AGOURA HILLS — 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.
The two, wild and urban, have long had a tenuous coexistence in the Golden State. Of late, it’s reached a breaking point, with climate change happening at an accelerated pace — “the new abnormal,” as Gov. Jerry Brown calls it.
But which is more of a threat to our existence: a natural world that is symptomatic with the sickness of excessive human intervention, or the people who deny the change — the willfully ignorant in charge of the federal government?
We witnessed the worst of reality-avoidance when President Donald Trump visited the fire zones a few days ago. After a drive-by look at the wastelands, he suggested raking the forest floor, as he imagined they do in Finland. He said he wanted to “make climate great.” The Finns set him straight. The world laughed.
Trump has a crackpot for acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, a man associated with a company that promoted time travel and Bigfoot. And yet the president denies the peer-reviewed, consensus driven evidence on climate change.
Our A-plus president didn’t even have enough of a presidential grip to get the name of the ruined town of Paradise right. (He repeatedly called it “Pleasure.”) Nor does he pretend to know the difference between sub-Arctic Finland and arid California. His administration blamed “radical environmentalists” for the fires.
But it wasn’t environmentalists who kicked up 50-mile-an hour winds in a state that had seen barely a whisper of rain over the last six months, hot gusts that bounced through canyons thick with man-made combustibles.
The national parks, oft-called America’s best idea, were created by people who looked beyond their own lives. Those people made great ancestors — benevolent, farsighted, selfless. What they protected were islands of diversity that humans were fast destroying. Climate change has put these parks in real peril.
Shed a tear for the Santa Monica mountain wonderland. The dozen or so mountain lions, and maybe a couple of the bobcats that have been collared and tracked, are still alive. But what of all the other species staggering among the black sticks of charcoal in the park? Fires that used to happen every 100 years here now occur every 20.
From the crests of its highest peaks to the Malibu shore, you take in a sweep of devastation. This bleak vision of tomorrow is not inevitable. It took guts and real political courage to hold this mix of public and private land in trust for the public, back when Congress worked for the common good, in 1978. It will take even more courage and farsightedness to save it. My fear is that the view today is just a preview of coming destruction.