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Why wildfires are the "equalizer" in Southern California's illusion of paradise

A man prepares to evacuate his home as a wildfire burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, California, on December 5, 2017.
A man prepares to evacuate his home as a wildfire burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, California, on December 5, 2017.

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It's been a week since wildfires broke out in Southern California, and many of them continue to rage. While the Skirball and Creek fires, in the Sepulveda pass and in Sylmar, are mostly contained, the Thomas Fire continues to churn west through the coastal foothills of Santa Barbara County. 

Officials say the Thomas Fire has burned through more than 230,000 acres with 15 percent containment. Thousands remain under evacuation orders. Recently, such orders were issued for Carpinteria and Montecito, about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

The blazes have been stunning in their sweep, and unsparing in their destruction. For some, the fires are a reminder that Southern California's image as an idyllic place to live can be an illusion.

"We have to go back to the Northridge earthquake," said Thomas Curwen, writer for the LA Times. "I think that was a great equalizer, much in the same way fires have been, especially this season."

Curwen wrote an essay over the weekend about how fires are the equalizer for the idea of  Southern California as a paradise.

"Small little agricultural communities are being struck as well as these communities in the Sepulveda pass. It's stunning to see both mansions and small dusty horse ranches all fall to these flames," Curwen said. "It's a pretty stunning reminder that fire really does know no boundaries."

Why wildfire tragedies are bound to continue in Southern California

"Los Angeles is really a creation of this interesting geology. The ranges are going East and West across our region and creating these pockets of chaparral around which homes and communities have been built. These little pockets of chaparral get ignited, whether it's the Verdugo Mountains as we saw during the summer or whether it's the Angeles National Forest as we saw a number of years ago. It's hard to believe that there are still areas that are underdeveloped and ready to be consumed by fire, but they are and as they move closer and closer to homes or as homes move closer and closer to these areas, we're bound to see such tragedies as we have seen this last week."

Reconsidering the concept of Southern California as a paradise

"I think over the last 20 years or so, we as Angelenos have seen increasingly that this area is not quite the paradise that perhaps our forefathers had thought it was. I'm not quite sure if we're ready to say these fires this year will create a sea change in our understanding of the region, much in the same way that the 1992 urban riots created this sort of sea change in our understanding of how our city is put together and built. Certainly the forces are happening and occurring around this point in time. They do force us to reconsider our conceptions of what Los Angeles is and what Southern California can be."

What he was feeling as he worked on his recent essay

"I was feeling a great deal of empathy for all the individuals who lost their homes and their possessions in the course of these fires. I'm just really struck by how vulnerable we are on one hand and how tender our dreams are when it comes to trying to make a place here and create a home here. It is a great equalizer. Not only does fire strike across all boundaries of the city - rich and poor, mobile and rancher, alike - but it also strikes at how we make a home for ourselves in Southern California." 

Answers have been edited for clarity

To hear the full conversation about the fire's effect on life in LA, click the blue player above.