You hate to be relativistic in natural disasters.
Wait: Let me amend that right away. You’re supposed to hate being relativistic.
In California, where we have plenty of them, the mudslides, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and the fires after fires affect us all, sooner or later. No one’s life or limb or property is more important than another’s.
But let me go out on one of those limbs, as it were, and say that the incredibly hiking-centric people of Sierra Madre are going to be hit harder by their fire this time than the residents of some tract exurb built yesterday would be by their fire. The latters’ relationship with the hills that surround them is not a loving, long-term marriage — they’ve barely kissed.
Sierra Madre’s disaster is a special circumstance.
As of this writing, we’ve got a major forest fire in the front range that’s resulted in precisely four injuries, all to firefighters: an allergic reaction to a bee sting, a twisted knee, heat exhaustion. Private-property damage has been limited to one small out-building.
It is that most public of properties, our magnificent Angeles National Forest, that is getting the hit. For the citizens of the Foothill Village, it’s their backyard. And more than in any other community in Los Angeles County, Sierra Madreans take advantage of that forest. Many of them, perhaps hundreds, hike there every morning — it’s their recreational passion, their soul, their life. And this is no recent love affair. For over a century, from the days of the Great Hiking Era, Sierra Madre has been the entry point to the forest for Angelenos. Here’s how a Web site, The Joy of Hiking L.A. County, has it: “Thousands of hikers rode the city’s Red Cars to Sierra Madre, then disembarked and walked up Mt. Wilson Trail to the popular rustic resort at Orchard Camp. Forty thousand people passed over the trail in the peak year of 1911.”
As we choke on the smoke, in despair at the charred mountains in front of us, we also take heart that there have been no deaths or severe injuries and no homes have been lost, at least as of yet, in the Santa Anita Fire.
But for Sierra Madreans, the scorched earth left behind is a tragedy nonetheless. It’s as if, for a surfer who lives on the beach, the waves had gone flat not just for one morning, but for years.
The town happily remains one of the few idiosyncratic places left in the megalopolis, with a personality, a history, among all the bland sprawl. Its mountain trails define it. It welcomes outsiders, but only up to a point. A woman who recognized me as I got coffee in Bean Town on Baldwin Monday morning called out, “Didja come on over to kinda get a flavor of it all?” I did, I admitted: “Smoke flavor.” I ran into Red Cross boss Ben Green at the gas station down the street, and we talked about what some of the people in the shelter, evacuated from Sierra Madre Canyon, are like. Not characters, in the nutty sense. Rather, individuals with character, like you don’t find much anymore very far from Mary’s Market and Cafe.
May the toyon and the scrub oak rebound soon, and may Sierra Madre forever stay Sierra Madre.