The fall of the city of Angels

Los Angeles is a disaster waiting to happen. Whether it's fire, tornado, plague or big cat, something's going to strike it down. In the wake of a new book on the city, Steve Jelbert sets out some movie-style apocalyptic scenarios
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BOYZ N the Wood (15) "A Burning Rage in a Burning Landscape!" After his momma, whom he loves even more than his car, burns to death in her low-rent flat in the crowded barrio, due to the slumlord owner's negligence of city fire safety ordinances, young Jesus is let out of jail for her burial. But when brushfires break out in Malibu, he, and all other gang members on day release for funerals, are hurriedly called up to the brigades fighting the fire... and saving the multi-million- dollar home of his momma's landlord. Stars Bill Paxton, Dennis Hopper, Coolio (frequent profanity and use of Spanish).

Hollywood executives in need of ideas for their next "high concept" blockbuster could do worse than read the latest book by Los Angeles' apocalyptic social historian Mike Davis. It's his first since 1990's City of Quartz, a gloomy analysis of the megacity's societal divides, vindicated by the 1992 riots (or uprising, depending on your viewpoint).

Recently issued in the United States, Ecology of Fear is a beautifully written, frequently contentious and always fascinating meditation on humanity's relationship with its environment in southern California, in reality and fiction.

The above scenario is inspired by a chapter called "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn", in which Davis points out that it's all very well for the rich to build wooden homes in notorious firetraps - large Malibu conflagrations have been used by researchers to model the behaviour of nuclear firestorms - but a zero fire tolerance policy and designation of such events as potential national disasters effectively means an endless drain on all taxpayers. Still, that's where money lives, and the political machines must kowtow to the wishes of some of their most generous sponsors.

In the meantime it would be nice to let the other 17 million people in the Greater LA region have access to the beach. Gang members, real or imagined, are welcome only as part of the firefighting teams that the rapper Coolio once served.

Los Angeles weather is problematic; regular hot Santa Ana winds fan fast- moving canyon fires. But according to Davis, the west of town, including LAX airport, is as tornado-prone as the Midwest. Though they never reach the intensity of the famed twisters of Kansas and Oklahoma, in the crowded city they leave massive destruction. They are apparently related to the unpredictable El Nino weather system, which this decade has caused storms to wreak havoc on California, and crank callers to wreak havoc on the unfortunately named state resident Al Nino, who sounded distinctly intemperate when interviewed by Today.

Disaster can mean profit. Earthquake (1974), a big-budget extravaganza, was supposedly inspired by an MCA executive who suggested "What about a picture where the common disaster comes to them, instead of the other way around? Let's get that audience!" Ominously, not only did the costly Northridge quake of 1994 do pounds 26bn of damage, its destructive patterns also proved to be unpredictable.

Seismologists now suspect that the geology of Los Angeles, largely built in a sedimentary basin, may multiply wave amplitudes within its confines. Two hundred high-rise buildings collapsed in the similarly sited Mexico City in 1985, and there's no reason the same can't happen in LA. Even if they stay upright, sprinkler systems are likely to fail, and as for emergency services, a single skyscraper fire in 1987 required half the city's ladder companies to deal with it. Incredibly, none of the area's past 10 major quakes has taken place during school hours.

ORNERY CRITTERS (PG) "When you enter the park, you enter the food chain." The small town of Perdido is dependent on hikers who pass through on their way to the nearby national park. When the local fauna start attacking city-dwelling holiday-makers it's a race against time to hunt the rogue cougars causing panic in the Chamber of Commerce. Features amazing shots of attacks from the puma's perspective, and trash raids from the coyote's. Also has same plot as `Jaws'. Stars Bill Paxton, Charles Grodin (gets eaten), Julianne Moore (in white lab coat). (Environmentally unsound garbage dumps, severed head rolls into pick-up truck bed.)

That quote about the food chain is genuine, from a resident of Descanso, just outside San Diego, 100 miles south, where once-endangered mountain lions have taken to endangering hapless hikers. It's a new development - all but one of California's recorded cougar attacks have occurred since 1985. Even the executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation says "something weird is happening". Davis ponders whether this means "the emergence of lions with a lusty appetite for slow, soft animals in Spandex". Incidentally, after a woman died in a Northern California attack in 1989 the orphaned cubs reportedly received more donations than her orphaned children.

Coyotes are as common in the city as the urban fox is in Britain, and their changing behaviour has been observed over the years. From hunting rodents and rabbits, then raiding animals at the LA zoo, they've learnt to prey on household pets and topple dustbins for leftovers. With the wilderness of the San Gabriel Mountains only 20 miles from the city centre, it seems that the local wildlife has become habituated to humanity's presence.

Still, they won't get you at home. But the plague might. Yes, there really are plague-carrying rats and squirrels in southern California. Currently they're found on the edge of the urban sprawl, but both Los Angeles and rival San Francisco have been seen plague outbreaks this century. (The virulent pneumonic form killed a man in neighbouring Kern County in 1995.) Investigators have even discovered a family dog carrying the Yersinia Pestis bacillus in its fleas. Then there are the rabid skunks that visit suburban gardens...

Something about this overanalysed, confusing city fascinates the world. Even Davis admits that Los Angeles is an aberration rather than the possible future model he previously suspected. Ultimately it's the most familiar cityscape on the planet, seen in thousands of movies and TV shows, yet it remains featureless beyond obvious associations such as the beaches and plush hills. Canny myth-makers have dwelt on the destruction of the place over the years, even inventing scenarios such as the recent volcano and happily revelling in its demise.

Nathaniel West was the first to name a character "Homer Simpson" in his LApocalyptic classic Day of the Locust, but it's the Homer in us all that loves to see LA suffer. A century ago a common theme was the destruction of London, mankind's most extreme construction. Now its place has been taken by Los Angeles. Coming soon - the killer bees, feared in Latin America, already sighted outside the city, and spurred to attack by the noise of a lawnmower, or even certain colours...

THE STUNG (PG) - `It's time to jump in the pool.' The LA Bee Squad work with limited resources to cope with a sudden influx of Africanised honey bees, bad-tempered, aggressive, given to reproducing themselves and to killing people. An elderly country beekeeper is the first victim. Panic sweeps the city. Victims include partying teenagers, burglars who unwittingly disturb nests, theme park visitors. Participants in a poolside orgy with easy access to water survive. The threat is averted when an enormous molasses tank catches fire. Chief bee catcher heads home to family, unaware of the hive in his roof. Stars Bill Paxton, Rene Russo with clipboard, James Cromwell as the beekeeper (painful deaths).

`Ecology of Fear' is published by Henry Holt