One of the acknowledged great non-fiction pieces of our time is John McPhee’s Los Angeles Against the Mountains, from l988, an uncanny and alarming foreshadowing of the disaster in Montecito this month.
It’s one of those astonishingly thorough and appalling pieces of writing, almost beyond journalismn, and to my mind can hardly be overpraised (but here, let me try!). Here’s a description of a debris flow from a survivor.
As the young Genofiles and their mother glimpsed it in the all but total darkness, the scene was suddenly illuminated by a blue electrical flash. In the blue light they saw a massive blackness, moving. It was not a landslide, not a mudslide, not a rock avalanche; nor by any means was it the front of a conventional flood. In Jackie’s words, “It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.”
If you read on, it turns into a scene out of Titanic, except thank god the ship doesn’t sink. But there’s one passage from this piece that haunts me especially. On this creek-side property we have been warned to evacuate in case of any downpour. This is why:
Mystically, unnervingly, the heaviest downpours always occur on the watersheds most recently burned. Why this is so is a question that has not been answered. Meteorologists and hydrologists speculate about ash-particle nuclei and heat reflection, but they don’t know.