The recent California fires are just beyond imagination and understanding. Like life, fire is unpredictable and fire effects are often astonishing. Driving through Sonoma recently I saw an otherwise unremarkable Super Target store in ashes. A few stores farther down the road, a coffee shop was gone. Soon after that another store was burned, then another, then an entire neighborhood. Many neighborhoods.

An insurance company installed temporary swimming pool filters to maintain the integrity of otherwise undamaged pools. Rented temporary fences protected property in every direction and kept looters at bay. There wasn’t much to loot. Most burned homes have been scraped off, including the foundation, and a layer of sand laid down pending rebuilding.

In a canyon near Ventura, the slopes of the mountains are bare and barren. Rocks are intermingled with sandy soils, the whole held together by vegetation called chaparral, a mix of highly flammable plants. With the vegetation gone, rain washes the hillsides into the valleys and across roads and yards, four feet deep and filled with large boulders. Avocado orchards are damaged or dead. The mulch used to hold moisture for the trees burned like a slow fuse and killed the trees it was meant to protect.

Eucalyptus trees in some places are fine, the last living things. In other places, eucalypts are heavily damaged or dead. Eucalypts are more flammable than pine trees and notoriously hot fuels in wildfires. In other places, 90-foot palm trees are burned, the tops acting like Roman candles in the 60 mile-per-hour winds that drove the fires.

These were mean fires. People are in shock. Looking at the scene, it’s no wonder things burned. The wonder is what didn’t burn. Sure, firefighters had a lot to do with the outcome and saved a lot of homes and businesses. But even where no firefighters were, many homes and businesses survived. There’s no accounting for it. On one street, homes are burned where firefighters made a valiant stand. On the next street, firefighters saved the homes. In every case, firefighters ran out of water.

There’s a vast arc of drought across the Far West and Southwest, extending into Texas and Oklahoma. It’s no surprise that the National Interagency Fire Center is predicting the worst fire year ever. Of course. We’ll spend more money because we just do. We’ll probably have more acres burn because, well, it’s a tale too tall to tell. But, we will.

Among the people who suffered widespread and difficult damages are people from other countries whose dream was to go to Golden California and practice holistic organic farming in a place designed to grow chaparral. Among the people whose dreams disappeared in the fiery canyons were Baby Boomers whose lifetime plans to enjoy collections of valuable guitars and beautiful redwood decks went poof in ash and anguish.

In some ways, each of the losers share a lot in common with the dreamers who go to Hollywood to strike it rich; they come with great expectations and some make it, some don’t. It’s a crap shoot in the vast West of the imagination.

One guy listened to his friend, a firefighter with years of experience. His friend showed him how to build his place so no fire would disturb him — ever. The guy followed his friend’s advice even though the results were stark and severe. When the fires hit, all the neighbors congregated with their horse trailers and a few possessions on the guy’s property and watched the fire pass by.

The lesson in all of it may be the vagaries of life are not manageable, but fire-prone property may be.

Frank Carroll is a freelance writer and columnist. He can be reached by emailing or visiting