The flaming palm tree in Los Angeles: a sad ritual of July 4th

Every July 4th, for most of the past decade, I log into Twitter and retweet every photo and video I can find of palm trees accidentally set on fire by illegal fireworks.

As with most social media activity that is forcibly done with no regard for consequence, I wouldn’t consider my searchable records of comments on Palm Trees and Independence Days to be particularly intellectual, or even particularly moral.

July 2014: “RIP Palms in LA, I’ll Miss You”

July 2015: [Lacuna.]


July 2017: “The palm trees died so we could live”

July 2018: “As a small child, I always dreamed of associating my personal identity / professional brand closely with palm fires. anything is possible in Los Angeles “

July 2019: “Flaming Palm: The Official Landmark of the City of Los Angeles.”

July 2020: “I’m not ashamed to admit the only reason I downloaded the Citizen app is to spot palm fires in LA”

Like anything that’s been done as a gag for too long, the chic is associated with you, which I view with mixed feelings. I don’t particularly like the thought of burning palm trees. (I like trees, don’t like destruction, value persistence.) I also have mixed feelings when I happen to retweet internet strangers with a small number of followers who post a photo of a tree fire, even if their captions say something like “Fireworks set the palm on fire” reads lol “or” MY IDIOT NEIGHBORS TRAPPED THE TREE IN FIRE. “It’s generally nice to just hang out online and post random things until a terrible, surprising, controversial situation arises, that affects you centrally and many strangers suddenly observe you with great interest.

On Twitter you are sometimes the palm tree and sometimes the fire.

But have you seen a palm tree burning at night? It is a fist of flames raised to the sky and raining sparks. It’s beautiful, sad, ironic, unnatural, memorable, and dangerous. Just like Los Angeles.

You can face palm fires completely while having a love-hate relationship with the palms themselves like Los Angeles had for the last century.

Most of LA’s palm trees, like most of the LA peoples, are immigrants to this place, not indigenous to the Tongva era before the colonizers came. In the 1800s and 1900s, new Angelenos caught up with palms from other parts of the world and looked for a memory of the Mediterranean or the Asian edge of the Pacific in the fronds, as Jared Farmer told in his book “Trees in Paradise”. (Even before Hollywood was Hollywood, many locals would look to Southern California and see something different.) Once planted in neighborhoods and business districts of the city – on public and private property – the decades went by and palm trees no longer meant everything else and began LA. to mean yourself.

But palm trees, when not symbols, are a problem to live with. Some people think they’re too tall, especially the spindly Mexican fan palms (Washingtonia robusta), which can reach 30 meters and tower over some low buildings like they’re practically in low orbit. They do not provide shade, which is a problem as the planet becomes hotter and less friendly for human survival. Palm fronds can tear off and fall on pedestrians below; In the best-case scenario, if the frond hits no one or a car, it turns into trash.

Here’s one of the greatest moral cases against palm trees: palm trees kill workers, mostly Latino tree trimmers, in some of the most terrible work accidents imaginable. Here is a list of some of the casualties and causes of death of palm workers in the state compiled by the California Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation Program: Tree trimmer (Hispanic male) electrocuted while trimming a palm tree, 2018; Landscaper (Hispanic male) dies of suffocation when compressed by palm fronds, 2016; two tree trimmers (Hispanic males) die after electrocuted while pollinating date palms, 2016; Tree trimmer (Hispanic male) dies of asphyxiation when crushed by palm fronds, 2012; Tree trimmer (Hispanic male) dies after being crushed by palm fronds, 2012; Tree trimmer (Hispanic male) dies after being crushed by palm branches, 2010.

Accidents are not unique to palm trees, but the dangers posed by palm fronds are. “What happens is that the palms grow to a considerable size, 40, 50, 60 feet high, the lower fronds remain attached to the trunk, but at the top, that high, those fronds become entangled,” said Jose Mercado, executive director and senior officer Instructor of the Hispanic Arborist Assn. When tree trimmers climb onto the palm trunks and cut fronds from below, these fronds can suddenly peel down and the tree trimmer stuck to the trunk and suffocate. “It is really tragic when fire departments cannot reach the victims.”

Mercado started his organization with a friend a few years ago after being disrupted by so many palm worker deaths. “We felt that there was simply a great need for additional training in the people’s native language, which is mostly Spanish.”

One reason so many workers do the highly hazardous work of trimming palm trees is because the dry fronds can be a major fire hazard. “Palms are a major threat because they often have large fronds and throw embers countless times on rooftops in adjacent areas,” said Nicholas Prange, spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

In the February Edison Southern California Fire Containment Plan, the utility identified 80,000 palm trees in the area that were a problem for its operations: “(1) The palm is a major cause of up-and-coming work and downtime (e.g. wire); (2) the palm is a wildfire hazard as dead palm fronds are highly flammable and are easily blown by the wind over long distances; and (3) the palm grows quickly (upwards) and may require multiple cuts per year to maintain compliance. ”In other words, palms turn off your energy, start fires that threaten your home, and it is a great agony to take care of them even if they don’t do any of it.

The utility estimated that about 40% of the palm trees had to be climbed by workers in order to trim them. After all, trees near power lines would simply have to be removed. “However,” the report added, “customers have proven to be very resistant to distance.” Even if palm trees kill us, it’s hard to live without them.

On the edge of Koreatown, the skyline in front of my kitchen window is dominated by rows of fan palms that line the streets and tower over beige apartment roofs. I can tell where an intersection is because crossing rows of fronds in the air make the shape of a cross. They look good on Instagram.

When the Santa Ana winds break badly, the fronds rustle in protest and sometimes turn into projectiles, but in some ways it feels good to be warned of changing conditions. I also know that: the year I was restricted through this window by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the gloomy December when I could almost only hear the sirens of ambulances, the endless view outside would be without the palm trees been much lonelier.

Which brings us back to July 4th. When illegal fireworks set palm trees on fire, two things collide that perhaps for human health and safety reasons shouldn’t be here. Firework palm fires arise because of our own weaknesses. When they do, we can’t help but stare at this unnatural symbol of home, of ourselves, beautiful and terrible.

At sunrise, a palm tree sticks through the mist that covers Mount Soledad in La Jolla, California.

(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

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