Sobering Wake Up Call

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

The disaster unfolding in Japan has a message for us here on the other side of the tectonic plate that shuddered under the Pacific last week.

If this level of carnage can hit a country as prepared for earthquakes as Japan, it's impossible to feel smug about our own preparations.

All of us know – or should know by now -- that a big earthquake is coming some day. Maybe not magnitude 8.9 big. But big enough to potentially change many lives.

And yet most of us live as if there is no real threat to us from earthquakes and tsunamis…or anything else.

For that, the astonishing video out of Japan …. of sea water flooding over entire cities … of ships and airplanes being tossed miles inland from the ocean … could be the most effective wake-up call ever.

The news reports today of the anxious race against time to cool the nuclear fuel rods at disabled power plants also have to get our attention.

Here in LA, we famously face natural challenges of many kinds.

And at least we have proof that the right kind of wake up call can alter behavior.

That success comes from the lessons learned in 1961. On a pleasant November day, a brush fire broke out in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Santa Ana winds gusting out of the north…like they do…picked up the flames and blew them canyon by canyon.

The fire swept into some of the most densely populated part of the mountains -- the hills of Bel Air and Brentwood.

Many of the houses were of the ranch style architecture that was popular with builders and home-buyers of the time. Wood siding, decorative shutters – also wood. Roofs of wooden shingles.

The fire jumped from house to house, helped along by trees laying right up against the shake roofs, and by thick brush right up to backyards.

The Bel-Air and Brentwood fire burned down 484 homes before the conflagration – as the fire department called it in the official reports – could be contained.

Los Angeles had been through disastrous fires before.

But the Bel-Air fire was the first to unfold on the new medium of live television news. Affluent residents of the hills were shown running from the flames, and houses burned down as viewers watched.

Many of the victims were Hollywood celebrities who lived in the canyons.

There were pictures of former vice president Richard Nixon being displaced from his rented home on North Bundy Drive.

The destruction and the media coverage helped change the way Los Angeles thinks about the threat of wild fires.

People can no longer build houses with flammable shake roofs in the hills.

Attention is now paid to the way eaves are designed, to avoid helping fire spread.

And every spring, residents of the canyons get a letter from the fire department, or a visit, telling them to clear the brush around their homes. If they don't comply, an expensive bill can follow.

It's the price of being ready, and somehow now that all sounds like an inexpensive price.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.