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Earth, Water, Air, Fire: A Historical Look at SoCal's Troubled Relationship with Nature

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Is Southern California a paradise? According to classical thought, what distinguishes a paradise from a wild wasteland is a proper balancing of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. A desert suffers from a plethora of fire and earth, for example, and a jungle from too much earth and water.

We can only guess how Aristotle would judge Los Angeles, but our region's history recounts many struggles to achieve a desired balance of the four classical elements.

Viewers of "Chinatown" or readers of Mike Davis's "Ecology of Fear" will know that those struggles to control nature -- from canals that drain far-off river basins to debris basins that catch the crumbling San Gabriel Mountains -- can backfire with unintended social consequences and catastrophic "natural" disasters. As the selected images below show, Southern California's photographic archives richly document the region's troubled relationship with the four classical elements.


Southern California's indigenous inhabitants, the Tongva, were the first to harness the natural elements. Scholars dispute the extent to which native Californians tended their material environment, but the Tongva likely set parts of the Los Angeles coastal plain ablaze to clear vegetation, promote the growth of harvestable plants, and maintain habitats for game animals.

Centuries later, fire was not a tool but a threat to Southern Californians living among the dry chaparral of the region's hillsides. Misguided fire suppression strategies only exacerbated the inevitable firestorms that Santa Ana winds whipped up in places like Malibu and Laguna Beach.

Firefighters battle a 1943 blaze in Topanga Canyon. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Firefighters battle a 1935 wildfire in Malibu's Corral Canyon. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.


Water has likewise long been a concern among Southern Californians. Though not a desert, Los Angeles receives an average annual rainfall of only 15 inches. To conquer this semi-arid climate and transcend the limitations that aridity would otherwise impose on settlement and agricultural development, Southern California erected what historian Donald Worster terms a "hydraulic society," restructured around the need for imported water.

In 1913, Los Angeles opened its first aqueduct, draining the Owens River basin to quench the thirst of a growing population. Gravity transported water hundreds of miles down that first canal to L.A., but later aqueducts began sipping water from the Colorado River and Central Valley delta, pumping water over mountains and into reservoirs.

1913 view of the Owens River turning into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
November 5, 1913 opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Project engineer William Mulholland is at one of the wheels, opening the Sylmar Gates for the first time. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.
A crowd of roughly 30,000 came to see Owens River water flow out of the Sylmar Gates and into the San Fernando Valley. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
1931 map showing the planned route of the Metropolitan Water District's Colorado River Aqueduct. The 240-mile aqueduct opened in 1939. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.
1977 photo of the Gene Pumping Plant, which lifts Colorado River water 303 feet just south of Parker Dam. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.


Complaining about the Santa Ana winds may be a pastime in Southern California, but for much of the year the region enjoys the moderate temperatures associated with its Mediterranean climate. Still, temperatures in the region's inland valleys occasionally dip below freezing -- a possibility that nineteenth and twentieth-century citrus growers viewed as a threat to their frost-allergic crops.

To protect their groves from the freezing temperatures, growers initially turned to smudge pots. David Boulé, whose extensive collection of postcards, souvenirs, orange-themed curios, and other items explores the relationship between the orange and the myth of California, explains:

For almost sixty years, growers used oil-burning smudge pots to produce a dense smoke and prevent crop damage from frost. In 1947, the State of California passed legislation outlawing many types of smudge pots. Research showed that a movement of air at from five to seven miles an hour created by wind machines was a superior way to prevent frost from forming.

The smudge pots saved the oranges but devastated the air quality, foreshadowing the region's later struggles with smog.

A Covina citrus worker lights smudge pots in an orange grove. Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection.
Mount Baldy partially shrouded by haze, possibly created by smudge pots. Courtesy of the City of Claremont History Collection, Honnold Mudd Library Special Collections, Claremont Colleges.
Smudge pots near San Juan Creek in San Juan Capistrano, 1960. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
The Los Angeles civic center shrouded in smog, 1948. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons license.


Straddling the margin between the Pacific and North American plates, Southern California is a geologically active region, splintered by fault lines and rattled often by earthquakes. The region may have responded more modestly to this geologic power than to the other three elements -- the focus has been on anticipating and containing earthquake damage rather than harnessing the power of the lithosphere -- but the classical element of earth has challenged Southern Californians in other ways.

In "The Control of Nature," John McPhee writes about L.A.'s titanic struggle against the crumbling San Gabriel Mountains. Fire and water conspire to strip the mountain range of vast amounts of earth -- more than seven tons per acre each year, on average -- by denuding and then washing the newly destabilized mountain slopes downhill. Heavy rainfall can transform these liquefied mountainsides into unpredictable debris flows of mud and boulders, endangering anyone living on the bajadas below.

In 1914, Los Angeles County began building debris basins at the base of mountain canyons to catch the debris flows and protect citrus growers and homeowners. It's a Sisyphean struggle--the basins routinely fill with sediment, which the L.A. County Department of Public Works must then remove in preparation for the next storm -- but today more than 160 debris basins stand at attention at the base of Southern California's mountains.

Construction of the Hall-Beckley debris basin near La Canada Flintridge in 1935. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.
Aerial view of the San Gabriel Dam, built to contain a debris basin at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
Aftermath of a 1924 debris flow in the San Gabriel Valley. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.
Aftermath of a 1924 debris flow in the San Gabriel Valley. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.
A La Canada Flintridge house partially buried by a debris flow, 1952. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

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