23 October 2007

Fire. Water. Air. Earth.

Mother Nature and human beings have had several very intense run-ins in the past few years. In 2004, we saw the tsunami affect every country around the Indian Ocean, where scores of people were lost; in 2005, we saw Hurricane Katrina cripple a fully functioning metropolis for the first time in modern history; and now, here in California, we have raging, population-displacing wildfires. From a seemingly normal day on Saturday, October 20 to today, Tuesday, October 23, Southern California has gone from warm and extremely dry to incinerating; at this moment, approximately 900,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, over 420,000 acres have burned, and almost 1200 homes have been destroyed.

Numbers like those are staggering. They were mind-boggling when we tried to understand how a single wave could wipe out over 200,000 people, and they were baffling when we realized that a city was being submerged before our eyes. But to realize that almost a million people have been mobilized in just the past two days....bravo to the institutions in charge of this operation, and my thoughts are certainly with those in harm's way.

What's most startling to me is that it all comes down to four very basic elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Whereas the victims of the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina would have done anything to escape the water, Southern California cannot get enough of it. It is a somber reminder that humans need to find a balance in their habitat. As an environmental designer and an eternal optimist, I, for one, think that any area is capable of sustaining human activity - if we build on it properly and take into account environmental conditions. However, if you think about it, the houses that are being destroyed North of San Diego tonight are not much different from those that were inundated by Hurricane Katrina. Where's the balance? Should a house that sits on a sun-scorched hill in a dry climate look and act like a house that sits below sea level in a hot, humid climate?

The answer may be "no" but humans don't seem to have figured out how to really say it yet. It's like we found a way to conquer the "earth" part, and we stopped trying very hard after that. Until we do, we are going to continue to see images like these...

all images courtesy of the NY Times

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