Catastrophic fires are a reckoning for Californians and their ‘new normal.’ Has the state reached a tipping point?

In 1860, a young botanist raised in New York and schooled in Connecticut found himself on the payroll of the newly formed California Division of Mines and Geology. His job: Roam the vast, new state, taking samples and observations of plants and animals.

Over four years journeying across California, William Brewer witnessed torrential rains that turned the Central Valley into a vast, white-capped lake; intolerable heat waves that made the “fats of our meats run away in spontaneous gravy;” violent earthquakes; and fires he described as “great sheets of flame, extending over acres.”

He, like explorers, journalists and settlers before him, wondered whether people could permanently settle in California, said David Igler, a professor of history at UC Irvine.

“People were flabbergasted by what was happening,” said Igler, referring to the droughts, floods and quakes of the mid-1800s. “They wondered whether this was a place where we could even really settle and where agriculture could be maintained.”

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