Back in 1966 and 1967, Brian Wilson was recording tracks for the legendary, never-released Beach Boys album SMiLE. Part of the reason it was never released was that Brian was by then deep into the madness that would disrupt his life and career--madness that seems inextricably linked to his particular genius and to his awful upbringing at his father's hands, and probably was exacerbated by drug use. Another part had to do with legal wrangling between Capitol Records and the Beach Boys' own label Brother Records.
While recording a piece known as "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (which was called "Fire" among the musicians), Brian passed out red fireman's hats to the musicians, and had a fire burning in a steel container in the studio. The piece was strange, discordant, and frightening, to Brian and the others playing on it. It became more frightening when Brian heard that the studio next door suffered a fire, and there had been outbreaks of fires all across Los Angeles at the same time.
Brian became convinced that he was the cause--that he had tapped into something dark and wicked. He shelved the track (although it was part of the SMiLE album that was finally released in 2004 as a Brian Wilson project).
I honestly don't think the fires were Brian's fault.
Nor do I think that the fires plaguing my home turf, Cochise County, AZ, right now, are really my fault.
The next time you walk into a bookstore, you might well find a copy of my new novel CSI: The Burning Season. I haven't actually seen it yet, but I'm hearing that it's starting to show up. When I wrote it I had no idea that its release would come during this late spring-early summer season in which my state has erupted in the largest fire in its history (the Wallow fire) or that two other massive fires would blaze close to my home (the Horseshoe Two fire) and close to where I work and many friends have their homes (the Monument fire).
The reason it's just a little creepy is that, as the name suggests, CSI: The Burning Season is largely about the investigation into a wildfire that burns in what's called the Wildland Urban Interface. In plainer English, that means places like where I live--places that are not in cities but are out in less developed areas, where the natural world butts right up against homes. Those of us who choose to live in places like this do so in part because of those natural areas around us--we want to see desert or forest or mountains outside the windows, not other buildings. We want to be among the birds and animals and insects that sometimes inconvenience us but that make life more interesting and somehow (to us) more authentic.
This morning I spent a couple of hours outside cutting down beautiful native grasses that we've allowed to grow wild for the past several years, because it's too close to the house. It's inside what's called our "defensible space," in which everything has to be bare dirt or otherwise fire resistant. You don't want a lot of flammable fuel right up close to the house. So the grass had to be sacrificed (though it'll grow back--if we get a decent monsoon this year, it'll start growing back right away). I did the same last weekend, and I generally try to keep the defensible space around the house all year.
Part of the conflict in the novel is that some people living in the Wildland Urban Interface on Mt. Charleston, outside Las Vegas, didn't maintain a defensible space, while others did. So when the fire takes out numerous homes, those who did blame those who didn't for allowing it to get a foothold. Another aspect is the fact that many communities are getting more serious about prosecuting people who start wildfires--for instance, in cases where human-caused wildfires claim human lives, the arsonists are now being charged with murder. That's a switch from previous practice, in which arsonists were often let off with a metaphorical slap on the wrist.
Having done the research, I know more about wildfire than I'd like. And having lived in an area that's had smoke from a wildfire off and on since May 8, and seeing flames tear up a mountainside just this week, I know more about living with wildfire than I knew when I wrote it.
I'm hoping for rain, and lots of it, and soon.
If you're lucky enough to live in a place where the threat of wildfire is not an imminent danger, you might like the book. It's CSI, and there are some other, non fire-related cases in it as well. It is fast-paced, and of course there are lots of little forensic science tidbits in it you might not have known.
Ultimately, I hope the book stands as a tribute to the brave firefighters and law enforcement personnel who put their lives on the line every day to keep the rest of us safe, who are underpaid and underappreciated, but who are among the best of us. Thanks to one and all.