El Diablo in Wine Country

Mike Davis, Blog, LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS

In 1942 Alfred Hitchcock recruited the author of Our Town, Thornton Wilder, to write the screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt, an innocence-versus-evil thriller set in an ‘idyllic American town’. After considering various candidates, Hitchcock and Wilder selected Santa Rosa, a picturesque agricultural community of 13,000 people, 55 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County. The following year, Santa Rosa was introduced to millions of filmgoers in a series of establishing shots that began with aerial views of its pretty countryside and ‘all-American’ downtown. Wartime restrictions had precluded set-building and the exterior locations were all real, but it was difficult to believe that sunny Santa Rosa hadn’t been confected by Norman Rockwell on a Hollywood back lot.

Seventy-five years later, we contemplate another aerial view, this time of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighbourhood. The scene, a thousand homes incinerated to their foundations, resembles the apocalypse Kim Jong-un keeps promising to bring to America. Especially shocking to Californians, these were not homes in the combustible foothills or mountains where fire danger traditionally lurks, but on the plain, next to a freeway, schools, fast-food outlets – the kind of landscape where most of us live. Altogether, in one terrible night, Santa Rosa (population 165,000) lost more than 2800 homes and businesses to what is officially known as the Tubbs Fire. But it’s premature to cite losses or add up body counts since, as I write, twenty fires still writhe across the Wine Country, and an army of exhausted firefighters fearfully awaits the return of the Diablo winds.

Although the explosive development of this firestorm complex caught county and municipal officials off guard, fire alarms had been going off for months. Two years ago, at the height of California’s worst drought in five hundred years, the Valley Fire, ignited by faulty wiring in a hot tub, burned 76,000 acres and destroyed 1350 homes in Lake, northern Sonoma, and Napa counties. Last winter’s record precipitation, meanwhile, did not so much bust the drought as prepare its second and more dangerous reincarnation. The spring’s unforgettable profusion of wildflowers and verdant grasses was punctually followed by a scorching summer that culminated in September with pavement-melting temperatures of 41ºC in San Francisco and 43ºC on the coast at Santa Cruz. Luxuriant green vegetation quickly turned into parched brown fire-starter.

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