Mid-afternoon in San Diego County, and it was already dark. The temperature gauge on the car dashboard showed 96F, but with zero moisture in the air, it felt hotter. Much hotter.
The Interstate-5 was empty -- the area had been evacuated of almost one million people over the previous 72 hours -- but what cars remained were driving slow, as their headlamps struggled to penetrate the black, acrid fog. Some gave up and pulled over on the hard-shoulder, gawping at the view: a dull red-and-black sun to the west, and a mountain on fire to the east.
Above, there were burning power lines and a circling Predator drone from nearby Camp Pendleton, trying to look through the fog at the annihilation below. Under normal circumstances, this part of San Diego County would be a place to surf and drink beer. Yesterday, it was the venue for the end of the world.
But was this -- is this -- really the Apocalypse? Is California simply the latest place to suffer the inevitable comeuppance for all those trillions of tons of carbon dioxide spewed out into the atmosphere, and for all those luxury homes and infinity pools built deep within the "firebelt" of natural wilderness areas? Or has this disaster shown the opposite: that with advance planning and effective management, even the very worst natural -- or unnatural -- disasters can be contained.
The statistics, and the TV images, suggest the former. So far, the fires in Southern California have brought total, unequivocal destruction to an area 160 times larger than that destroyed by the 15-kiloton atom bomb detonated over Hiroshima in 1945. To some military veterans, the fires have brought to mind the horrors of napalm in Vietnam and the allied firebombing of Dresden. Indeed, some of the fire-fighting aircraft used this week still have the bullet holes left over from the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Fires are part of the ecology in this part of the world -- but not fires on this scale, which have almost certainly been made worse by rising temperatures and the lack of smaller, regular burns, which used to regulate the ecosystem before the arrival of housing developments and local fire departments.
And yet only three people are dead, with fewer than 100 injured. Property did not fare so well, with nearly 1,600 homes destroyed. Still, most of it was insured, and the elimination of inventory might help the ailing property market. Unless I missed a bit in Revelations about the real estate upside, this is not how Armageddon is supposed to end.
Then again, this is California, the world's fifth-largest economy, led by a man best-known for coming back from the future to save the planet from psychotic robots. Yes, this is Arnieland, and the Governator put in an action-packed performance this week that would shame any of the natural-born Americans running for president in 2008. He even managed to terminate an overly cynical ABC News reporter, who unwisely kept trying to get him to admit that the fire fighting effort was failing.
Towering over her microphone, he boomed: "IT'S ALL GOOD NEWS, AS MUCH AS YOU MIGHT HATE IT."
At Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, which housed 12,000 evacuees, there was so much good news, it felt almost like PR. Amid the thousands you had to work hard to find a victim. Then again, even one million evacuees is barely 3pc of the state's 36m population. The 6,000 or so people made permanently homeless hardly register as a percentage point.
None of which made any difference to Jamel Cherif (58), a school administrator, who sat under a tent outside the stadium, waiting for his insurance agent. Cherif had been given 30 minutes to leave his home in Ramona on Sunday, after a knock on the door by the police. He probably won't be able to return until the weekend. Like most of the stadium evacuees, he had no idea if the $1m home he had saved up for his entire life was still standing.
Why had he chosen to live in an area that periodically catches fire. "It's not that bad," he shrugged, "I've been living here for 32 years, and there have been only two events." The other "event" was four years ago. (©The Times, London)