AGOURA HILLS, Calif. — 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 last month’s Woolsey Fire.
The story it tells is grim. 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.
In the south, it’s almost 100,000 acres put to flame in the mountains that meet the sea.
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 recently visited the fire zones. 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.
His administration blamed “radical environmentalists” for the fires. But it wasn’t environmentalists who kicked up 50 mph 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. What they protected were islands of diversity that humans were fast destroying.
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. 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.