Kage Baker was quite frightened of hurricanes and tornadoes. The annual weather reports from the Midwest and the East quite unnerved her, especially since they got better and more detailed all through her life.
When we travelled one summer week through Missouri, in the car of some friendly fans, she kept asking nervously “Is that a funnel cloud on the horizon?” And, as Fate would have it, naturally, at some point it really was a nascent tornado about 20 miles away. Our hosts drove on calm as cucumbers, listening to the storm reports and assuring us it would break up before it got near us … which it did. By that time, though, Kage was white as a lily, and the bones in my hand that she was clutching were beginning to creak.
To calm us down, our friends took us to see the Convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, outside St. Louis. It’s an amazing sight, those two great streams melding and pouring together; also impressive is the very tall pole on the banks there, showing how high various floods and inundations have gotten in record years. I thought Kage’s eyes would pop right out of her head and float away on the legendary flood …
The rest of the country seems to believe that in LA, we don’t have seasons. An alternate joke is that our seasons are heat, floods, fires and riots. This is the sheerest calumny – except for the fires. Those are real. There really is a fire season, with all the inevitability and ponderous weight of the snow in North Dakota. And it is now.
September is, traditionally, when the heat gets worst. The heat rises, the crepe myrtles bloom, and the schools re-open. Kage used to go into agonies of despair when the red, pink and white crepe myrtles began to replace the red, pink and white bee balm, which we’d been using for wands, arrows, wreaths and confetti all summer – it meant that soon we’d be all be shopping for saddle shoes and have to don our school uniforms again. And since we were all Catholic school kids, those uniforms were usually plaid wool.
Man, nothing like plaid wool and knee socks when the temperature is 105 degrees! The “ancient dress” of Scotland would never have developed if the temperature ever got over 70 in the Isles, I assure you. Oh, it’s true that you can sweat through wool – but all that means is that you won’t mercifully die of heat prostration. You’ll just sweat and be miserable with 30 other pre-adolescents in a classroom with no air conditioning.
September was, by Kage’s standards, the very worst month of the school year.
However, it could always be enlivened with the fires in the Hills. Living as we did in the Hollywood Hills, with several of views of the immensity of Griffith Park, plumes of smoke and serpents of flame were a regular part of the landscape. We could also see right across the San Fernando Valley, where other and usually larger fires would bloom in the hills above Glendale and Burbank and Topanga. If Riverside and San Bernardino to the east also caught, then great rafts of smoke like thunderheads would come creeping round the bulwarks of the mountains.
Most people don’t realize that several National Forests share borders with urban Los Angeles – but they do. And this time of year, they burn. Pasadena, Altadena, Sierra Madre – lost of charming towns live on the edge of seasonal infernos, and sometimes the fire storms sweep right down through the Craftsman houses and swimming pools.
The Basin can fill with smoke, in fire season. The smog is almost gone, these days; the years of it hanging in stinking billows at street level are long gone – though we older folks remember it. But this place was called the Valley of the Smokes by the Gabrielanos and the Tongvas, long before cars arrived, and that still happens. When the traffic lights change colour, you know it’s one for the records books – instead of RED-YELLOW-GREEN, the lights are BROWN-ORANGE-TURQUOISE BLUE, while black snow-ash covers your car and lawn and roses.
Anyway, now it’s fire season. The Sepulveda Pass is expected to be out by tomorrow (burned all night) and Chavez Ravine behaved itself, too. No more underground explosions, but a refinery out in San Pedro is apparently on fire. There’s a brush fire in (dry) Hansen Dam; another, larger one in the camping territories in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Yawn. All normal, for us. Someday we’re gonna lose Pasadena or San Diego, but we haven’t yet. And at least, though the crepe myrtles are indeed in glorious bloom, I don’t have to go back to school.
Kage would count it a win.