A reporter who has covered the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan finds similarities in the rubble, the chaos — and the humanity as devastating wildfires ravage the Malibu area.
MALIBU — A line of burned-out cars on the side of a road. The charred remains of an old pickup truck, brightened by a pristine American flag draped over the cab. Desperate residents fleeing, cars packed with people and family heirlooms, anything that could be frantically scooped up.
One after another, the images could be from any number of conflict zones. But this is California.
As the state once again battles devastating wildfires north and south, at every point in the panorama of disaster underway there is a semblance of war — the scenes, the scents, the sounds, the emotions, and even the language of firefighting, of “aerial assaults” and “boots on the ground.”
War, of course, with its human causes and combatants, is not the same as a natural disaster, even though they can sometimes feel the same for those caught in the middle.
- How to help those affected by the disaster
- Children returning to school 3 weeks after deadly wildfire
- Read more on wildfires here »
“There’s visual similarities in the disorder and chaos and smoke and fire and all that,” said Robert Spangle, who lives in Malibu and served in the Marine Corps, with two deployments to Afghanistan.
Spangle is now a photographer, and has worked in Iraq, too. Over the last several days, he has put down his camera and picked up his radio, working to spot flames in the area of the Woolsey Fire and then help others to put them out before they spread.
The emotions that can make war so addictive — not just the adrenaline and excitement of living close to danger, but the humanity that comes forth — are bound up in these disasters in California, emotions that Spangle described as a “feeling of brotherhood and shared kinship.”
That feeling was palpable in Baghdad or Mosul or Kobani, Syria, where I have reported from. And it’s been palpable in Malibu — in normal times, a place of wealth and celebrity and sunshine, but amid a calamity, not much different in some ways from any other suffering corner of the globe.
“There’s that sort of communal bond that really comes out in adverse conditions,” Spangle said.
In Iraq, he said, he saw neighbors carrying the injured down the street, and in Malibu, he has seen similar moments of people helping one another. “The neighborhoods here in Malibu are really tight-knit,” said Spangle, whose mother lost her house in the fire.
For soldiers and journalists, the familiar imagery of war zones — the rubble, the chaos — is often experienced through vehicle windows, zooming by outside like a movie on the way from one place to the next. It is the same with wildfires.
“When you are driving through these streets and through these neighborhoods, it’s kind of Armageddonlike,” said Jed Teter, a firefighter with the Los Angeles Fire Department who served in Iraq in 2008 with the Marine Corps Reserves. “Same thing in Ramadi. All the trash, all the disarray.”
At night, when the fires were raging and he was racing to try to spot them, Spangle was brought back to patrols in Afghanistan.
“The first night I was out here looking at hot spots, and just how strange the terrain became, being in total darkness without electricity,” the experience reminded him of Afghanistan, he said. He was crossing a gully, and the ash made everything look as though it were covered in snow. He came across the burned-out remnants of cars, a fixture of the landscape of war in the Middle East, where any car on the road is a possible weapon packed with explosives.
The environments of war and wildfires share a terrifying mixture of randomness and precision.
A single ember kicked up by the winds a mile away can land on a house, torching it to the ground, while surrounding homes are left unscathed. Some saw a parallel with the precision-guided bombs delivered by U.S. warplanes, which can take out a single sniper on a roof and not the buildings on either side.
But often there is a sense that luck — or “the grace of God,” as one Malibu resident put it Sunday when asked why his house survived while his neighbors’ homes did not — is what explains survival.
Travis Wilkerson was a Marine who fought in Iraq in 2007 during the troop surge in Fallujah, and also in Afghanistan. For the last five years, he has worked for the Forest Service and currently serves on a helicopter crew battling fires in remote forests distant from cities and towns.
“When you walk through an area that has been nuked out, you can’t help but go back” to the memories of war, he said. The briefings he sits through before going out to fight a fire are peppered with military expressions: aerial assaults, nighttime assaults, “a coordinated assault with multiple units.” When he sees airplanes circling overhead, as they did near the slopes of Malibu Canyon on Saturday, dropping retardant to slow the fires, he thinks of war.
The first big fire he fought was the French Fire in 2014, which burned about 14,000 acres of the Sierra National Forest. After digging a trench near a river to create a firebreak, he looked out at the blaze. “It was a really good sobering moment, that it was a real uncontrollable beast,” he said.
In war, he said, “there’s a tangible enemy: You shoot them, they shoot you back. It’s more cut and dried than fire. You can’t control fire.”
As with Spangle and the countless other firefighters and police officers who have also served in conflict zones, Wilkerson said that battling fires brings back a singular wartime feeling. “The camaraderie, I would say, is the most familiar thing,” he said. “That sense of brotherhood you have.”
In war, as with wildfires, heroism lives next to horror.
“There are some real heroes on this street,” said Frank Kerze, 58, who saved his house with a garden hose and helped neighbors save theirs.
On Sunday afternoon, with no electricity and no cell service, Candace Bowen, who lives in a mobile home park in Malibu, spoke about that same sense of camaraderie.
She said the crisis of the fire had brought neighbors together to help one another — something, she said, that even in the middle of a tragedy, she relished seeing, coming as it did at a time when America seems to being tearing itself apart.
“Mother Nature says, ‘You can’t get along?’” she said. “’Boom, let’s see what you do now.’”