The Fire This Time

Eighteen years ago, TIME contributor Pico Iyer watched a California wildfire destroy his home. Now, he waits to learn whether history repeats itself

Krista Kennell / Zuma

As smoke blankets the horizon, onlookers watch wildfires burn near Santa Barbara.

You learn to keep your diaries and photographs in a safe-deposit box in the bank. You never burn candles or let the washing machine run when you're away from the house. For five months of every year you instinctively look to the hills as soon as the temperature rises or the wind picks up. If you're living where people were never supposed to live — as many of us in the hills of California are doing — you learn that you are living on borrowed time.

I flew back to Santa Barbara a week ago, and as...

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