Kage Baker loved heat. The dry heat of California was exactly the environment she liked the most – the air like heated silk, the scents of millions of naturalized tropical flowers mingling with the shipyard-smell of hot asphalt.
When the blacktop and concrete roads get hot, they put out a smell like warm milk – it’s weird, and I don’t know what cocktail of partially burned hydrocarbons causes it: but it’s a quintessential smell of Los Angeles in the summer. Mixed with roses, eucalyptus, jacaranda, bougainvillea, jessamine, lilies and lotus in this sub-desert land, it was the perfume of Kage’s childhood.
And she loved it. And so do I. But when those smells are all loose on a hard, hot wind … Kage would toss her hair and roll her eyes like a nervous mare, and announce: “Fires are coming.”
California is not, by nature, an oasis. The desert hangs perpetually over her shoulder, breathing hot and heavy. When the desert gets excited, we get winds that can run up to 80 MPH; the humidity, always rare, drops to single-digit values and the temperature goes up like a flaming rocket. And then, we burn.
The new normal around here seems to be hot spells. Every week, a day or two gets insanely hot – from 60 degrees to 90 in 24 hours. That’s what is happening right now, and the winds have arrived as well to add to the party. Where I live, beside a living section of the Los Angeles river and under the eaves of the Hollywood Hills, it is presently 90 degrees and 8% humidity. Yeah, that’s hot – but I can survive the dry heat and so could Kage. We knew how to handle that. I won’t be complaining about this heat until (and if, all gods forbid) the humidity rises.
But the swift hot winds and the heat and the dryness have loosed our other perpetual danger on the hills. We are on fire – small ones in the San Fernando Valley, in Riverside, in Hollywood, in Castaic, in the dry-as-dust old wooden commercial warehouses that line one edge of the railroad tracks in Glendale … small sudden fires, that send the fire engines racing madly in all directions to stomp them before they grow dragon’s wings.
It appears all these little fires may have been a distraction, because a real fire hatched this morning in Rancho Cucamonga. It’s now spreading its fire-gold wings over a thousand acres out there, frantically opposed by hundreds of fire fighters as it heads down the canyons to feast on the new suburbs.
Ah, lovely Rancho Cucamonga! Long the darling of cartoons and comedians, its faintly silly name is famous. It’s a nice little city, really – it runs along the bottom of the San Gabriel Mountains that stretch out toward San Bernardino, and everything above the flats is still wild and empty land. In recent years, vast stretches of homes have been built there – walled and stuccoed and red-tiled like the settlements of retired Roman soldiers, places where kids drive dirt bikes in the middle of the broad streets, and bears come down to raid trash cans and hot tubs.
Twenty-five years ago, you could drive along Baseline and have to dodge flocks of sheep. You could drive down the empty streets of housing developments that had failed, and find packs of dogs chasing your car. You could drive over rattlesnakes basking in deserted intersections.
We lived there at intervals when the Renaissance Faire was in a park in Devore, and I have lots of tales of its vast desolation. Now … it’s a sea of suburbia. Good schools abound. Green parks have replaced the fields of feral grapevines and coyote bush. People drive new SUVs. The kids are still racing around on dirt bikes, but they’re more expensive ones now, and the kids all wear helmets. It’s really quite civilized.
And it is on fire. Of course it is – its almost 100 out there, even less humidity than here by Griffith Park, and even higher winds. The fire has been burning down Etiwanda Canyon since 8 this morning, and is now being fought back literally on the edges of schools’ playing fields and nice neighborhoods. A thousand people have been evacuated and a thousand more are waiting to see if they’ll have to scarper as well. The fire fighters must have their god’s hand over them, because they have held the fire line for 6 hours now and not lost.
If the winds die, then backfires will work and we can even get some planes and helicopters into the air for water dumps. Right now, they’d burn like moths in a candle flame, blown right into the heart of the fire. Pilots would be blind in the smoke that is rolling down over Baseline like a wall of hot fog. And even though the flames are being held back from the houses, in that land where the buildings are a line of stony lace around the ankles of the mountains, the fire can run sideways for miles.
Will the dragon turn east and descend on La Verne and Glendora? Will it veer west towards Fontana and Rialto? Livestock is already being sheltered at Devore Regional Park (erstwhile home of the Faire, now a park once more) but that green place is also tucked under the flanks of the mountains …
Only time will tell. This is, I suppose, the formal beginning of the fire season – dragons, it seems, hatch in the spring these days.
And it’s Walpurgisnacht, too. Man, Kage would laugh at that!