thousand acres; chillingly, it reached the burn scar from the Tubbs Fire, which had devastated wine country in 2017, killing twenty-three people. In Los Angeles, the Getty Fire lit up the hills of Brentwood, prompting evacuations throughout the city’s West Side. The Maria Fire, the Easy Fire, the Hillside Fire ... With seemingly the entire state on high alert, literally waiting to see which way the wind would blow, the idea of the California Dream felt utterly exhausted, ironic, sayable only between air quotes.

The dream, in a sentence, is that California, with its “perfect” weather, provides an idyllic backdrop for a better way of life. Since statehood, California has pitched itself to the nation as a place of reinvention, prosperity, health, and progressivism – a utopia on the individual and collective scale. It’s still going on: during the East Coast’s bitter winter of 2018, the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board’s “Everyone is Welcome” campaign ran ads in the New York subway which showed people hiking in the sun with the slug “The Morning Commute.”

The problem with the dream is that it is one, founded on a lie. As the wildfire historian Stephen Pyne said, not long ago, “California is built to burn. And it’s built to burn explosively.” That trail in the ad campaign? Chances are that it’s in the Santa Monica Mountains national park, eighty-six per cent of which burned in the Woolsey Fire. For many, the past couple of years have been a rude awakening, oftentimes to a red sky, an ash rain, and the smell of wood smoke. Californians live in a supposed Eden that looks increasingly hellish.

Until recently, it was possible to repress a sneaking awareness of the weather fallacy, stuff it in the back of the closet, alongside the earthquake kit, and tell oneself that all was well in paradise. But, more so than earthquakes, fire is sensitive to human behavior. The demand for housing in California – believers in the dream need a place to sleep at night – has pushed development deeper into the mountain foothills and wild spaces, where the ecology depends on fire. (One firefighter I met last week told me, “Fire belongs in the mountains. It’s healthy. The one thing that doesn’t belong here is us.”) When the climate grows warmer and drier, as it has in California, catastrophic fires can be an annual, or even more frequent, event. Jerry Brown, the state’s former governor, called this condition “the new abnormal.” A cigarette butt, a backfire, a spark—trivial energy, added to dry brush, in the presence of a strong Santa Ana wind, can cause incalculable loss.

In the last week of October, the Getty Fire destroyed twelve houses in Brentwood, a number of them in an “architecturally-controlled community” called Crestwood Hills. (Luckily, there were no casualties.) Founded as a cooperative, in 1946, the community was a response to the severe housing crisis in postwar Los Angeles: at one point, five thousand service members and their families lived in Quonset huts and tents in Griffith Park. Four studio musicians, one of whom had performed summer concerts as part of a string quartet at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, had the idea to pool their money and buy a plot of land for four houses and a shared common area; they never followed through on the plan, but their group soon grew to five hundred members, and they bought a hillside instead.

The community, left-leaning and intellectual, was designed to be a middle-class utopia, with affordable Modernist houses and shared resources, such as a coöperative nursery school, and, at the center, a park for sports and picnics. The houses are small, by the current standards of the Zip Code; most of them are an elegant twelve hundred square feet or so – no flab. “This was primarily Jewish population, very progressive, left-wing, almost commie pinko,” Cory Buckner, an architect and historian, who wrote a book on Crestwood Hills, told me. “Anyone coming in had to be acceptable politically.” According to Buckner, people joked that the area’s disproportionate number of obstetricians and psychiatrists made Crestwood Hills a great place to have a baby or a nervous breakdown.

The originators hired A. Quincy Jones and Whitney R. Smith as the lead architects in a joint venture with the structural engineer Edgardo Contini, and encouraged the members to study “Tomorrow’s House,” a Modern-house how-to, to get acquainted with the wonders of industrially manufactured materials, post-and-beam construction, and indoor-outdoor living. Later, other Modernists, such as Richard Neutra, Rodney Walker, Ray Kappe, and Craig Ellwood – a self-invented architect without a degree, who had been the cost estimator on the Eames House – built houses in the community. Simultaneous with the Case Study Program, and sharing both architects and an architectural language, Crestwood Hills quietly became a laboratory for a specific shared vision of postwar life.

While the firefighters were still stamping out the embers of the Getty Fire, I visited the neighborhood with my friend Barton Jahncke, who specializes in restoring Ellwood houses. We passed through a police checkpoint (concern about looters is high in high-end evacuated neighborhoods) and headed to the nosebleed stretch of Tigertail Road. (Celebrities – whose natural-disaster stories grip us with the false sense that weather comes equally for all – tend to live on lower Tigertail.) The street was a ghost town, with fire engines. One house, a glass box, had vanished from the hillside; all that was left was the hull of what looked to be a vintage sportscar, with the asphalt roof of the car port fused to its caved-in top, an evil magic trick. We arrived at the Zack House, a 1952 post-and-beam Ellwood house where Jahncke had been hired to work on a small addition, scheduled to begin in a couple of weeks. The house, which was built the same year Ellwood built Case Study House #16, and was originally listed for $119,500, was photographed by Julius Shulman. For decades, it has been in the family of the owner, Melanie Miller Regberg, who lives there with her two children. In the early hours of the Getty Fire, the Zack House was engulfed in flames.

We passed through caution tape into an enchanted forest of collapsed metal beams and posts turned to silvery soft charcoal. The view side of the house, facing the Getty Museum and a now-ashen hillside, was torched. Jahncke kicked through the broken shards of what had been a huge single-pane glass slider, looking for salvageable handles and other original elements, which would be hard to reproduce. He found none. In the kitchen, the cabinets had burned right off the brick walls. Under a pile of wood and metal, there was a sky-blue Le Creuset dutch oven, an insistent reminder of the family that had fled in the night. Jahncke teared up when we passed the younger child’s room, imagining how scared he must have felt.

The Zack House had already survived a huge fire – the 1961 Bel Air Fire, which wiped out half of the original homes in Crestwood Hills, including A. Quincy Jones’s own home. The buried memory of that disaster – and a famous photo of Richard Nixon standing on the wood-shingled roof of his rental house, spraying it down with a hose—resurfaced during the Getty Fire, invoked by Mayor Eric Garcetti as he signaled the potential for damage. This time, the fire came right up to the guest quarters of another A. Quincy Jones house, where Cory Buckner, the neighborhood historian, has lived for twenty years. On the morning of the fire, Buckner told me, she was awakened by the smell of smoke. When she saw ash raining from the sky, she got out as quickly as she could. I met her there the day after the evacuation was lifted. She showed me her bedroom, a glass-walled promontory that seems to float among treetops, over the park. “Every morning, waking up in this house is just a delight,” she said. “Especially this morning, I thought, Oh, my God, I’m still here!”

I asked Buckner if the vision of California that gave rise to Crestwood Hills was still valid, in the time of the new abnormal. She didn’t answer directly. She told me that she had lost a house in Malibu in 1993; she rebuilt it, only to lose it again, in the Woolsey Fire. (An experimental studio she built below the house, using metal siding, survived.) Her book on Crestwood Hills is subtitled “The Chronicle of a Modern Utopia.” A utopia is a good or ideal place. Was it still apt? Buckner got a wry look on her face. “My daughter lives in New York,” she said. “She wants to have a serious talk when she comes back in December.”