Week of Flames

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

The Santa Ana winds have spent themselves for this week. There was even some fog along the coast this morning.

In the fire zones, fear and adrenaline are giving way to the heavy resignation that must come with being reminded -– yet again – that fire usually wins.

Living here we know that, in vast areas of Southern California, fire is an unbeatable fact of life.

But we’re not just losing, we’re getting clobbered harder -- and taking more casualties -- in each new battle.

Sure, more air tankers and better brush clearance would help. But our climate makes fire a foe we can't out-run or over-power. Never have, and possibly never will.

Southern California might be the worst ecosystem on earth for the combination of oily brush and chaparral -- roasted to a crispy snap by the summer -- then whipped in October by super dry winds.

When the Santa Anas blow at hurricane levels, as they did this week, one car spark or downed power line blown is enough. Or a nutcase with a match.

Then away we go. This week's toll is seven dead so far, more than 1,700 homes burned and nearly 500,000 acres charred.

Stubborn, long-lasting fires have blackened the land as long as people have inhabited California. Much of the hilly country that burned this week in San Diego and Orange counties also burned in the 80's – the 1880's.

The difference now, of course, is that entire suburbs now fill the old ranchos that used to burn where no one much cared. The range fires of old now become regional disasters – and personal tragedies for thousands of families.

They build houses in places like Rancho Bernardo with ceramic roof tiles and stucco exteriors -– no wood shingles or eaves. Lush green lawns and concrete patios surround them like moats, defending the suburban castles.

Still, the fire gets in. We've all come to expect the flames to be capricious...and unfair.

I watched on TV as one suburban house -- apparently safe in a sea of suburbia -- suddenly began to smoke from the inside. Within minutes orange flames burst out the windows.

Soon after, the home and its contents were gone – its neighbors still unscarred.

La Opinión -- the dominant Spanish language newspaper in Los Angeles -- ran a great picture of another neighborhood. There, all the tile roofs and the lives that existed beneath them had been reduced to ashes and memories.

All -- except one.

The survivor looked sad and lonely from the air, surrounded by streets of destroyed suburbs. Looking at it, I thought the residents of that single house probably won’t feel lucky or providentially spared.

They'll know the ache of a home lost, almost as much as their friends who lost everything.

The other fact of life we've all been reminded of this week is that our fires have become hotter and more dangerous -- for firefighters and the new suburbs.

And it's -– ironically -- because we try to put out the fires.

There's more fuel out there to burn now that fires are routinely attacked, rather than allowed to recur on a natural cycle. When a fire line starts jumping ridges now, they race faster than ever.

You saw it in Malibu, Canyon Country and the young fire-land community of Stevenson Ranch. They took their licks this week. It was hairy, and lives have been ruined.

But residents with any sense of history know that those areas did get lucky this time.

Fires that start in the mountain lands north of the San Fernando Valley have been known to run all the way to the ocean.

Even with all the experience and technology we have, the Pacific is the only weapon we know that will stop a wildfire every time. That's bad news for the mansions on the beach, but at least it’s something.

For KCRW, I'm Kevin Roderick and this has been LA Observed.

Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images