Is Los Angeles burning?

Flying into Los Angeles yesterday our 737 was buffeted by the thermal turbulence thrown off by the 60,000 acre Day Fire burning in the Los Padres north of Los Angeles. We descended through the upper edge of the smoke plume that blanketed Venture County thousands of feet below and extended well over a hundred miles out to sea. On satelite images, the plume is iagreat smoky hook caught in the prevailing winds, arcing beyone the Channel Islands and slowly slipping back towards LA.

This is a monster fire that has wiped out one of the most precious wilderness areas in California and is triggering evacuations in several small communities. By all rights, this should be huge news, but in surreal Southern California, most Los Angeleños hardly even notice the massive cloud to the north. The fire is getting only passing mention in the news, and the TV reporters can’t even pronounce the names of some of the locations under evacuation order.

The Day Fire is thus a reminder of the appalling disconnect between the megalopolis and the environment. Few who live in LA have ever been in those mountains, and even fewer care. LA is a vast urban bubble utterly disconnected from the land. It is tempting to dismiss LA as the surreal outlier, but unfortunately it is an indicator of what is to come in megalopolis the world over.

Sometime this year or next, for the first time in human history, the number of people living in urban environments will be greater than people living in rural areas. I shudder to contemplate a world where for the majority of people alive, wilderness is at best an abstraction and the connection between communities and the environment that surrounds them is severed. It is a world in which the only contact will be when nature’s forces are confected by human folly into vast, unexpected disasters – earthquakes, hurricanes, and ultimately also fire.