Fire/Flood: A Southern California Pastoral

In and around Los Angeles, natural and man-made disasters have been inextricable for almost two centuries.

Yxta Maya Murray | Longreads | August 2020 | 4,990 words (20 minutes)

 

— with thanks to Dr. Alex Pivovaroff

1.

Chaparral spreads its hard, green shine over the hills and valleys of Southern California. This tough-leafed shrub community established itself as part of the local plant landscape millions of years ago. It flourishes during the area’s rainy springs, and survives droughts by plunging its sturdy roots deep into granite bedrock, which can hold a surprising amount of water.

Chaparral also bears a reputation for fire. These plants have adapted to the types of blazes Southern California’s semi-arid landscape has historically endured, and some varieties of chaparral evolved a literally incendiary mode of survival: their seeds need to burn in order to sprout. After wildfires scorch the land, the chaparral bursts into a glossy biome, hosting fire-follower poppy blossoms that fan out over the blackened hills.

2.

Los Angeles has always lacked an adequate supply of indigenous water.

This problem brings out the worst in its settlers, who adapt to the landscape with as much scorched-earth ingenuity as does the chaparral.

3.

Los Angeles incorporated in 1850, two years after the end of the Mexican-American War. That year, government officials calculated that the city possessed a population of 1,610 white people, 70 Native people, 12 black people, and 2 Chinese people.

The city soon became a magnet for farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs, many of whom made their fortunes by supplying California Gold Rush miners up north with beef, sugar, flour, and mining equipment.

In order to distribute the waters of the flowing Río Porciúncula — now known as the Los Angeles River — to the agricultural lands to the west, Spanish settlers outfitted the river with a zanja madre, a “mother trench.” Women and Indigenous servants would carry water from the river to households in clay pots called ollas.

These efforts did not do enough to quench the ever-growing thirst of Southern California.

4.

In 1836, Don Rafael Guirado, one of Los Angeles’s most powerful citizens and the future father-in-law of Governor John Downey, determined that the water level in the Río Porciúncula’s zanjas had ebbed too low. He instructed the local council to gather a group of deputies to arrest all “drunken Indians” and compel them to work on the mother trench, whose waters were fouled with debris as well as bacteria and viruses. Overseers commanded that the slaves increase the water output of the zanja system through unspecified measures. No records detailing these people’s sufferings survive.

In late 1862 and early 1863, smallpox tore through Los Angeles’s Native and Mexican communities. The epidemic spread when victims washed in the polluted water in the zanjas. At least 200 people died.

5.

In 1866, jurors in Los Angeles acquitted a French immigrant named Armand Michel Josef Lachenais of the murder of a fellow countryman named Henry Delaval, with whom he’d argued about the internal workings of the French Benevolent Society. Lachenais later also murdered a Native vineyard worker, Pablo Moreno, but the California Supreme Court tossed his conviction because his indictment had been based on the testimony of Native witnesses. Local gossips whispered that Lachenais also slaughtered his wife, Doña María, but prosecutors never brought charges against him for this crime.

Still, Lachenais went too far when, in 1870, he quarreled with his neighbor, a 53-year-old Pennsylvanian and industrious capitalist named Jacob Bell, over the withdrawal of water from a zanja installed on their lands’ border. After the two men traded angry words, Lachenais grabbed his gun and mounted his horse. He then stalked Bell and shot him two or three times, killing him. Lachenais was arrested and secured in the local calaboose, but a vigilance committee descended upon the jail and tore Lachenais out of his cell. This armed mob — at least 200 men strong, and whose leaders included a Methodist preacher — hauled Lachenais to a corral on New High Street. A Samaritan leapt on top of a wooden box and attempted to preach against a lynching, but the vigilantes kicked the box from under him only to use it to prop Lachenais beneath the corral. The men strung a rope around Lachenais’s throat and removed the box. They watched as Lachenais strangled to death.

6.

In 1898, hot winds aggravated a prevailing drought that scoured the 48-year-old city of Los Angeles. Sugar beet crops shattered. Grain yields perished. Conditions grew so extreme that, a year later, Methodist ministers in Los Angeles “invoke[d] the god of storms” and asked the heavens “why he ha[d] withheld rain from the thirsting fields of Southern California.”

Severe drought conditions persisted off and on in Los Angeles for the next six years. The dryness did not discourage newcomers. In 1900, Los Angeles’s population grew faster than that of any of the larger cities in the United States.

In 1902, Southern California’s booming sugar beet industry braced to supply 165,000,000 pounds of sugar to the Pacific Coast states. But the drought threatened the harvest. Factories built new irrigation systems and sank artesian wells. Nevertheless, water demands continued to outstrip supply.

In 1902 and then again in 1904, cattle began to die.

The drought which has continued through Southern California for more than three months just at the season when under normal conditions there is the most plentiful supply of water, is becoming a serious matter to ranchers and particularly to owners of livestock . . . . No rain has fallen here since October 1. (The San Francisco Call, January 12, 1904)

7.

In 1904, the same year that the newspapers reported livestock losses, onetime Los Angeles Mayor Fred Eaton began to wrest water rights from Owens Valley landowners through a series of dark deals. Though Owens Valley sat 250 miles away from L.A., Eaton had discerned that the Owens River could be funneled down easily to his city on account of the Valley’s 4,000-foot elevation over the desert. He traveled through the area, visiting farmers and ranchers, and soon began negotiating prices and terms. Eaton was accompanied by his friend and co-conspirator J.B. Lippincott, the supervising engineer of all Pacific coast irrigation projects administered under Teddy Roosevelt’s Reclamation Act. Lippincott, who acted as a double agent during these tours, led Owens Valley men to believe that Eaton acquired their sun-seared properties for Reclamation purposes, rather than as part of Eaton’s plot to steal their water for L.A. For nearly a year, Eaton managed to keep his plans secret even though his machinations were supported by famous oligarchs like Harrison Gray Otis, the owner and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and transportation tycoon Moses H. Sherman.

Eventually, though, the word got out.

Los Angeles Plots Destruction, Would Take Owens River, Lay Lands Waste, Ruin People, Homes and Communities, a small Owens Valley newspaper headline declared in 1905, prompting widespread community protests.

Eaton was a stubborn man, and he continued fighting for his vision of an Edenic Los Angeles despite the outrage. A designer named William Mulholland would fulfill his vision, overseeing the construction of the new, huge aqueduct that would divert the Owens River to the city and prove the Valley newsmongers right.

8.

William Mulholland was a well-built and laconic Irishman who had arrived in Los Angeles by way of Pittsburgh in 1877. He began his career as an energetic ditch-digger and gold prospector. Soon enough, he rose through the Los Angeles City Water Company’s ranks to become superintendent, overseeing the workings of the zanjas, and became head of the Department of Water and Power when the city took over the water system. When he began building the aqueduct in 1907, he was 52 and possessed no formal engineering education.

William Mulholland hired a crew of 5,000 men who spent the next five years working with hand shovels, mules, and dynamite to raise the 230-mile system, which became the world’s largest water-supply project at the time. They finished the aqueduct on time and below cost. When Mulholland unveiled the marvel at a ceremony in Sylmar in 1913, he looked up at the Owens river coursing down through the San Fernando Valley and said to the crowd, “There it is, take it.”

Still, the business of large-scale water diversion would not be that simple. Owens Valley farmers and ranchers, who found their lands destroyed by the withdrawal of the river, rebelled. They dynamited a section of the aqueduct in May 1924. Then, that August, renegades kidnapped and prepared to lynch one of Mulholland’s accomplices, Leicester Hall, an attorney and the treasurer of the Owens River Canal Company. Hall saved his own life by making the Freemason’s distress signal, which was recognized by a fellow Freemason in the murderous throng.

Mulholland was not deterred. With the success of the aqueduct, he began to dream bigger and more dangerously. He decided that the aqueduct was an incomplete solution for the needs of Los Angeles, and began scouting locations for the construction of a dam, in case a drought ever outpaced Owens water. He settled on San Francisquito Canyon, a federally held tract that hollows the Sierra Pelona Mountains. The canyon, which can be reached from Los Angeles in under an hour by car, is formed mostly out of solid sandstone, red siltstone, shale, and conglomerate stone. However, a decade earlier, work crews tunneling through the area had discovered that the canyon was layered through with schist in its northeastern section. And, in a 1911 report, Mulholland and Lipincott wrote that the schist might be unstable.

Mulholland nevertheless ignored the troubling condition of the area and proceeded to build in the canyon. The St. Francis Dam became operational in 1926.

It began to develop fissures and leaks within a year.

9.

On the morning of March 12, 1928, the dam held more than 12 billion gallons of water. That day, Mulholland visited the site with Tony Harnischfeger, the dam keeper. Harnischfeger showed Mulholland several muddy outflows in the dam’s western edge. Mulholland studied the cracking for an hour and a half before telling Harnischfeger to report back to him three times a day about the embankment’s condition.

Mulholland then stepped back into his chauffeur-driven Marmon sedan and returned to Los Angeles, where they had lunch at about 2 p.m.

About 10 hours later, around midnight, the dam burst open and emptied entirely into the canyon. No one who witnessed the breach survived. The flood killed Harnischfeger instantly, as well as his son, Coder, and Harnischfeger’s girlfriend, Leona Johnson. The water hurled toward a power plant called Powerhouse Number 2, where it drowned laborers and teachers. It continued to crash into the Santa Clara River Valley. It blasted into a Southern California Edison construction camp, killing 84 people, before emptying debris and bodies into the Pacific Ocean, 54 miles from the source point. Historians estimate a death toll between 400 and 600.

At the coroner’s inquest, investigators asked Mulholland why he did not react to the seepage Harnischfeger had shown him on the morning of the catastrophe.

“The only ones I envy about this thing are the ones who are dead,” Mulholland said.


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10.

Between 2011 and 2014, a Cal State Northridge graduate student in archaeology named Ann Stansell compiled the names of the victims of the St. Francis Dam’s collapse.

Some of the names are: Luz Alvarado, Jesus Alvarez, Clinton Anderson, and Georgie Basolo.

And: Maria DeJesus Carrillo, Hipolito Cerna, Homer Coe, Walter Colburn, Marguerite Cowden, and Rosarita Erratchuo.

And: Señora Figueroa, Lorenzo Florez, Mrs. Forrester, John Harold Frame, Elizabeth “Tootsie” Garcia, Charles Glenn, John Earl Gold, Richard Gottardi, and Esther Luna.

And: Jose Martinez, Paul Massetti, Vidae Louise Mathews, Charles Edgar McCarty, Teviarro Monorez, Roy Morrow, and Francisco Ochoa.

11.

In the 1920s, agriculture spread across L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. Farmers cultivated oranges, lemons, walnuts, tomatoes, grapes, beets, barley, corn, and lima beans. Many of the laborers who coaxed the fruit from the land were Mexican men and women, working for white landowners. The Latino laborers were ill-paid and -sheltered. But in the 1930s, they found competition in the drought refugees who had fled the Oklahoma and Arkansas dust bowls to seek work in L.A.

These refugees, while white, were perhaps even less welcome than the Latino workers, whom L.A. chieftains regarded as lazy and shiftless demi-humans, “bovine and tractable”; that is, they did not object too vocally to being housed in miserable shacks on overseers’ properties.

The influx of Dust Bowl migrants became so overwhelming that L.A. County Supervisors recommended that they be counted as they crossed over the state line. Herbert C. Legg, Chairman of the County Board of Commissioners, assured the public that the government did not pursue this surveillance in order to intimidate refugees or facilitate their arrest, but rather to ensure that they received sufficient care.

The Federal Government has assumed responsibility for drought relief and it is important to our State that such drought relief follow sufferers when they leave drought areas, he said, in 1936.

Chairman Legg either lied when he said this, or did not know what he was talking about.

A housing boom had started in L.A. in the 1920s, and small single-family homes began to sprout on the chaparral-blooming hillsides. Black people, Latinos, Asians, Slavs, Jews, and Italians were barred from living in certain neighborhoods. But a respectable class of Anglos with ready cash were allowed to colonize the valleys, which they did with enthusiasm, jubilantly planting small farms and decorating their homes with the flowers that sprouted around them. During Christmastime, these new minor land barons would adorn their hearths with the poisonous leaves and red berries of the native toyon plant, otherwise known as “hollywood.” This potentially dangerous practice grew so popular that the state outlawed toyon’s harvesting on public land.

City leaders welcomed this kind of moneyed and house-proud white person, who would buy a parcel and work in one of L.A.’s many new utility companies and other industries — Southern California Edison, for example, or the proliferating studios of Hollywood. But the Okies repelled the Southland’s elite. News outlets such as the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine called them relief chiselers, while other periodicals called them white trash, marginal people, and irresponsible wandering hordes. Vigilantes would assault their meeting places and encampments. And in 1936, the same year that Legg gave his assurances that he only monitored migrants to ensure their safety, L.A. police chief James Edgar Davis dispatched patrolmen to meet drought refugees at the California-Arizona border and force them back to where they came from.

Ever hear of the border patrol on the California line? Police from Los Angeles — stopped you bastards, turned you back. Says, if you can’t buy no real estate we don’t want you. (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath)

12.

Due to the explosive advances in nuclear science in the 1950s, the problems of drought, flood, atrocity, and inequality would intensify in California.

Simi Valley, a Ventura County community that is now famous as the location of the East County Courthouse, which hosted the failed 1992 Rodney King prosecution of four LAPD officers, is also the home of one of the nation’s first commercial nuclear power plants. The Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) housed North American Aviation’s (NAA) Rocketdyne division as well as Atomics International, a developer of nuclear reactors. SSFL was built on Simi Hills, a low mountain ridge south of the Valley. It began operations in 1947 and was closed by its current primary owner, Boeing, in 2006.

NAA scientists used the laboratory to test reactors and rocket engines, and to manufacture plutonium fuel. In the 1950s, lab employees — often people in their early 20s hired as manual laborers and security personnel — helped physicists and engineers test the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE).

The SRE was a nuclear reactor that would go critical (that is, become capable of providing power) if fed with massive quantities of uranium, as well as tetralin and sodium coolants. Excitement abounded across Southern California when the SRE began delivering a small amount of electricity to Moorpark, a nearby city in Ventura County, in 1957.

In January 1959, however, some of the lab operators noticed a sticky black substance in the reactor, a probable leaking of tetralin that the facility’s higher-ups ordered to be cleaned off. The tetralin, however, continued leaking, gumming up the SRE and failing to cool the sodium. Around July 12, the sodium penetrated into the uranium fuel elements, creating huge quantities of blazing-hot radioactive gases. In other words: the SRE experienced a partial core meltdown, to which lab engineers responded by shutting down the reactor on July 13, only to continue operating it on and off until July 26. The engineers dealt with the gases by expelling them into the atmosphere for weeks.

Forty-eight days after the accident, the Atomic Energy Commission and Atomics International issued a press statement that described the incident in confusing jargon and relied heavily on the passive voice — “a parted fuel element was observed” — and misled the public about the danger they were in. The fuel element damage is not an indication of unsafe reactor conditions. No release of radioactive materials to the plant or its environs occurred.

It has been estimated that the July 1959 incident expelled 240 times the amount of radioactivity as Three Mile Island.

Despite the magnitude of this catastrophe, the lab continued to operate and was the site of further disasters. In 1964, and then again in 1969, reactors designed to power U.S. space missions experienced damage to 80 percent and about 30 percent of their fuel, respectively. No one informed the public about these accidents, either.

As of this year, the site remains brimming with radioactive contamination despite the fact that in 2007, NASA, Boeing, and the Department of Energy (DOE) signed a Consent Order for Corrective Action with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which mandated a cleanup by 2017. This deadline has now obviously passed, and the area remains the subject of much community concern and speculation.

In August 2018, residents urged members of Simi Valley City Council to forbid the city from using groundwater as drinking water. If groundwater were so employed, it could not only imperil Simi Valley’s tonier bedroom communities, but also create specific dangers for people who cannot afford bottled water. Such folks include Simi Valley’s small but at-risk homeless population, who must scramble for resources and yet are targeted as irresponsible wandering hordes by the city’s Proactive Cleanup of Homeless Encampments Program. The Council embarked upon a study to evaluate the safety of funneling groundwater into public facilities and private residences, but put this project on hold when confronted with community dissent.

One of the supplicants, Jessica Geselle, a 39-year-old mother of two, said that she had been diagnosed with thyroid and uterine cancer that she believed was caused by her exposure to Santa Susana pollutants.

I’m here tonight to beg of you not to put groundwater in our homes … (and) keep our future generations safe, she said.

13.

In 2010 and 2011, the DOE began interviewing former employees of the Santa Susana lab in order to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. Federal procedure requires such a statement to be filed before a contaminated area may receive the “remediation” that residents of Simi Valley and the nearby San Fernando Valley continue to await.

Some of the employees the DOE talked to mentioned throwing radioactive or contaminated material into a “sodium burn pit” between the 1950s and the 1970s, and dumping radioactive materials into the ocean. Some of them discussed how much they had enjoyed their jobs, which had kept them busy and on the go. A number of workers described fires and accidents at the lab. Others reported that many of their former project managers, shift managers, and co-workers had died of cancer.

One respondent, who is known in the report as Interviewee #258, explained that he had been part of the Rocketdyne police force, where he worked as a patrolman and a sergeant. Interviewee #258 said he had mostly been assigned to gate-guard duty, but that he also worked in the Rocketdyne fire department when they needed the extra help.

Interviewee #258 explained that his superiors never cautioned him about any personal exposure to radioactive materials. He did, however, remember that there had been a pond of water in SSFL’s Area II, which was not adjacent to any test stands. Fish lived in that pond, he said. He recounted how the fish looked strange, even grotesque.

Interviewee #258 also said that he had once seen a brushfire in Area IV, which once held the SRE.

No buildings were burned but a lot of trees, brush, shrubbery and weeds were destroyed. I don’t recall the exact cause of the fire but it occurred during very hot weather and it took all day to extinguish.

14.

The Woolsey fire ignited in Simi Valley on November 8, 2018, at 2:24 p.m. According to news reports, the fire began at the Santa Susana Lab, possibly because of a malfunction at Southern California Edison’s Chatsworth substation, which is located on site. The fire appears to have originated within 1,000 feet of the SRE’s partial meltdown.

The surrounding scrub-filled areas were parched as a result of a drought California had endured since December 27, 2011, and which would not end until March 5, 2019. Some experts describe the period of heat and dryness from 2012 to 2014 as the worst California has seen in 1,200 years.

The flames spread quickly to the surrounding weeds and brush.

Santa Susana once possessed a crack firefighting force alongside its police unit, but this team seems to have either dwindled to a skeleton crew or been more thoroughly dismantled; the status of the firefighting troop remains unclear as Boeing did not answer reporters’ questions in the aftermath of the fire. Moreover, no one who witnessed the fire’s outbreak has come forward to describe what happened, perhaps due to the pressures of lawsuits that have been filed against the aircraft manufacturer as well as Edison.

The fire burned freely through the contamination. On the very day the fire broke out, about 400 firefighters had been called away to battle another blaze, the Hill fire, which ran amok 15 miles to the west. The response to Woolsey saw a long delay. When the Los Angeles County Fire Department was finally deployed, there were problems — the Department sent strike teams to Agoura Hills instead of Simi Hills, and at the lab site, there was no or little water, and poor cellphone reception. Eventually, these limitations impelled the firefighters to move their base of operations to a Ventura County fire station.

For the next few days, strong Santa Ana winds drove the fire into Bell Canyon, the Santa Monica Mountains, Oak Park, and finally Malibu. It burned 96,949 acres and destroyed 1,643 structures. It forced more than 295,000 people to flee from their homes and communities. The Woolsey fire killed three people (that we so far know of): Alfred De Ciutiis, Anthony Noubar Baklayan, and Shoushan Baklayan.

15.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory is located on a brush- and weed-covered 2,668-acre parcel in Simi Hills. In the 1940s, North American Aviation believed it was an excellent choice for the siting of a nuclear power plant on account of its remoteness from populated areas. According to the most recent estimate, Simi Valley now houses approximately 125,613 people.

According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS), the lab site is contaminated with trichloroethylene, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and perchlorate. Further, according to the BAS, “[a] $40 million, multi-year radiation survey by the Environmental Protection Agency found hundreds of Santa Susana locations contaminated with radionuclides, including strontium 90, cesium 137, and plutonium 239.”

On the Boeing web page, Boeing explains that, after the Woolsey fire, a study conducted by an independent and State-certified laboratory detected no man-made radionuclides.

In December 2018, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control issued a statement indicating that the Woolsey fire did not poison the folks of Simi Valley, Ventura, or Los Angeles.

No radiation or hazardous materials from SSFL were detected in communities following the Woolsey Fire.

16.

Some people do not believe these reports. One prominent critic is Daniel Hirsch, the retired director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Hirsch complains that the California studies were taken after the fire, when any and all blighted smoke would have already disappeared. He also asserts that the Department of Toxic Substances Control did not test their air, ash, and soil samples for radioactivity at all. He wonders how inspectors found no contamination when Santa Susana had long been known as a contaminated site.

17.

When wildfires rage over radioactive lands, weeds and brush present some of the greatest dangers. Radioactive isotopes sink into groundwater, which is then tapped by groundcover. When fire spreads to these plants, they may discharge the radiation into the air as they burn.

18.

The Santa Susana Lab was built and its toxic remnants have languished amid the chaparral-covered Simi Hills, less than an hour away from the location of the long-gone deadly zanjas, of Lachenais’ forgotten lynching, and of the hushed rooms where Fred Eaton and William Mulholland plotted out the water wars.

Chaparral is a fire-responder. In the spring following the Woolsey fire, poppies peeked out from its biome. The plant’s hard, green, waxy leaves have begun to grow again in Simi Valley’s defiled and blackened lands. Its deep roots still plunge into rock and search out the invisible groundwater, the way they always have.

Wildflowers were not the only thing to follow the Woolsey fire. So did mudslides, caused by the burnt earth’s erosion and record-breaking storms that soaked Los Angeles in December 2018. The resulting torrents proved particularly threatening to people living in the fragile tents that compose the homeless encampments scattered across L.A. County.

Santa Ana winds often fan the flames and allow blazes to rage across Southern California in the fall, before the winter rains. After the mudslides carve the hills, the remaining bare soil resembles a desolate moonscape. Cold-weather downpours course through the valleys, absorbing the pollution and toxins that have collected in the earth.

The hazards created by Santa Susana became especially dire after the Woolsey fire, as the blaze charred pipes and treatment systems that had been designed to corral contaminated rainwater before it coursed down the hill. Boeing records reveal that in the three months following the December rains, chemicals and radioactive materials poured from the site at levels that exceeded state safety standards. In November 2019, NBC4 reported that while Boeing would ordinarily have had to pay as much as $154,250 in fines for these violations, the penalty was cut to $28,000 to recognize Boeing’s lack of fault for a natural disaster.

19.

It seems that Southern California is an inhospitable place for most living things except for chaparral because it is hot, it is sere, its rains won’t fall, and if they do, the storms come in the form of Biblical deluges that arrive complete with plague. It’s also said around these parts that the region’s fires and floods do not discriminate. But these observations are not perfectly accurate. Poor and middle class people as well as people of color are at greater risk from the dangers caused by the river, the drought, the dam, the floods, the lab, the poisons, and the greed that grows in this beautiful place.

The people are agitating for change. In September 2018, 20 sign-hoisting residents of Simi Valley and nearby Chatsworth gathered on Valley Circle Boulevard to call for the cleanup of Santa Susana; they were supported by the honks of commuters. In October of that year, 30 activists of the Simi and San Fernando Valleys held an action in front of Governor Newsom’s L.A. office, calling for the site’s remediation. And in July 2019, 200 protesters gathered at Simi Valley’s Rancho Tapo Community Park to paint commemorative rocks that would serve as a memorial to the SSFL’s workers; this event drew attention because Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, who live close to the site, attended.

In September 2019, then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited Santa Susana. He took a fact-finding tour around the portion of the land that the Department of Energy has been ordered to remediate. When asked about his objectives, Perry didn’t make any specific plans, or raise anyone’s hopes with promises. He said, instead, that he didn’t want to get into the details, but just understand the history of the site. Yet, this gesture did presage some small progress: In May 2020, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the DOE agreed to demolish ten buildings in Area IV of the SSFL, so as to guard against the spread of toxins and radionuclides that may occur during the next wildfire and storm cycle.

Still, this is a far cry from complete remediation. “The surrounding communities have waited a long time for decisive action,” Governor Newsom said, at the news of the DOE’s decision. “Today’s order represents a new and important chapter toward the full cleanup.”

20.

In 2019, climate scientists reported that the fire season in California, which had formerly been concentrated in the fall months, is now expected to extend into the winter. So, from now on, people will be on high alert from the deepest heat of the summer to the chill bright months. This constant vigilance leaves locals with a sense of unease; of grief. History assures us that terror and disparity have always sat side-by-side in Southern California, even if such marvels feel unprecedented. Flight from superfires, poisonous air, tainted water, and now other contagions, has become our way of life.

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Yxta Maya Murray is a writer and law professor at Loyola Law School. Her novel, Art Is Everything, is forthcoming in February, and her book of short fiction, The World Doesn’t Work That Way, but It Could, is out now.

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Editor: Ben Huberman
Factchecker: Nina Zweig