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Few Words: Joan Didion Knew How To Report A Malibu Fire

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Red dawn in Santa Monica. No, not a John Milius movie, but another fire in Malibu. The sun has color from a high smoke layer. Still, theres no ash fall, and it doesnt smell like a tri-tip barbecue, so the wind must be blowing out to sea.

Apparently, Malibu has to burn every seven-to-fifteen years, depending on rainfall patterns and whom you believe. When it does, the story always gets tied up with the movies. This time, the Paramount Ranch Western set in Agoura Hills burned down, and Lady Gaga, Martin Sheen, Rainn Wilson and Alyssa Milano were among hundreds of thousands of regional evacuees. Thanks to Twitter, we know that Wilsons dogs and pigs are safe, and Milano rescued her Doc Martens.

On an earlier round, rumor had it that a famous action director hired a helicopter and banked spectacular footage of burning houses, for use when the cinematic occasion arose. I spent two nights watching the glow behind a ridge where Martin Brest then had a house above Sunset Blvd. Mercifully, the flames stopped short.

But mostly, these Malibu fires make me think of Joan Didion. At the tail end of The White Album, in a piece called “On The Morning After The Sixties,” she described the big fire of 1978. It took her all of one paragraph, just 349 words. But I never forgot it, especially that sentence in the middle: “Horses caught fire and were shot on the beach, birds exploded in the air.”

No Twitter. No Facebook. That sentence had fewer words than the writing credits on this years version of A Star Is Born, wherein Didion and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, share the honors with seven fellow contributors. But it said everything you needed to know about the ferocity of a fire that started in Agoura, got whipped by a Santa Ana wind, and then pushed across the hills toward Zuma Beach, burning 25,000 acres and 197 homes—remarkably like the current fire storm.

“Houses did not explode but imploded, as in a nuclear strike,” wrote Didion. Few words, and mostly short ones. But enough.

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