The Fire Files

By Claire McEachernDecember 8, 2019

The Fire Files
This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Weather, No. 24 

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It’s 10:00 in the morning, and the air is almost too thick and dark with smoke to see the flashing yellow light on the emergency vehicle I’m following. I am driving my husband’s truck at the helm of an unwieldy five-horse trailer down the Pacific Coast Highway, flaming tumbleweeds hitting the sides of the rig as if flung by a medieval siege engine. My 14-year-old daughter rides shotgun, her pet cockatiel’s cage in her lap. The latter is whistling the sole tune in his repertoire: “Buffalo Girls Won’t You Come out Tonight”; he sounds, per usual, like a small, feathered Jimmy Stewart. Behind us, the Irish wolfhound and her terrier sidekick are as excited as they would be for any other car ride, despite having to scramble for splay-pawed footing atop the jumble of hard drives and household objects that has reduced their cab space to 18 inches. The two cats, surely less amused, are crated in back with the horses. Our stallion, unaccustomed to female company, has spent the previous 40 minutes with an 18-inch erection, rendering him completely oblivious to the hundred-foot wall of flame steadily marching toward us. The following day will find me covered with bruises from the blows suffered in wrenching him off the three mares to which he had introduced himself, snapping through a stout lead rope on behalf of each. My own cheer is wholly feigned, on the principle that one shouldn’t scare the children. I make sure to smile as we drive past the flaming entrance to the canyon road that branches off PCH to our home, and to which my husband had said he was returning when he left us an hour earlier at the coast-side equestrian park. I’ve never driven a horse trailer before. My husband had been loath to teach me given that, early on in our relationship, I had bent a previous truck’s roof rack while pulling into the UCLA parking garage. Fortunately, the drive north up the coast to our destination — the sagging barns of the Ventura rodeo grounds — is mostly a straight line.

There is a long answer to how a New England–bred Shakespeare professor finds herself at the wheel of that truck, but the short one is the Malibu wildfire that had prompted us to move our animals to the public arena earlier that morning. This was not the first such evacuation. Living in the Santa Monica Mountains for the past 25 years, most of those married to a man whose family business has long been horses, I keep my car packed during fire season (i.e., year-round) with tedious-to-replace papers and the recommended three day’s supply of clothes and framed family photos whose inclusion are less a matter of preservation, since they also exist in digital form, than a declaration of my preparedness. Our usual concern for these items has less to do with fires and more with car break-ins. My husband had spent the night monitoring the fire’s progress online while I tried to rest; just after dawn, I heard his footsteps. They were heavy, the sign the fire must have crossed the 101 and that it was time to move the saddles and artwork into the yard. There they would have a greater chance of survival than if enclosed in the sustained heat of a burning house.

The footsteps were my cue to load the computers and small animals into my van, and roust my youngest daughter. Her sister was at school back east; one less to worry about, one less to help. When livestock needs relocating, hurried flight isn’t the happiest choice; it is prudent to leave early, methodically and in daylight, even if it turns out to have been unnecessary. It always had been, in my experience — as unnecessary as the piles of flashlights and hoses and portable battery packs that the cowboy insists on stockpiling, and which always had me wondering whether there mightn’t be a wee shade of survivalist in his hippie-libertarian streak. But part of my experience of fires was deferring to his. Such deference is not my wont, not just on feminist but control-freak grounds, but I have learned that in this circumstance a military chain of command is a relief. We have a fire drill: once the flames breach the freeway to the north, we trailer the horses, making as many trips as necessary, to local barns out of the fire’s path. After the last load leaves, I take the smaller animals, the children, computers, and sentimental items — and, in recent years, my elderly mother-in-law — to some accommodating friend’s place in Santa Monica or Westwood. Meanwhile my husband will unload, unhitch, and return to defend the house. The entire process takes a few hours. When the danger is past, usually the next day, we reverse the procedure.

This time, there were a few changes to the usual plan. My mother-in-law, who at 98 claimed residency in Malibu longer than any other current inhabitant, had settled into dementia in the last few months. Even prior to this turn she had been hard to persuade into the car during a fire, so two days before the flames leapt the freeway we drove her and a caregiver to a friend’s house near Zuma Beach. Like most people around here, we calculated that the beach would be safe, or at any rate safer than the mountains; indeed, most people around here would spend the first 24 hours of this fire on that beach. The plan for the eight horses had also been tweaked: as the entire town was now under evacuation orders, there would be no local barn out of the fire’s path, and no neighbor seeing to their shelter and care (the span of the Woolsey fire would ultimately reach 14 miles). We instead brought them to the municipal equestrian park, tying them at fencepost intervals in a sequence that kept pasture-mates close and — in theory — sexual opportunity to a minimum.

Setting up at the public arena with the livestock meant that I and the smaller creatures of our household could not escape to a friend’s house. This was a first. My husband’s shouted advice, as he left us to return to the house, was to re-tie the horses to the lee side of the trailer when the flames reached our position, and hang on: “It will be the worst 30 minutes of your life, but you should make it.” (Should?) He indicated the direction from which the flames would arrive and that they would take 40 minutes to do so. Both of these predictions proved accurate. A Malibu native, with a family ranching history that extends back to the 19th century, he has been through three town-rubbling fires in his adult life alone, and can chart canyon corridors and burn rates from memory. For him, a fire is a drill. It has to be. Our home is a two-bedroom wooden kit house mail-ordered from Sears by his great-grandparents nearly one hundred years ago and built overlooking a winding canyon road that bears their name. While no insurance company will touch it, and no fire truck has ever visited it, it’s lived through more fires than he has.

It would be 72 hours before I received word that both he and the house had made it through another one, with the customary aids of gravity-driven well water, burlap bags, a gas-powered pressure washer, and a weed clearance perimeter triple the legal requirement. Almost every other house on our road would be in cinders, along with 1,400 telephone poles, power and phone lines, fiber-optic cables, guardrails, well pumps, and all other modern infrastructure. The neighborhood had been returned to homestead conditions, minus most of the vegetation and wildlife. The 2,000-degree fire had removed everything above the surface of the earth — even, in some places, below it, where burned-out craters marked the former root systems of oak trees. It would be over two weeks before my daughter, the animals, and I could return, and yet another before I could retrieve my mother-in-law from the nursing home to which the hospital (after the ambulance ride, after the sheriff’s cruiser, after the friend’s car) had transferred her once her beach refuge came under siege. When we parted with her she was able to walk, talk, feed herself, and sit up; afterward none of these applied. The insurance company nonetheless deemed her ineligible for further hospital care, dismissing a lack of electricity, running water, or access to the now-embargoed road at home as grounds for an appeal. Besides, I had apparently missed the 24-hour window to lodge one — that there was no cell service to do so was immaterial. My mother-in-law would die in her own bed three weeks later on Christmas Eve, leaving the eponymous road without its last living eponym.

So, as it turned out, our prudence wasn’t enough to protect all of the lives in our care. Yet it feels important to establish that we are neither amateurs nor cavalier in our responses to the situation (or rather, cavalier is precisely what we are, in the etymological sense, of horse-concerned). One might even argue that the loss of even an extremely hard-to-kill old woman was coincidence, not causality. This is not to make the standard point that even the most scrupulous precautions are futile before the overwhelming force of the elements, nor the self-congratulatory one: that persons responsible for the care of domestic animals have a duty to possess the equipment and training to remove them from danger. Many people with horse trailers had no time to leave; some trailer-less animals were rescued through the daring of strangers who drove from hundreds of miles away. Other creatures burned in their barns; others yet were released from their pipe corrals in the hope they’d be able to outrun the fire. We lost less property than many of our friends but saving the house did not mean saving the outbuildings, tools, stalls, water pipes, pasture fences, rental income structures, or my sister-in-law’s mobile home. Two horse trailers are certainly provident — we actually own three — but not particularly useful when you only have one driver. Nor did the mobile menagerie include my four hard-working hens, who burnt with their coop 30 feet from our house.

Judgment is almost irresistible in the wake of a such a disaster, even if apportioning it is a dicey business. Fire, like the floods that would follow it, belongs to an Old Testament order of resonant and retributive signs. It comes with an urge to retrace one’s decisions, especially those forked choices where one’s subconscious supersedes deliberation. Should we have driven north instead of south? Should we have packed differently? Why did I grab that object when I should have taken the other, far more useful one? (My husband says when there’s a fire he gets to find out which of his shirts I like.) These re-treadings belong to the larger need to identify chains of cause and effect. As we are finding, extreme climate events provoke this sort of thinking; we now debate causality as a society, like a global-wide Frankfurt School. These causes can be small and large, precipitants or propitious conditions: stray cigarettes, untended power lines, multi-year drought, fossil-fueled economies. No matter their size, we will route such causes to human behavior — unless, of course, we are climate change atheists, or an insurance company, whose “acts of God” remain one of capitalism’s last pieties. Such review helps prepare for the next time, we hope. But the reason we do it is because it comforts us, in the face of the incredible anonymity and enormity of nature’s assaults, to feel as though their mechanisms can be identified and personified and compassed. It makes them seem avoidable. Or even punishable.

 In the case of a Malibu fire, the latter hope takes the form of a distinctly schadenfreudian zeal, on the part of the punditry, to rebuke the hubris of those who believe they can choose to live in a notorious fire zone with impunity; build on the hillsides which will slide out from under their McMansions; who are willing to underestimate or even aggravate nature’s ferocities in pursuit of her temperate beauties, and so on. The only information I received about my home or spouse in the days following the fire was the inference I tried not to draw from a television report concerning the house of our nearest neighbor, a celebrated transgender advocate. The report claimed, falsely, that she had been airlifted from the ridgeline as her house was consumed by the flames. In fact, she too had stayed to save her home before departing in her own car. This was typical of the kinds of details the media parlayed in pursuit of a moral, the story of crime and punishment in which human hubris meets Nature’s slap-down.

Such stories obscure many things. For instance: The struggles of the other, less privileged people who live here. Many of the homes that made it were humble ones, belonging to “old Malibu” mountain people like my hardscrabble in-laws, those who have partnered with this environment for generations, far more discomfited by the rising tidemark of urbanization than any fire. One neighbor — a lifeguard — dove into his water tank until the storm passed over, eventually emerging to battle the lingering spot fires that can really do you in. The refusal to leave one’s home in a firestorm owes less to hill-hippie cussedness than to the fact that our homes were built decades prior to the invention of national park boundaries, building codes, or building permits that the city is unlikely to reissue, let alone issue de novo. Then there are the older empty-nesters without the years left to undertake a rebuild; or the many renting families in the middle-income tranche (yes, there is one) without a title to property to rebuild on, and for whom the new dearth of housing will likely mean relocating.

Of course, Anthropocenely speaking — hear how the term hints at the obscene — a family like ours and that of arriviste conspicuous consumers are indistinguishable. We are all carpetbaggers. Yet the moral of such stories seems to be that there are places, or there were times, more suitable to set up camp. (Here’s a question: how long must one live in a place to be granted a forgivable claim to it?) Or maybe that it behooves people to settle in the future somewhere less vulnerable to “extreme climate events” — and where, exactly, might that be? Tell that to the developer-profiteers; they’ve already arrived.

Judgments also neglect the role of providence. While I had encountered the idea of providence in my scholarship, it was not a notion I felt terribly salient to my own life prior to November 9, 2018. But there are no atheists in a wildfire, if only because its vastness and apparent purpose testify to Something bigger and more determined than oneself: Super-Nature. Minutes after my husband left us to return to the house (“Should”?), county animal control officers drove up to the equestrian park — think dog catchers, except with stock trailers. At first, I waved away their offers of berths, on the grounds that I had been told to hang on so hang on I would. Some people had led their horses to the arena while wearing flip-flops; I had brought water buckets, hoses, and a week’s supply of hay pellets. I had two trailers to shelter behind. I was flattered that I had been thought capable to weather the storm, even in the subjunctive.

 On the other hand, my daughter was the only child present, and she was increasingly aghast; the spectacle of her best friend’s house being devoured by flames on the hill above us wasn’t helping. So, as the last county van prepared to leave, some other part of my brain decided I didn’t need to know whether I had what it took to gather her in my arms while a wall of flame passed over us. (Were we meant to stay outside the trailer? Hide in it? Would we cook? But what about smoke inhalation?) Offered a berth for the third time, I elbowed past the flip-flopped, squeezed three horses into the last two county slots, and loaded the five remaining in our own while my daughter transferred every household possession she could lift from my minivan to the truck. We became the last of the small convoy driving north, getting out with just yards to spare between us and an ocean of fire.

 My husband later reported his own come-to-Jesus moment, when the three angled walls of flame racing toward him from three different directions — two more than he’d ever had to confront on previous occasions — met at his firebreak, and by dint of their respective forces beat each other back into an upright — and assailable — position. It seems you can fight fire with fire. As it turned out, our orders to stay would have been adequate, at least as far as our physical health was concerned (and one of the re-calibrations I found myself making in the coming months was that in our circumstances any other kind of health was excess baggage). When, some days later, he was able to return to the coast to search for us, my minivan sat unscathed in the parking lot, in it the vintage saddles considered too prized to scatter in the yard and which constituted his savings. My daughter had had no time or space or strength to shift them, and once in safety I began, ridiculously, to dread confessing we’d left them behind — that is, should he make it through the fire to question our triage. As it turned out, the only critique was that I’d forgotten to lock the car.

Nonetheless, the rodeo grounds would prove a far preferable place to wait out the weeks of mandatory evacuation to come. There we found individual stalls, exercise arenas, donated feed and bedding, courtesy vet and farrier care, and equipment: buckets, blankets, lead ropes, halters. For the people, there was wi-fi to soothe distant family and locate displaced friends, hot showers, and three meals a day delivered by Ventura restaurants and hospitals. There were similarly circumstanced neighbors and friends with which to compare scraps of news, and local volunteers who cleaned stalls and brought us blankets. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see anyone as a fellow family from the Malibu High girls’ basketball team, who with their two goats, teenage daughter, and cool heads (they are both scientists) turned my lonely trailer into a base camp. Nearby at a strip mall we named “the corner of life” there was a Ralph’s grocery, a Rite Aid, a Starbucks, and a coin laundry, where we took turns washing our respective three days’ supplies of clothes. Coincidentally — providentially — all of our camping equipment had been stored in the horse trailer; I had sleeping bags, tents, cots, even a Coleman stove to lend out. There was also the hoard of battery packs, flashlights, hoses, power cords, power tools, and a pair of bolt cutters — I used them all — that earned me a reputation as the DIY Eagle Scout of the rodeo grounds. (When it comes time to survive, it is good to know a survivalist.) My husband, immured at the house by sheriff’s blockades, would spend those weeks living on power bars and ramen noodles while trying to scrounge enough generators, gasoline, water, and pasture fencing for us to return when the roads reopened. I spent them in a daze which was part shock from the fire and part awe at the unknown goodness and bounty of others. Did I mention the Ventura fairgrounds are right on the beach?

Of course, in some cases what seemed like grace was, in fact, tax dollars. The uniformed figures in the barn headquarters were animal control officers — state employees, like me. The stalls, the arenas, the vet care — tax dollars. I have always been an earnest nanny-state Democrat — growing up in John Birch-era New Hampshire, we called that “overthrowing the government.” But apart from the public schools, my sense of the benefits of government relies more on an intellectual ideal than anything I can point to. Discounting DMV frustration or the resentment of speed traps, I’d never really felt what government was. But it turns out that in a wild fire, government feels really good. It feels like a society with the imagination and empathy enough to anticipate that no one is beyond occasions of utter vulnerability. When my husband finally made it past the roadblocks to search out what had become of us, he suggested a banner for the barn office: “This is what socialism looks like. Love it or leave.”

I would be remiss not to mention what small government philosophes may be pleased to hear — that what made the place tick were the waves of volunteers who came bearing dog food and clothing and toiletries and gift cards and hours of shoveling. It had almost been exactly a year since the Thomas fire in Ventura, and the locals are sadly well versed in what is needed. One garrulous woman whose truck bore the logo “Ventura Rat Rescue” (I’m still trying to figure that one out) saw my smaller dog shivering and returned the following day with two of her own dog’s coats and a vat of homemade chili. Unlike the media, these people are still showing up months after the flames went through: work brigades of strapping surfers happy to dig fence post holes; a distant relative who drove out from Colorado with all of his tools, and instead of his annual far-flung humanitarian effort (last year, a Mexican orphanage; before that, well-digging in Nigeria) came to help us. My own good works, not unlike like my sense of government, have always been highly abstract and at an arm’s length: the occasional donation and an unsubstantiated hope that teaching the humanities will make itself felt in a more attentive citizenry. These were strangers offering to do my laundry.

Life at the rodeo grounds was not all bread and roses. Our pop-up society bore many features of the more permanent kind, made palpable in an animal register. I was one of the few owners who slept on site, along with a few Spanish-speaking show grooms who, accustomed to life on the road, emerged from their trucks each morning in freshly pressed shirts and crisp jeans ready to commandeer the exercise arenas for their blanketed and show-clipped charges. At the other extreme of horseflesh were my sister-in-law’s seven ancient and singed rescue beasts. They’d been found huddled together on the mountain the day after the fire and, rescued yet again, doubled the number in my care to 15. In between these poles were the strings of sturdy and sane lesson horses of riding schools and camps; the pampered mounts of horse-mad little girls grown into women with disposable income, and a talented band of 18 hired out for film work, ranging from fuzzy mini-ponies to an appaloosa trained to rear on cue.

My own herd ran the gamut. There was the decrepit 35-year-old remnant of my mother-in-law’s 80-year line of quarter horses, cared for like the ancient family retainer she was. There was also the glorious young chestnut mare my husband had bred and trained as a show jumper, and whom I thought of as “College Fund.” Other heads looking over the stall doors belonged to burrows and mules, llamas and goats, chickens and sheep, ducks, roosters, and one cow — whole petting zoos and solo pets, the backyard creatures that amateur agrarians collect for the sake of servitude, sentiment, or scenery. (When I returned home, I found we’d become owners of three sheep. The neighbors had purchased them to supplement the ambiance of their Airbnb yurts, and abandoned them to the flames. We’ve named the ram Woolsey.) Some of these animals were much loved; some, like the haunted creature we dubbed “Mr. Goat” found alone on the side of a mountain, hadn’t seen a vet or farrier or sufficient feed in years, and reacted to the appearance of each with terror.

Similar classifications sorted the people. Some of us were there from dawn to dusk; others showed up at noon, safely after their stalls had been mucked by volunteers; others we never saw — word was they’d decamped for Mammoth or Hawaii until the evacuation was lifted. Physically, there was a preponderance of what you might call palomino women of a certain age: some weathered cowgirls, broken-nailed and sun-creased; others were the human equivalent of their show-groomed charges. Some people shared the contents of their medical chests, and others swarmed the supplies like looters, including one woman I witnessed at 3:00 a.m. loading a full wheelbarrow’s worth of donated horse blankets into her car. Then again, the morning after a flooding rain forced me to relocate four animals to dryer ground, one of the show grooms entered the stall I was stripping and wordlessly shoveled wet manure with me for an hour. One of the dewier, manicured types showed up one afternoon shepherding three truckloads of hay she had purchased for the group. Some of the noontime arrivals journeyed daily from barns as distant as Palm Springs. The battered car belonging to the horse-blanket thief was the only piece of property she had left.

There was probably no need for me to sleep in my horse trailer. For the first week, I sent my shaken daughter off to sleep at a nearby motel with friends; later, a borrowed travel trailer appeared and became a teenager bunkhouse. However, I still had the bird, the two dogs and two very unhappy cats extremely unimpressed by the two-story hotel I’d built them from the remaining cages at PetSmart. The thought of leaving them overnight was unbearable. In truth, separation anxiety extended to all of the animals on my watch. Some of them did require near-round-the-clock medical care; in a textbook example of how crisis will winnow weak from strong, College Fund had kicked Family Retainer square between the eyes, fracturing her skull and sinuses (vet’s diagnosis: “There’s a whole lotta shit going on in there.”) But it was more that tending them became a kind of sacrament of order. We all cared for the animals in a state of horrified apology for having made them prisoners of our own danger. Plus, nonstop chores helped to keep one’s inner Hecuba in check.

In a natural disaster, the place in which one finds safety becomes extremely precious; when the time came to return home, I felt like I was being evacuated from the fairground. (Many months later, I miss it still.) For some, this meant motels that allowed dogs; for others, the Santa Barbara Ritz; for me, it was the makeshift mattress in the gooseneck peak of my horse trailer, and also the cozy golden peace of a nearby goat stall, where, warmed by the breath of Honey and Biscuit, a friend and I would meet for a bourbon nightcap. Absent creature comforts, there is nothing more comforting than a fellow creature.

It is a cliché to point out how easily we can be stripped, like hills of their vegetation, of the mental flesh that cushions us against the knowledge of our own animal existence, not only in its frailty but its ferocity. Upon our return home, we found that our house — a small oasis in a desert of ash — had become a magnet for surviving wildlife. Carcasses littered the hillsides, crisped in attitudes of flight and a still-resonant terror. The three Rs of a Malibu fire — rats, rabbits, and rattlesnakes — came in as close as the dogs would allow; red-tailed hawks circled overhead at dawn and dusk, while three owls took the night shift. One morning we found the body of a deer across the road, bearing the markings of a mountain lion kill: back mauled, throat mangled. These are not unusual features of where we live, but at that moment they were frighteningly visible. In this they resembled the surrounding terrain, its fierce crevasses and rock formations startlingly present without the mantling sagebrush — skull without skin. For all its seeming lack of life, this new place bespoke the ruthlessness required to count oneself among the living.

Such flaying can feel like a kind of time travel. When I told a friend and fellow scholar that I wasn’t sure how to organize my account of this experience, she offered: “What it’s like to live in the 16th century” (which would make the last several months a tax-deductible research trip). This suggestion got me thinking about how discussion of the economic or technological division in our country is often framed as a matter of space: the effects of globalization; the urban-rural divide, the top income tier and those below it. But surely these divisions have just as much to do with time. By this I don’t mean timing, as in that phrase “left behind” — a phrase which suggests that the leaving was accidental and catching up possible (left behind like an umbrella, as opposed to on a sinking ship). I mean being shorn of one’s carapace can make you realize we’re all just five minutes from the 16th century, or, for all practical purposes — and in a natural disaster, the practical are your only purposes — any other century prior to our own.

My mother-in-law’s plight brought this point home to us most clearly. It was one thing for my daughter and myself and the animals to return to the isolated fire camp that our home had become but repatriating the weakest member of our herd to these conditions was another matter. Caring for her in recent years had become grueling even with heat and light and running water. Now, because the house wasn’t tethered to the power grid, all of these amenities came from generators and we only had enough gas to run them for a few hours a day. The hospice we’d been working with before the fire threatened to call Adult Protective Services were we to bring her home to these conditions. The insurance company suggested she check into a hotel; the social worker at the nursing home recommended a board-and-care facility in North Hollywood that, despite being far cheaper than any nearby, still wanted thousands of dollars we didn’t have. We didn’t yet know how badly she had deteriorated during our weeks apart, but we did know that given road closures, either of the latter options could mean never seeing her again. Strangers and proper shelter, or us and certain privation?

On the other hand, the same sheriff’s blockade that kept us from leaving also meant that a social services agency might not make it up the canyon. She had been very explicit that she wanted to die at home (not so re: the funeral arrangements: “That’s not my problem”). It also occurred to me that should the authorities exert themselves, I could argue that the legal standard of care was culturally — and in a way, temporally — discriminatory. That is, it reads civilized as modern. This was a woman who had lived in the Santa Monica Mountains before there were roads. She had ridden 17 miles of mountain trails to Oxnard High School on Sunday afternoons and back home again on Friday nights, falling asleep while her horse picked its way. (She was also California’s first professional female jockey and Miss California Cowgirl of 1941.) Once, during an argument about gun control, she cited the danger of cattle rustlers. Whenever I proposed paving the driveway, she made tart comments about city people who moved to the country and wanted to bring the city with them. I brought her home.

It wasn’t long before I began to question this decision: while carrying her from my car to the house, in the first rainstorm of winter, she vomited on us both. Her vaunted propensity to car sickness was the only part of her I could still recognize, and there was no sign whatsoever that she recognized me. I almost dropped her three times, and once indoors the only way to stop her trembling was to crawl under the covers with her, where we clung to each other for hours before the others returned from the purgatory of FEMA lines and built a fire. In the three weeks that remained to her we went through two years of firewood keeping the house warm, feeding the fireplace like a locomotive engine. When spoon-feeding her stopped working, we shifted to baby bottles, then to a turkey baster. She died as she’d been born, in a home sans heat, electric light or water from a faucet. But she was warm and kept close. Like newborns, it turns out, the dying need little else.

Living in the past also involves time in a different way: providing for yourself and for others consumes every waking minute. In a natural disaster, the only way to get most things done is to do them in person. Many systems and institutions, like insurance agencies and social workers, are immobilized or inaccessible or aren’t designed to deviate from protocol. (And yet others are extraordinarily resilient. The morning after the fire I was stunned to receive my daily morning spam from Saks — have they no shame?) Going to a website isn’t possible when there is no internet; calling the 800 number, which goes to a call center in North Carolina, doesn’t help — a voice will simply inform you, after 20 minutes of checking with the manager, there’s an “outage” in your area. People are the answer. You can buttonhole a lineman on the road three days running (bringing coffee helps, as does crying) until he calls his friend over in tech support and asks him to come fix your cable box no matter what the supervisor says. You can explain an elderly woman’s plight to a series of doctors, who, if they are wily as well as kind, will determine what the insurance codes are for a totally fucked-up situation. Person-to-person care is essential to mitigating a disaster, and the most pressing incentive to do so.

Producing and perhaps preventing the disaster, on the other hand, is a matter of systems — climate systems, political and economic and social ones. Remedies, if they’re out there, might be technological and must be structural, but their impetus — survival — is ancient. In the meantime, we shouldn’t be too surprised if the earth takes matters into her own hands and forcibly reminds us of this fact.

It’s now a year after the flames have gone through, and we remain without reliable phones or electricity. People have begun to react to this news with more wonder than sympathy, as if emergency might somehow resemble eccentricity. Wonder is easier than acknowledging that life in the new scorched-earth Malibu, so eerily like “old Malibu,” might be what life in a lot of places is going to look like going forward. This fire is a mere chapter — perhaps just a few pages — in the story well underway. It may be the case that we’ve unleashed a juggernaut which cannot be stilled, only survived, and maybe not even that.

The earth will remain. After months of punishing rains, the plants on the mountains began to push their way up through the ash. For them, a fire is a very good thing. If there is any time left to us, we should figure out what needs burning.


Claire McEachern teaches literature of the English Renaissance at the University of California, Los Angeles, and farms with her family in Malibu, CA. Her latest book is Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing (CUP, 2018).


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Claire McEachern teaches literature of the English Renaissance at the University of California, Los Angeles, and farms with her family in Malibu, CA.


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