You can smell the destruction before you see it. It’s a familiar smell, akin to the pungent scent of charcoal that wafts up from the best open-air barbeques. It’s a pleasant smell if it’s a couple of logs on the fire or a few briquettes in the barbie. But when it’s the detritus of 97,000 acres — and that’s Los Angeles and Ventura counties alone — scorched to earth, the odour is not nearly so innocent.

I’m not quite sure why I wrote this. I definitely didn’t mean to tread on delicate California sensibilities. I’m neither a news reporter, nor a devastation junkie with a fetish for forest fires. And those suffering this calamity certainly didn’t need my tourist’s gawking.

I was just out for a drive. I had borrowed a Ferrari Portofino for a joyride (why else does one borrow a Ferrari?) and while I had heard that Topanga Canyon had been well flamed, I was told that areas farther north weren’t nearly as devastated. So I headed up the Pacific Coast Highway and turned onto Corral Canyon Road, a familiar playground for me whenever I am lucky enough to score a four-wheel plaything.

That’s when the smell hit. Even with the Portofino’s windows rolled all the way up and its very well-sealed folding hardtop rigidly in place, there was no avoiding the crushing smell of ruin. At its lower edge — barely half a kilometre up the mountain, it was just blackened scrub brush. Farther up and the baby blue Ferrari’s fleetness — that I normally would be using to strafe the canyon road’s apexes — was busy dodging the tumbleweeds blowing freely across the road, the vegetation that once constrained them now simply ash.

Why didn’t I turn back? I don’t know really. I could posit a million reasons, but I suspect it is that ages-old portion of the human condition that, once eyes are laid upon ruination — like, say, a terrible car accident — they are not easily averted.

Farther up, near El Nido, things got worse because now I’m putting the Portofino’s quick-steering rack to work dodging football-sized boulders. It’s one thing to listen to “experts” on CNN as they “worry” that the loss of vegetation will promote mudslides. It’s quite another to be weaving in and out of their rubble barely a week later. A few key weak points had already been sandbagged, but with SoCal’s ever more capricious weather — where was last week’s New Delhi-like monsoon two weeks ago! — one suspects that with soil so bare, these canyon roads above the Pacific coast will soon be further ravaged by mud and sliding mountain.

I creep the idling Ferrari ahead. For once, I’m happy the quad exhausts that so scream the pistons’ plaint at high rpm, are — in the Portofino, at least — well subdued by twin turbochargers. Ferrari may be the ultimate in internal combustion symphony, but today I’m happier that, this being modern Maranello, the Portofino has an automatic start/stop mechanism, so that my transgression on what now seems like hallowed ground is not nearly so obtrusive.

Of course, some of you are reading and thinking me crass for driving a Ferrari — of all cars, Dave! — in the centre of such destruction. And maybe you’re right. But Corral Canyon is Malibu, where even the hired help drive Q7s and blinged-out Silverados. We pass a few exotics on our twist up the mountain, including one Ferrari Maranello being trucked down to Los Angeles. There’s no outward indication of whether its malady is the result of the fire or just an eerily timed routine dealership visit for expensive maintenance. Nonetheless the image of a jet-black Ferrari, being flat-bedded by an equally black Ford against a backdrop of even blacker former green is an image that doesn’t fade quickly.

There was a modicum of welcome news once one became accustomed to all destruction. It’s obvious the firefighters in this area deserve serious accolades. Though the surrounding mountains have been completely scorched, we don’t see a single burnt house on my quick sojourn (in fact, only two homes in the area burned and they only because access for fire trucks was restricted) even though, as one firefighter told the Malibu Times, “the fire burned on all sides.”

Indeed, so precise were the attentions of the rangers fighting at least this portion of the Woolsey Fire that you can see scorching right up to the property lines of many of the villas lining Corral, but virtually nothing on personal property seemed touched by flame. It’s either the most precise miracle I’ve ever seen, or the men and women who fought this portion of the conflagration should all be getting metals.

There were a few other precious reminders of the strength of the human spirit. Atop one guardrail pillar — so severely burnt that the protective barrier was starting to pretty look fragile— was a small rock. Underneath was the remnants of a hand-written message: “Grandma and grandpa told me to …” I don’t know what grandpa and grandma said, nor if their advice was sound, as the rest of the message was burnt, but I put the rock back, praying that all — grandpa, grandma and what I am assuming is a tyke — weathered what is being called the worst fire in recent California history.

Only — and yes, that’s a very inappropriate descriptor when we’re talking about loss of life — three people died in Los Angeles and Ventura counties as a result of the Woolsey fire. Some 88 more perished in the Camp Fire near Paradise and more are still missing. I can’t imagine what those in the north suffered — after my witnessing the destruction at this supposedly lesser fire along SoCal’s normally pristine coast.

I’m not sure what conclusion I’m supposed to draw from having witnessed all this destruction. Environmentalists would want me to say that the ravaging of California’s greenery is a direct result of the internal combustion engine that has been such a large part of my life. The U.S. president, on the other hand, would like us to believe the entire debacle is the result of poor management by forest services. (Good luck with that, Donald!)

I think it more helpful to remember that tragedy touches us all, even those lucky few rich enough to own Malibu mountain homes and drive Ferraris full time. I am not a religious man, but for once, there but for the grace of God went I.

Source: Driving

December 7, 2018