Almost two years ago I was given the opportunity to visit Los Angeles as part of a work event. It was a gorgeous whirlwind: we wandered the mountains of Griffith Park for an afternoon, and toured Paramount Studios, and wandered the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and enjoyed a dinner cruise (although we didn’t enter the Pacific Ocean proper). We even attended a Hollywood gala.
A few things struck me about the trip. First, Los Angeles was experiencing an early spring after a year of drought. It was February, and although I love winter, I was grateful for the break from cold and snow; but somebody mentioned that it was a worrying sign. The exact reason eludes me now, but it was that too much rain too early meant a dry summer or something along those lines.
The other thing that struck me was the literal styrofoam nature of the Paramount lot. Not just the prop room; you don’t think about it in the movies, but of course that 500 lb. anvil that falls from the sky or whatever is just styrofoam painted to look like iron. (I have a photo of myself holding a prop weight like a purse; in retrospect I wish I had followed proper weight lifting form to help sell the illusion.) But it was on the lot itself as well. Our tour guide at one point intentionally leaned against a concrete post to demonstrate: it wasn’t concrete at all, but another Hollywood illusion of weighted styrofoam or plastic. They looked real to keep drivers from entering the wrong part of the lot, but were lightweight so they could be moved to allow access or used as props as necessary.
I thought about both these things last year when part of Los Angeles was threatened by the Skirball fire, and I thought of it again during this year’s Camp and Woolsey fires. The devastation, especially in terms of loss of life, of this year’s fires are much greater than the Skirball fire, but the Skirball fire felt much more personal, since it threatened a part of Los Angeles that I had actually seen, albeit from the road.
The Skirball Fire
Originally written December 7, 2017
The mountainside was verdant. Flowers bloomed.
An early spring emerged after a drought.
From the front seat, our driver pointed out
The Getty Center, on the hill that loomed
Over the 405. We had no time
To stop and to explore its famous halls:
The glitz and glamour of the city called,
And Hollywood’s elaborate pantomime.
Now, neither nature’s beauty nor the steel
And styrofoam of ingenuity
Can outlast wrathful flame’s ferocity,
But must to gods and firemen appeal.
The city smoulders—see it while you can:
The temporality of modern man.