“The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself”

Image by Hilary Swift for the New York Times

Héctor Tobar writes from Los Angeles on the edge of an inferno, for the New York Times:

Across the street, the sky behind her neighbor’s house had filled with the otherworldly glow of a wildfire. The orange light illuminated smoke that was climbing upward like a pillar.

Fire season brings the prospect of swift and total annihilation to many California communities. In less than an hour, an entire neighborhood can be burned to the ground, with lives lost and memories wiped out.

See Exodus 13:21-22 (KJV):

And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.

See also Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion:

It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself; Nathanael West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.